5 Steps from All Souls’ to All Saints’

November seems like the perfect place for All Souls’ Day. Although a time a harvest, it is also a time of dwindling life and light, a time that signifies the approach of death. Coming immediately after All Saints’ Day, when the Church Militant venerates the Church Triumphant and those in glory pray for us, All Souls’ Day has us attend to the remaining part of the Mystical Body.

The placement of All Souls’ Day right after All Saints’ Day also makes sense from a historical perspective. According to Dom Gregory Dix, our liturgical veneration of the saints is ultimately rooted in an early belief in purgatory. He traces the history this way:

  1. The earliest Christians believed that the deceased faced the possibility of purgative fires. So when a Christian died, it was customary to offer prayers for that person on the anniversary of his or her death.
  2. When a Christian was martyred, the community felt strange about praying for his soul, because it was confident the deceased had bypassed purgatory entirely. On the other hand, it was customary to do something on the anniversary of a Christian’s death. So instead of praying for the martyr’s soul, they would offer prayers in celebration of what the martyr had done. (This is captured in the Martyrdom of Polycarp.)
  3. In a kind of Christianized civic spirit, Christian communities celebrated their local martyrs in a regular cycle.
  4. In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem began celebrating all the great biblical saints, because for someone living in Jerusalem all the biblical saints were local.
  5. When the many pilgrims to Jerusalem brought this practice back to their various homes, suddenly a lot of communities were celebrating saints that were not local to them. Thus was born the universal calendar of saints.

So in a kind of order of discovery, All Souls’ Day is prior to All Saints’ Day: we discovered Masses in honor of the triumphant by realizing we weren’t comfortable counting them as suffering. But in another order, All Saints’ Day is first: we look to the goal first and then pray that our suffering brothers and sisters will reach it; all of us who can pray, which includes us on earth and our forerunners in heaven, first unite together and then, together, pray for the suffering deceased.

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Saints of the Bible: A Complete List of Their Feasts in the Old and New Calendars

Before the amazing 4th century, Christians were parochial and even patriotic in their veneration of saints. Rome celebrated the martyrs who had died at Rome, Constantinople celebrated the martyrs who had died at Constantinople, Antioch celebrated the martyrs who had died at Antioch, and so on. It never occurred to the folks in Rome to celebrate the saints of Antioch, or vice versa: celebrating a saint involved walking out to see his tomb. But in the 4th century a unique group of saints broke this pattern and set us on the path to the celebration of all saints. Who were they?

Abraham IconThe saints of the Bible.

The saints of the Bible were familiar names throughout the Church. Texts like Hebrews 11 and Sirach 44-50, read everywhere, held up the great men and women of Salvation History as examples to follow and heroes to venerate. For the church in Jerusalem, however, the saints of Scripture were also the local martyrs: just as Rome had a list of days for celebrating the martyrs of Rome, Jerusalem had a cycle of liturgical commemorations of the biblical saints. When 4th-century pilgrims brought Jerusalem’s liturgies back to their home dioceses, they brought with them the practice of liturgically commemorating the biblical saints—and implicitly, they created the practice of commemorating saints that were not local. Unwittingly, they had planted the seed of the universal sanctoral cycle. Continue reading “Saints of the Bible: A Complete List of Their Feasts in the Old and New Calendars”

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