All Saints Day & All Souls Day

The feast day of All Saints has its origins in the feast of All Martyrs, a day on which the Church remembered those martyred for the faith who were not individually remembered by name. Eventually the feast became “All Saints,” and the date was moved to the first of November. On this feast, which comes at a time of year when the days are darkening, we hear readings that depict the persecuted with their white robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. It marks a sharp turn from the themes we have been hearing since Pentecost (the teachings of Jesus and stories of his ministry), and begins to emphasize an eschatological reality that leads us to face into the darkness and death all around us.

All Saints Day is, therefore, one of the four principal feast days on which baptisms are especially appropriate. The connections with death and the dead highlight the fact of baptism as a death and the incorporation of the baptized into a communion of saints past as well as present.

graveyard procession
Members of Christ Church, Redding Ridge, CT process through the graveyard on All Saints Day.

Often the feast of All Saints is confused with All Souls: a day on which the church remembers the beloved of the community who have died. Most Americans have heard of the Mexican-American “El Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) celebrations, which include cleaning and decorating the graves of departed loved ones and constructing shrines in the home to commemorate the dead.

Many Episcopal Churches include in their liturgy for All Saints or All Souls the recitation of the names of those buried on the church grounds and names of other deceased loved ones of the community. The recitation is often conducted during a procession through the church graveyard, memorial garden, and/or columbarium area. Such a recitation reinforces the status of the dead as members of the body of Christ who can continue to illumine our way in the life of faith. The yearly remembrance also gives the community an opportunity to surround those who mourn as part of the regular rhythm of liturgical life.

While the contemporary cultural norm would have us stringing up reams of twinkle lights to combat the darkness and our fear of death, the Christian tradition would have us look directly into this reality unflinchingly, with the Saints as our luminaries. Indeed, we will need their light more and more as we move to and through the season of Advent, with its readings depicting a world turned upside down.

Consider the following as you plan liturgies for All Saints and All Souls:

  • What is lost by combining All Saints and All Souls into one celebration? What would be gained if these feasts were explored and celebrated fully, each on their own?
  • What actions might help the community explore the idea of “saints” as all people who reveal Christ to us – whether they were famous for their good works or not?
  • How might you use the space of a graveyard, memorial garden or columbarium in the liturgy?
  • If a processional is to be used, how will those with mobility issues be accommodated?
  • What might be done before or after the liturgy to best prepare the space to honor those interred there?
  •  If there is to be a baptism, how will the themes of baptism as a death, a birth, and initiation into the communion of saints each be expressed in action (in addition to the words of the liturgy)?
  • How can your community best support those suffering a recent loss as part of the liturgy?
  • How can the remembrance of the dead best serve as an occasion to minister to those who are still working on forgiving someone who has died?
  • How can remembering the deceased be an occasion for personal challenge and inspiration?

Quick Reference:

Vigil for All Saints BOS p. 106
This liturgy was developed by All Saints, Bay Town, TX.

Collects for All Saints
Traditional BCP p. 194
Contemporary BCP p. 245, BAS p. ____

Proper Prefaces for Holy Eucharist BCP p. 347-348

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