Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day. In the Episcopal Church, All Saints’ Day is when we commemorate “all saints, known and unknown” (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/all-saints-day). And what better day to talk about saints than All Saints’ Day?
At St. Brendan’s we are no stranger to remembering the saints; after all, we are named for one! We will observe All Saints' Day at St. Brendan’s this coming Sunday, November 5. Just last Sunday we had a fun celebration of St. Francis of Assisi, inviting community members and animal lovers to a blessing of the animals. And we always celebrate our namesake, St. Brendan, on his feast day in May. We sing hymns about saints, and at baptisms, we recite the Apostles Creed, which includes the line, “I believe in … the communion of saints.”
Children at St. Brendan's learning about saints on All Saints' Day, 2016.
But what do we mean when we say we believe in the "communion of saints”? Ask different people and you might get different answers—especially because many Episcopalians, and many of St. Brendan’s members, come from other faith backgrounds, with varying perspectives on saints. For example, while Catholics frequently celebrate and pray to the saints, most Protestants do not pray to the canonized saints, although they may acknowledge them; rather, they take the view that all Christians are saints. In the New Testament, “saints” refers to all the members of the Christian community.
In the Episcopal Church, this is all a bit confusing because there are several different ways to describe saints. The saints you probably think of first are those Christians, known for their holiness, who have been canonized by the church (in this case, the Catholic Church)—St. Francis, St. Brendan, St. Nicholas, etc. The Episcopal Church, like the Catholic Church, recognizes these saints and commemorates them in their list of lesser feast days. However, also included in the “lesser feasts and fasts” (http://lectionarypage.net/CalndrsIndexes/TxtIndexLFF.html) are other people considered important by the Episcopal Church who have not necessarily been canonized. Furthermore, as is the case in many Protestant churches, in the Episcopal Church we believe that all Christians, both the living and the dead, are part of the community of saints (The Episcopal Handbook, p. 40). As we sing in verse 3 of Hymn # 293, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”:
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 a tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.
As in the Catholic Church, we have the option of celebrating saints and their feast days—and we do! However, where the Episcopal Church differs from the Catholic Church in our views on the saints is concerning prayer. While Catholics invoke or pray to the saints, the Anglican/ Episcopalian position, as described in Article XXII of the Articles of Religion (BCP, p. 872), rejects invocation of the saints, that is, asking saints to pray for us. But while the Prayer Book does not include any official invocations of saints, we do join the saints in prayer and praise of God (The Episcopal Handbook, p. 40). For example, in some celebrations of the Eucharist we might say, “And so we join the saints and angels in proclaiming your glory, as we sing (say), Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might ….” (BCP, p. 402). Of course, interpretations of these traditions vary by church, and there are some Anglo-Catholic churches that do pray to the Virgin Mary or to other saints. If you are interested in learning more about the saints who are recognized by the Episcopal Church, or celebrating their feast days, be sure to check out Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (Church Publishing, 2010), which takes its name from Hymn #238:
Blessed feasts of blessed martyrs, holy women, holy men,
with affection’s recollections greet we your return again.
Worthy deeds they wrought, and wonders, worthy of the Name they bore;
we, with meetest praise and sweetest, honor them for evermore.
On All Saints’ Day, we remember all of the saints—from St. Brendan to the members of our church to all Christians across the world. And when we celebrate All Saints’ Day at St. Brendan’s, as with many other churches, we especially remember those who have died, particularly in the past year. However, to make things even more confusing, there is another day when we are invited to remember those who are no longer with us … tomorrow. November 2 is the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, also sometimes called All Souls’ Day. From the Catholic tradition, this was a day when people could pray for their loved ones who had died and assist their souls into heaven. Most Protestants don’t commemorate this as a separate day because of its association with the medieval doctrine of Purgatory. The Episcopal Church historically has had mixed views on the observance of All Souls Day, and it has been, at different times, integrated into All Saints’ Day celebrations or observed as a separate feast. Today, the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed is included in the list of lesser feasts and fasts as an optional commemoration, but many churches, like St. Brendan’s, include the remembrance of those who have died in their All Saints' Day services. (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/bi102812half_0.pdf)
So, this Sunday as we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we remember and pray for those who have died, but we also remember that we are part of the communion of saints, connected with all Christians, living and dead.
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion
and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord:
Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living,
that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those
who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you
and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
(Collect for All Saints’ Day, Book of Common Prayer, p. 245)
Grace and peace,
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A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please consider it my error and let me know! If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for future blog posts, please email me at email@example.com.