The following is an article I wrote in the September/October issue of my bi-monthly e-mail newsletter, "A Heart for Home" (see subscription info. on side bar). I include it here for the benefit of those who might not receive the newsletter.
I grew up in a church that kept the traditions of the special days and seasons of the church calendar – Advent, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Pentecost, and the like. Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate the specific ways and means that these days were celebrated. At the time, the traditions were simply rituals that I went through, disengaged from thought and understanding.
Though I no longer attend a church that keeps the church calendar as specifically as the one in my childhood, I have recently begun to spend some time researching the days and seasons of the church calendar a little more closely. And I’ve discovered something wonderful: that there is some marvelous symbolism and insightful ways to live out my faith among those traditions. I’ve realized that by digging through what I considered rituals and looking at the reasoning and principles behind the traditions, I have found more avenues that lead to a richer and deeper faith. Have the traditions changed? No, I could still just go through the motions. But as I’ve matured in my faith in Christ, He’s given me eyes to view such things as yet another opportunity to worship Him.
Case in point. Last fall we attended a church which celebrated All Saints Sunday. At one point in the service, a list of saints (believers in Christ) that had died in the past year was read, along with their birth date, date of membership, date of death and age. After each name was read, a small candle was lit at the front of the church in remembrance of them and the church bell tolled. The pastor said a prayer of thanks to the Lord for the lives of those remembered and for their faithful service to God. He also asked that the Lord would help us to be faithful examples of His love to those around us.
I appreciated the celebration of All Saints Sunday at that church, and it sent me researching the history and tradition of the day. During the first 300 years after its birth, the Church suffered may persecutions. Because of that, believers often came together to celebrate the lives of martyrs of the faith. Followers of Jesus began marking days when martyrs died. Usually the celebrations were local and held in the place where the individual martyrs were killed. Eventually, the idea of recognizing the anniversaries of martyrs’ deaths took hold. November 1 (All Saints Day) and November 2 (All Souls Day) were officially set aside to remember past believers. Unfortunately, these celebrations morphed into days of unbiblical practices by many churches. However, other churches today choose to celebrate All Saints Day (on, or the closest Sunday to, November 1) as simply a time to remember saints – those believers in Jesus Christ who have passed on to Heaven. Typically remembered are those saints who have died in the past year, often accompanied by candles and bell-ringing.
Some churches also choose to celebrate All Saints Day as a remembrance of Martin Luther’s famous contribution of his 95 Theses. The evening before All Saints Day is the day he chose to hang his Theses on the church door to challenge and call for the reformation of unbiblical church practices. Many churches sing his famous hymn – A Mighty Fortress is Our God – as part of their All Saints Day celebration.
So . . .why bother to celebrate All Saints Day? It’s an opportunity to live out the principles behind the day. We are encouraged again and again through Scripture to remember the Lord, to remember what He’s done for us. Why? Because we are a forgetful people! The Word also tells us to imitate believers who imitate Christ, and to allow our faith to be encouraged by those who have walked with Him (I Corinthians 4:15-17 & 11:1, II Timothy 3:14, Hebrews 13:7). The whole of Hebrews 11, typically known as the Hall of Faith, is devoted to listing many who have gone on before us and walked in faith. We can learn by example from the strengths (and weaknesses!) of these Bible characters, as well as through those lives that have touched ours in a direct way.
And how can we put these things into practice? Whether it’s through studying the life of a Bible character, reading a biography about a famous believer, or being deliberate in taking the time to sit and think on what a faithful loved one or friend taught by their life are all ways to be encouraged to imitate Christ. A fun way to get kids involved in All Saints Day at church would be to have them “interview,” through a living relative or friend, a faithful believer who’s passed away. Ask the person where their loved one typically sat in church, how they were related, their favorite Bible verse, what they did within the church, a story in relation to church, a piece of wisdom they may have shared in their life, and maybe something in general they want to share about the person. This would provide extra blessing – by allowing the kids to “get to know” one of those great-cloud witnesses AND allow the person answering the questions to reflect on the example of a faithful saint. Having the kids share the interview answers with the rest of the congregation would provide an even greater ripple-effect of encouragement!
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:1-2
(NOTE: My plan to "celebrate" All Saints Day this year is to read The Small Woman by Alan Burgess, a biography of the life of missionary Gladys Aylward.)