The calendar weighs heavy with religious and secular significance this weekend, and that’s before we even get to birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions made special in relation to family and friends. Tonight, for example, October 31, is “Halloween,” short for “All Hallow’s Evening,” the evening before All Saints’ [Hallows’] Day on November 1. Although it is far more difficult to be a saint in the Catholic Church than it is in the Bible, that hasn’t slowed down the manufacture of the Catholic brand. As a result, Catholic saints greatly outnumber calendar days, leaving enough day-less Catholic saints to justify an All Saints’ Day.
Like Christmas and Easter, All Saints’ Day was also the Catholic Church’s way of replacing a popular pagan holiday with a Christian festival. In Britain, November 1 was the Celtic New Year, and the preceding evening was Samhain. That night, the Celts believed, the dead returned to their homes for an evening and creation was reborn. This misty pagan past included bonfires, witches, black cats and lanterns made of pumpkins. Rejecting all that, the Church affirmed that Jesus has conquered all powers of darkness — and has emptied innocent symbols of originally dark meanings. The scary jack-o-lantern is actually nothing but a pumpkin with a candle inside. Cats are nothing but animals and nobody really rides on broomsticks.
The next day, November 2, throws an even bigger net. Named All Souls’ Day, it is a day to remember all God’s faithful people now dead–“saints” by New Testament definition, whether living or dead, although they couldn’t make the cut for the Catholic kind. God’s faithful people get attention also in the Bible. They lived by faith, Hebrews 11:39-40 tells us, died unrewarded, but now rest, waiting to receive their reward with us when Jesus comes back. Thinking of such people throughout history, William Walsham How wrote the following hymn in 1864, commonly known as “For All the Saints.”
PAST — “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia. Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might; thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight; thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light. Alleluia, Alleluia! For the apostles’ glorious company, who bearing forth the cross o’er land and sea, shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee: Alleluia, Alleluia! For the Evangelists, by whose blest word, like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord, is fair and fruitful, be thy Name adored. Alleluia, Alleluia! For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye, saw the bright crown descending from the sky, and seeing, grasped it, thee we glorify. Alleluia, Alleluia!
PRESENT — “O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win, with them the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia, Alleluia! O blest communion, fellowship divine! we feebly struggle, they in glory shine; all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia, Alleluia! And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, Alleluia! The golden evening brightens in the west; soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest; sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!
FUTURE — “But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. Alleluia, Alleluia! From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, and singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost: Alleluia, Alleluia!”