I once heard one of the brothers at Holy Cross describe how he learned something new on the occasion one year of preparing the Kalendar of the Order for the coming year in, a year in which All Saints’ Day fell on a Sunday. His immediate thought was that the observance of All Saints Day should be moved to the next day, Monday, as would be done in the case of, say, the Feast Day of an Apostle (which would be classed as a Major but not a Principal feast). But he was puzzled by the discrepancy between doing so and the rubric which allows the celebration of All Saints on the following Sunday if November 1 falls on a weekday. He had all his life until that moment regarded All Saints Day as just a day to honor all the saints that didn’t have their own special day. What he learned in researching the matter was that it is no such thing but is rather a feast (think “celebration”) of the manifestation of God.
Ah, there’s that word again – manifestation. To make something manifest is to make it obvious to the senses; evident; obvious; clear; plain. The other six Principal Feasts are Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. As Principal Feasts they take precedence over a Sunday, which is why we celebrate Christmas on the 25th even if it is a Sunday. Some are on a Sunday by definition: Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity, so there is never a conflict, but Epiphany more often than not falls on a weekday and is supposed to be celebrated on January 6 regardless, and would be even if January 6 is a Sunday. Ascension Day is by definition always on a Thursday and is supposed to be celebrated on that day. Of the seven Principal Feasts, only All Saints Day can be moved to the following Sunday and not just by parishes for which it is their feast of title. (All parishes are allowed to celebrate their feast of title on the following Sunday, which is why St. Alban’s is allowed to celebrate the feast of St. Alban on the Sunday following June 22. Each of the principal feasts then celebrates a different way in which God is made known, four of them celebrating the way God is made known in the manifestations of the deity of Jesus in his birth, in his manifestation to the gentiles in the adoration of the magi, and in his resurrection and ascension. Pentecost celebrates the manifestation of God in the birth of the church following the ascension of Jesus, and Trinity celebrates the manifestation of God in the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What then of All Saints? If it is something other than an All Souls Day for the super saints, those who lives were heroic examples, what is it; how to think of it. I’m thinking of it now as a celebration of a mysterious phenomenon through which God is made known to the world through the examples of the lives of all persons, past, present, and future, who are followers of Jesus and who show forth in their words and deeds the teachings and example of Jesus. One of the hymns we sang, number 293, gets it just right, especially the third verse:
They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still,
the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains,
or in shops, or at sea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.
I’ve always been grateful to have been present when the monk at Holy Cross shared the story of his discovery. It has kept me, whenever I learn something basic, from feeling too bad about not having already known it.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 05-November-2013