Collect for All Saints' Sunday
O ALMIGHTY God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship
in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord:
grant us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living
that we may come to those inexpressible joys which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee;
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Daniel 7, Vv 1-3 & 15-18
Ephesians 1, Vv 11-23
St Luke 6, Vv 20-31
In the calendar of the western Christian church All Saints’ Day is kept on the first day of November. The idea of a special day to remember all of God’s saints began in a proposal from Ephrem Syrus, a 4th century Syrian Doctor of the Church and an important Biblical and ecclesiastical writer. His suggestion was taken up by John Chrysostom, who determined a specific date for the feast, the first Sunday after Pentecost. The Eastern Church still keeps this date; but it’s a day which the Western Church keep as Trinity Sunday. A formal date did not become established until about AD610 when Pope Boniface dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to Christian use, on the 13th day of May. Observance on 1st November started with Pope Gregory IV in the ninth century.
It has been the tradition of the church since the earliest times to give particularly holy individuals a special place in the thoughts and prayers of the faithful. Regrettably in the medieval period much abuse surrounded the veneration of the saints and the Protestant Reformation saw some churches largely disassociate themselves from this practice. In the resulting Presbyterian denominations devotion to and reverence for the saints ceased and, in my humble opinion, much was lost from the glory of their corporate worship. The Anglican Churches, as ever, steered a middle course and maintained the calendar of saints in their service orders, in the Book of Common Prayer and in various Scottish Episcopal Prayer Books. What do we find if we examine these calendars?
There are, first of all, those saints that have Propers, or lections, dedicated to them on their feast days in the Prayer Book, days that used to be called Red Letter Days. The term Red Letter Days originated in the patristic church. The first Council of Nicaea in AD325decreed that saints’ days and other holy days should be printed in church calendars in red. The term came into wider usage with the appearance in 1549 of the first Book of Common Prayer in which the calendar showed special holy days in red ink. The special collect, epistle and gospel appointed for these days technically make them ‘Days of Obligation’; days on which all Christians should make every effort to attend church for one of the daily services. To this list has been added, particularly in the Prayer Books of 1928 (in England) and 1929 (in Scotland), Propers for what are sometimes called ‘lesser saints’. These have included: martyrs, doctors, confessors, abbots, abbesses, virgins and matrons. Our Prayer Book, for example, includes a number of uniquely Scottish Saints, such as Columba, Kentigern, Ninian and Margaret of Scotland. In this context the word ‘lesser’ is a designation purely of human invention and understanding: in God’s eyes I am sure that there are just ‘saints’; he makes no such distinctions as ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’. As a minor diversion: the 1662 Book of Common Prayer included commemorations of some purely historical events. These were: the martyrdom of Charles the First on 30th January; the Restoration of Charles the Second on 29th May; and, on 5th November, the Exposure of the Gunpowder Plot. All of these nationalistic provisions were dropped by special Act of Parliament in 1859. That aside, our Scottish Prayer Book still commemorates the Beheading of Charles the First on 30th January. Another, third tier of saints has been added to modern calendars. These include, for example: Janani Luwum, martyred Archbishop of Uganda in 1977 (17th February); Blessed Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln from 1910 (8th March); John and Charles Wesley, eighteenth century Evangelists and Hymn Writers (24th May); John Keble, Oxford Priest, Tractarian and Poet (14th July) and Mary Sumner, Founder of the Mothers’ Union (9th August). There are sufficient, individually named saints in documented prayer book calendars to occupy our thoughts and prayers on nearly every day of the year. I did a quick check in my English Missal and found no fewer than sixteen different feast days dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary; on average that’s one every three weeks!
