American evangelicals are rediscovering the church calendar.
We’re pulling it out of mothballs where it was discarded by Puritanism and then revivalism, dusting it off, and remembering again the beauty, the formation, and the help in worship that it offers. Books and blog posts (including my own) are being cranked out on the subject. Even low-church, non-denominational churches are starting to experiment with Ash Wednesday and Good Friday services. The practice of Advent is widespread as well—here in Texas, you can find Baptists with Advent wreaths. Liturgical time, though ancient, is now trendy.
I, for one, am grateful that evangelicals are reclaiming the forgotten gift of liturgical time. But many evangelicals do not know much about a church holiday (or holy day) that is, perhaps, one of the most needed in our culture of individualism: November 1 marks All Saints’ Day.
Who are these “saints”?
I did not grow up practicing the liturgical calendar, and I’m still pretty new to All Saints’ Day. For Catholics, it’s a day to celebrate and pray to the saints—both known and unknown—who dwell in the presence of God. (It precedes All Souls’ Day, when Catholics pray for the souls of those in purgatory.) As a Protestant who has celebrated All Saints’ Day exclusively in Anglican churches, I understand “saint” to mean all those who are in Christ—all Christians, past and present. What Catholics and Protestants share in common is that All Saints’ Day is a day intended to celebrate God’s redemptive work in and through the lives of men and women throughout history.
At my former Anglican church in Nashville, All Saints’ Sunday was the only service of the year when we didn’t have a sermon. Instead, people from the congregation shared stories about believers who had impacted their lives. Church members wept as they recalled how their parents or grandparents prayed for them faithfully. People shared how Christian friends pursued them at a time when they wanted nothing to do with Jesus or his church. My husband talked about his late uncle whose theological library he inherited with scrawled notes, like mementos, in the margins of the books.
My favorite part of the service was when we heard stories honoring members of that congregation—often older men and women who lived lives of quiet faithfulness. People would tell stories of how God brought them to faith or preserved their faith through the very people sitting in pews around us. And together, as a congregation, we remembered people we loved who had died that year and how God had used them in our community.
A few years after I first celebrated All Saints’ Day (or the “Feast Day of All Saints” or “All Hallows’ Day” or, as Shakespeare refers to it, “Hallowmas”), the InterVarsity graduate student chapter that I helped lead decided to celebrate the holiday together. We asked local singer-songwriters who had just released a hymn album to perform and then interviewed them about why they chose to play hymns and how they’d selected songs for their album. It ended up being a night of great music and great stories—stories about these Nashville songwriters, stories about hymn writers who came before us, stories about music and the church.
All Saints’ Day reminds us that we do not receive the gospel magically, Scripture dropped from the clouds in a locked box. Instead, we know Jesus by living with and in the church—its people, its history, its story. We have received the good news from Christians before us who received it from Christians before them, strong and weathered hands handing down the “deposit of faith” generation after generation, wavering but faithful, struggling yet enduring, sinful and sanctified. When we celebrate these countless saints, we remember the larger, longer story of redemption into which we were born.
In liturgical circles, we call this vast chain of believers stretching into history “the Great tradition.” Scripture refers to it as “the great cloud of witnesses” who mysteriously surround us as we persevere in “the race set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). We don’t remember these men and women because they were perfect. We remember them because, like us, they were broken, sinful, selfish, and fearful, and yet God used them to grow and sustain his church, to pass down the message of the gospel, and to shape us as a Christian community.
At Communion during my first All Saints’ service, my pastor, Thomas, reminded us that the part of the Communion table that we see—the visible part—is only a tiny fraction of the table. He asked us to imagine that it stretched on, beyond the visible dimension, and that as we eat and drink together we do so with the whole of the church from all of history. As we sing songs in worship, the saints who have come before us and the angels sing with us. As we worship Jesus, our head, his whole body, past and present, global and local, worships with us. We know in part what those saints who have traveled home before us now know more fully.
God has been faithful to his church. He has sustained it through ordinary mothers and monks, doctors, artists, farmers, and students, rich and poor, young and old, fascinating and dull, likeable and difficult, through the saints, every one broken and beloved. And he will continue to be faithful to his church. So, in the end, All Saints’ Day celebrates God who is faithful from generation to generation. We have seen his faithfulness, and we have stories to tell.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She and her husband, Jonathan, work with InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministries at The University of Texas at Austin and have two young daughters. Tish writes regularly for The Well. She has also written for Christianity Today’s her.meneutics and was featured on the White Horse Inn. She's newly on twitter @Tish_H_Warren.
For more on some of the saints who have shaped and influenced the church today, check out these resources: