All Saints’…All Souls’….Mystery Explained

To the left is the Ordo Kalendar that hangs on the wall in my office, and displays the liturgical “color ‘o the day.”  When you glance at it quickly what day jumps out at you?  Could it be Friday, November 2?  It is the only day in the month with a black numeral.  In point of fact November 2 is the ONLY day in the entire church year where the liturgical color of the day is black.  November 2 is Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, or All Souls’ Day.  Interestingly, Good Friday is a liturgically “red” day, however the notation included for Good Friday states, “Black may be used.”  We find no such language of substitution for November 2.  We have but one liturgical color offered:  black.

In looking at the calendar again, the day before–November 1–is the Feast of All Saints. It took me until I was in seminary to understand about the differences between these two days in the life of the Church.  Aside from the polar opposite liturgical color schemes, there are some other interesting differences…let’s compare the two.

First, All Saints’ Day is a Principal Feast Day in the Church–it is one of the four (or five)* days that the Book of Common Prayer recommends for the administration of Holy Baptism.  Historically this has been a day of huge importance to Christians as they contemplate the connection between those who are living, those who have died, and those who will be resurrected with Christ on the Last Day.

On the flip side, All Souls’ Day was actually abolished by the Reformation because of certain abuses connected with Masses for the dead (where you could buy the prayers of priests, churches, and even whole monasteries to pray for your loved one who was certainly in Purgatory.  It stood to reason that more prayers said on behalf of the person who had died, the faster the dead would receive the “Get Out of Purgatory Free” card and be in heaven).

Second, All Saints’ Day in being a Principal Feast, takes precedence over any and all other worship.  Of the seven Principal Feast days of the Church,  All Saints’ Day is so important that it is the only one that can be moved so that it can be observed on the following Sunday.  Since November 1 is a Thursday this year, we will observe All Saints’ Day on Sunday, November 4.  The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed always, and only, is observed on November 2, the day after All Saints’ Day.

Finally, let’s look at what each of the feasts are about…what are they for?  All Saints’ Day celebrates “the intercommunion of the living and the dead in the Body of Christ by a commemoration of those who, having professed faith in the living Christ in days past, had entered into the nearer presence of their Lord…” (Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006; p. 436).  In short, it is a feast surrounding those, known to us, who have died.    The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, meanwhile, became, “an extension of All Saints–on which the Church remembered that vast body of the faithful who, though no less members of the company of the redeemed, are unknown in the wider fellowship of the Church.” (Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2006; p. 438.)  So All Souls’ Day became the day of remembrance of all of those we do not know who have died.   Further, Commemoration of All Faithful Departed also has become for many Episcopal churches a specific day set aside for remembrance of family members or friends in general who are with us no longer.

“So, how does all of this play itself out in the life of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church?” I hear you asking…  Well, on Friday evening–TONIGHT–at 7:00 p.m. we will have a beautiful Taizé service for the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed where those attending are invited to write down the names of loved ones who have died.  The names will be read aloud during that service and there will be an opportunity to light a candle at the foot of the cross in the sanctuary.  On Sunday, November 4 we will read aloud the names of all those who have been buried from St. Alban’s this past year and any children of parishioners who have died.  Also, at both the 9:15 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. services we will have baptisms, creating the newest members of Christ’s body.

I hope that you will come and experience both of these unique and holy days, participating in the remembrance of those who have died and celebrating the new birth of those being baptized.

In Christ’s name,

*For those of you who like to read footnotes…There are four days in the church year that are set aside as “especially appropriate,” for Holy Baptism.  Those four are: The Great Vigil of Easter, the Day of Pentecost, All Saints’ Day, and the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord.  However, there is a fifth Sunday that can happen upon occasion that is especially suited for Holy Baptism:  whenever the bishop is present.

About matthewhanisian

Associate Rector at St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.
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