In the perennial Christmas standard, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the final exchange between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present is both profoundly brooding, as it is chillingly expositive. In this scene Scrooge is confront by the figures of two children who cling to the legs of the Ghost of Christmas Present. They are described as, “yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.” The Ghost names and remarks upon them: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” The echo of the Specter’s warning reverberates and lingers in all places where ignorance gives way to hatred and violence and want devolves into anguish and despair. Is there any means, one may wonder, to effectively and decisively confront these Dickensian realities?
For the Christian believer this foreboding question is boldly answered, “Yes!,” in the celebration of the first two days of the month of November: the Solemnity of All Saints, and All Souls. These days, each in its own turn, express the two foundational principles around which revolves the Liturgical Year and toward which develops the daily life perspective of the Christian. To the folly of ignorance, the Solemnity of All Saints responds with memory; to the scourge of want, All Souls, offers hope. Memory and Hope are the pillars of Christian liturgical and daily life, and through the celebration of All Saints and the observance of All Souls they become the dynamic catalysts through which ignorance and want are defeated. As we near the end of October and prepare to enter into November, it might be beneficial to explore how these two days complement one another and bring the faithful to the final pivot of the Church’s year. But first, some background on the origin of these commemorations.
A celebration in honor of the saints is not Western but Eastern in origin; the Greek church having celebrated the saints on the Sunday after Pentecost since the fourth century. It enters the West in two ways, one through the dedication of the Pantheon in Rome on May 13, 609, as the church of Saint Mary and all Martyrs (Santa Maria ad Martyres) by Boniface IV – a pivotal stroke that forever claims the Roman Forum for Christianity. The second way occurs in the following century when Gregory III dedicated a chapel to the saints in Saint Peter’s Basilica on November 1. Gregory III’s successor, Gregory IV, encourages the celebration of the saints on this day throughout the Carolingian Empire eclipsing the May 13 date. The French church will add a vigil to the celebration on October 31, the origin of what will become “All Hallows Eve” or Halloween, especially in the English Christian tradition.
While not a solemnity in its own right – having no festal rank at all in the calendar – All Souls is an exceptional celebration. Its origin as a Western observance (the Byzantine church dedicated every Saturday to all saints and all souls from an early period) are traced to an act of St Odilo (Odo), abbot of Cluny, who in the tenth century ordered prayers for all the dead on November 2. It is interesting to note that while this devotion was rapidly popularized throughout Northern Europe, it was not accepted in Rome until the 14th century. The reason for this reluctance was the emphasis liturgy in the city of Rome placed on a more positive relationship between the human and the divine, than was common in areas outside the city. By the 14th century the commemoration of All Souls carried with it the familiar purgatorial elements (the custom of three Masses for the dead in purgatory is of Spanish origin), which remained an integral part of its liturgical formula until the reforms of the late 20th century.
A consequence of the calendrical reforms of the late 1960s enhanced the manner in which All Saints and All Souls are observed. Taken together they communicate to the faithful the knowledge of the indispensible responsibility of Christian life — that of enfleshing the apostolic counsel that Christians must be people who are ready at all times to give an explanation for the hope they possess (I Peter 3:15). They are days that while celebrated in the present look in two directions, to the future and to the past. We begin these days by looking to the future with the Solemnity of All Saints, because to be Christian is to be an eschatological people. We remember – we “make memory” – not as sentimental nostalgia, but rather as powerful anamnesis, that what God has done in human history to people not unlike ourselves, God can also do with us. It is not a day for naming the present assembly as “saints,” however much our Western egalitarian tendencies might want to, because it is jumping the gun, we are not there yet. We remember those who are acknowledged as saints in the sure and certain hope that we too will follow where they have walked ahead of us. Christians are tasked with the responsibility of remembering that amid the mistakes and imprudence of human history God is at work revealing love, mercy and forgiveness at every turn, which qualities of human life are in constant need of being imitated that they might become even more effective in every age.
Memory transforms to hope on the following day, when we look to the past, to all those who have gone before us in faith. All Souls is not, contrary to popular opinion, a day dedicated to praying for the “Poor Souls in Purgatory,” as if God needs to be convinced or bargained with to care about us (in fact, there are no direct or overt references to purgatory in any of the presidential prayers for All Souls Masses in the Roman Missal). Rather, in commemorating all those marked with the signs of faith who have preceded us, we pray that their memory of the extravagant affection of God’s love for them will provide them with hope-empowered strength and courage to avoid despair and make the choice to believe as they undertake the greatest of all transitions of human life. In so doing, we in the present exercise the most remarkable of all gifts bestowed upon believers, that of being able to pray for one another. One need not be the holiest, most devout, most pious believer, nor need one be a religious sister or brother, priest, deacon, bishop, or pope to accomplish this duty. One needs simply to believe and to hope in that belief to pray effectively. All Souls is the “call of duty” day for all believers to enact who we say we are.
Together then, All Saints and All Souls must be celebrated in tandem, two sides of the whole of Christian life. Above all, they are a celebration of the relational nature of Christian life, of relationship with those who have gone before us, with those who will follow after, and with the God who is the source of all relationship. There can be no fitting act to move us to the conclusion of a year of faith than by initiating once again the powerful effectiveness of memory and hope in Christian life.