Most centres of population, with, perhaps, the exception of those with cathedrals or large, town-centre churches, no longer have a schedule of daily services that the faithful may attend. Many, especially in rural and remote communities, have Sunday services at best; others may only join for worship every second Sunday, or once a month. With these circumstances obtaining are we then to ignore Red Letter Days and Days of Obligation? Are we to attend church on Sundays and just hear the weekly Propers and only celebrate the saints if their feast days happen to fall on a Sunday? Were it that simple? The church authorities deliberately make it difficult for us to celebrate any saints’ day because when these do fall on Sundays then the calendar arbitrarily transfers them to a week-day, often the following Tuesday. Thus it seems that it was never more important to have a Sunday in the year when we can remember all of God’s saints, both the famous and the not-so-well-known. Today is that day.
How then should we keep this special day and who should we call to mind as we do so? Today we remember that great phalanx of saints who, down the ages of the last two millennia have tried to do the will of God and lead holy, sinless lives. They form what is often referred to as a ‘cloud of witnesses’, a cloud that surrounds us and inspires us with the truth of God and his kingdom. As we have seen, this cloud of witnesses comprises more than just those persons whose names are written in our various prayer book calendars. There is a wonderful scriptural passage in the Inter-testamental book of Ecclesiasticus, a passage that I used to hear as a school-boy at each annual Founder’s Day Service. It begins, ‘Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.’ After naming the famous and reciting their great deeds, deeds that were well known to many people, it continues, ‘And some there be which have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been, and are become as though they had never been born’. The passage concludes, ‘Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name liveth for evermore.’ They are what All Saints’ Sunday is really about. All Saints’ Sunday is the time for us to remember especially those women and men who went before us in the faith but whose names, though remembered by God, are forgotten to the world. We celebrate the lives of these people so that we may remember that as Christians we are not abandoned to this moment in time, or tied to the whims and demands of our present age. We are not alone. We are not left adrift in the world with only the present; with no past and with no future. We are all connected to one another across the ages, the living and the dead, through our membership of the Body of Christ that is the Church. This has a practical implication for all of us. It means that we don’t have to make things up for ourselves. We don’t have to re-invent our faith and our traditions in each generation. We don’t have to make it up as we go along. That great cloud of witnesses shows us the true way to God.
Then there are saints that you alone know about, special people who, perhaps steered you on your way to being a follower of Jesus, who set you out along your Christian pilgrimage, who, perhaps even now, act as your spiritual guides and mentors. How many of these good and kindly folk followed the dictates of Christ and obeyed those ideals of life that he so clearly and concisely expressed in the Beatitudes that we have just heard? Who are the great saints in your lives, or mine? Who have we known who inherited the kingdom of heaven after being poor in spirit? Who have you learned from who mourned and now is comforted? Who have we known who hungered for righteousness and now is filled, or who was merciful and now has received mercy?
Jesus’ Beatitudes are our instruction manual on sainthood, our guide book to the Godly life, just as it was the guide book of those who went before us in the faith. This is the day when we remember those saintly people and pray for them. Actually, it is more accurate to say that this is the day when we pray with them. For, as we affirm in our creeds, we believe in the Communion of Saints. That means that all of us who follow Jesus Christ as Lord and depend on him as Saviour pray together, now and for all of eternity. Look up at the stained glass windows in our many churches. See the saints and apostles, the patriarchs and evangelists of yesteryear. Then, in parallel, see with them the people who represent us today: farmers and doctors, teachers and children. All are gathered around Christ throughout all ages and all are surrounded by the heavenly hosts of Angels and Archangels. We are, all of us, in this together. That is what we believe, that death is no final separation. We can expect to have eternal life with those we love. But even more than that, we believe that, in the Communion of Saints, we are still together with those who have died, whenever we pray for them or offer our worship and praise to God. We hear this explicitly almost every Sunday in the words in that part of the Eucharistic Prayer called the Sursum Corda, ‘Therefore, with Angels and Archangels, and the whole company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name…’ We affirm that we praise God with Angels and Archangels and with that cloud of witnesses, all the company of heaven!
Let us take some time today, All Saints’ Sunday, and every other day, to think about that cloud of witnesses, the great Communion of Saints. Give thanks to God for them, and then pray to God with them.
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