Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson devote a chapter of their book The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity to the sanctoral cycle — a kind of liturgical calendar of its own (199ff) — which celebrates feast days of individual saints. The authors point out that the sanctoral cycle developed out of popular pietestic veneration of early Christian martyrs, generally on the anniversaries of their martyrdoms. Martyrdom was, for early Christians, “in all likelihood … understood as both a repetition of baptism or a substitute for it, and a sacrifice parallel and similar to Christ’s passion and the Eucharist, that is to say, as a redemptive sacrifice” (179). This manner of dying for the cause (as it were) sanctified the sacrifice and martyrdom became essentially synonymous with sainthood.
Bradshaw and Johnson state that, by the fourth century, several other categories of “saints” began to appear on lists of the Church’s annual celebrations: ascetics and monks, people who were confessors (and therefore “witnesses”), but who were not killed on account of their witness, per se, were nevertheless included as “martyrs by extension” (189). Bishops also began to make the list in the fourth century and, as the authors quote Pierre Jounel, “the difference between these two types of anniversaries must have been rather vague in practice” (190). Throughout that century, the categories continued to expand, and feasts for figures like Mary Theotokos, Emperor Constantine, and Theodosius I were added to the cycle, and so the sanctorum continued to grow, with localized variations, over time.
Laurence Hull Stookey (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church), along with much of contemporary Protestantism (in spite of continued anti-Catholic grumbling), embraces a much more expansive definition of a saint, citing the New Testament’s synonymous use of “saint” with “Christian” and “believer” (142). He points out that being a saint actually has nothing to do with being one of the “greats of History,” or indeed with any merit or effort on the part of humans, but rather, sanctity is necessarily intimately connected with and dependent upon identification with the holiness of Christ. We are ALL saints “because God’s [that is, Christ’s] sanctity is at work in us” (143).
Contemporary practice of commemorating a particular saint’s feast day still generally corresponds with that person’s death date (as it had been for the martyrs of the early church), unless some other festival or celebration (e.g. the Lord’s Day) takes precedence, or if the death date is not known, as is the case for biblical saints. Instead, those feast days are placed into the cycle largely according to convenience or in order to make a special comment on that saint’s “specialness” (e.g. Stephen, the protomartyr, who is considered noteworthy enough for his feast day to fall on the day after Christmas) (145).
In any case, the large number of saints whose lives are commemorated in the sanctoral cycle gives rise to a predicament: each day of the calendar year memorializes one or more saint’s lives. Stookey states: “Eventually a crisis developed, and a solution arose: Designate one day each year as a kind of omnibus occasion, a day on which to commemorate all the saints who cannot be accorded their own specific dates, and whose names have been forgotten” (148). The date of this commemoration, which we call All Saints Day, varies in the West (where it is often celebrated on November 1) and the East (where some rites celebrate it on May 13 and some on the Sunday following Pentecost) (148). And even in the West, there remains a disparity between Roman Catholics on the one hand, who celebrate only canonized saints on November 1, leaving “all other faithful departed” to be remembered the following day (the Feast of All Souls), and Protestants on the other, who celebrate All Saints Day, collapsing RC practices into one day: either November 1 or the first Sunday in November (148).
Protestant practice also makes no distinction between “recognized” saints (i.e. great historical figures) and the biblical “great cloud of witnesses,” including people who died in the previous year, many of whom belonged to our parishes and whose names we read aloud as part of our ritual celebration of the saints (148).
In our expansive definition of sanctity and in our ritual observance, we emphasize the catholicity of the church in all times and all places. We give thanks for the departed ones and for their faithful witness to the promise of God in Jesus Christ. Stookey writes: “[T]hese persons [, though departed, continue to] bear testimony to us concerning the One of whom it is written, ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ (Isaiah 53:4 RSV). Their stories point us to his story. And it is his story that enables us to bear all sorrow …. [It is] the sole source and focus of the entire liturgical calendar” (150).
The rites particular to All Saints Day manifest in the church’s use of time in the proclamation that all the saints across all times and places are sanctified in the holiness of Christ, which he shares with us as part of what Luther called “the happy exchange,” or what Orthodox Christians might refer to as theosis or deification. In other words, Christ takes on OUR sins which die with him on the cross. With us he shares, by his grace, the righteousness which belongs to HIM as the Son of God.
This Good News interacts with the faithful in our time in spite of the larger cultural orientation toward despair and the fear of death. As believers, we still grieve death — our own and that of those we love — but because God’s promise proves trustworthy, we can rest in the assurance that death does not have the final word. Instead, the final word belongs to God, whose promise IS life in Christ.
I think that All Saints Day aims, as a ritual event, to put us in mind, not only of all the saints who have gone before us, but also to remember that WE are the saints. Here and Now. We are examples in the world in real time. Our faith will also have impact on the generations that follow. Our understanding and way of being run counter to Culture (the “powers and principalities” of the kosmos, “the prince of this world”, “the patterns of this world,” etc.), and this gives us hope in the face of death and decay, in the face of every kind of darkness. It falls to US SAINTS to share this Good News, which we ourselves have already received — to share it with a world that desperately needs to hear it, aches to hear it.