All Saints Day is upon us once again. The origins of this feast are complex and involved. It was originally a day on which to honor the Blessed Mother and all those who had died as martyrs. The Roman Pantheon, a church which still stands today was dedicated on November 1 by Pope Boniface IV in 609 or 610 A.D. The Feast of the dedication of Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres (Blessed Mother and all the martyrs) has been celebrated in Rome ever since.
The observance of All Saints Day originates in the sixth century for the Eastern Church, but it gained even greater prominence in the ninth century when Emperor Leo XI, built a church to honor his beloved wife, Theophano, who had preceded him in death. When he was told that he could not name the church for her, he decided to call it "All Saints" in the hope that she would be included in that number and thus honored by the church's name. He was also responsible for extending the feast to include not just the martyrs but all men and women who had reached heaven. The Eastern Church celebrates this feast on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
It became a universal feast in the Western Church when Emperor Charlemagne decreed, at the urging of the Pope, that all citizens of his realm were required to attend the Eucharist on the first day of November as was the custom in Rome.
The day celebrates the fact that we believe that there is a spiritual communion between those who have attained the Beatific Vision and those of us who remain in this world striving to reach the same goal. The readings for this day all point to the fact that we live in the hope that one day we will spend eternity with God. The Book of Revelation uses one of the visions of the sacred author to illustrate the fact that a vast throng of faithful disciples of Jesus, the Lamb of God, stand around God's throne as they worship the one who died for them. They are dressed in white, the baptismal garment. They have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, saved by his death. They have survived the great trial, the persecutions that were a part of the apostolic era. The reading from the First Letter of St. John reminds us that we are "children of God." As children we inherit the legacy of Jesus. Finally, the Gospel reminds us that in Jesus, the expected or worldly idea of happiness is turned upside down. The so-called Beatitudes inform the disciples of Jesus that what the world considers happiness is false and that conversely what the world considers to be misfortune is actually the way to eternal bliss. In this society which was driven by honor and shame, those are considered happy who bear the cross, who defer their happiness and embrace the ignominy of poverty, sorrow, humility, and injustice for the sake of the name of Jesus. In other words, the wisdom of this world is but folly to those who follow Jesus.
My favorite All Saints Day homily goes like this: "Remember that there is only one thing that distinguishes a saint from a sinner – the saints are dead. They are saints because they kept on trying!" Nothing more needs be said.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator