The messiness of November remembrances

The richness of the fall “Triduum” (All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints, All Souls) is just past us, but the confusion and the abundance continues this week (see another recent PrayTellBlog on lectionary readings for All Saints’). The sequence is a bit clearer in Roman Catholicism, meaning that All Saints’ is observed on November 1st, followed by All Souls’ with rare exceptions. That order places the commemoration of all the faithful departed within the larger communion of saints, while keeping the integrity of the two distinct (those whom we honour, remember, and emulate – the saints – and those whom we remember and pray for and with, our beloved dead).

It is probably never a good assumption that we have the full story on where and how we are in the “space” between our own death and the second coming of Christ, after all, we walk by faith, not by facts, and live in “sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” But the distinction in the proper prayers of these two holy days makes it clear that the intent is different, even within their common praise of God. Using the opening collects for All Saints’ and All Souls’ from the Book of Alternative Services (Anglican Church of Canada, 1985) reveals this difference:

All Saints

“Holy and mighty God, we give you thanks for the triumph of Christ in the lives of all his saints. Receive all we offer you this day, and help us, like them, to run our course with faith, that we may come to your eternal kingdom. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

All Souls

“Father of all, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer. Grant them your peace, let light perpetual shine upon them, and in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.”

The proper prayers for the eucharist (including these opening prayers, the prayer over the gifts, and the proper prayer after communion remain the same regardless of the order of the liturgies, and the order can change. As others have mentioned, The Feast of All Saints’ in Anglicanism can be shifted to the Sunday following All Saints, so this year, most Anglican parishes observed All Saints’ on November 6th (in spite of the rubrics assuming that it would be celebrated twice in that case, unlike a normative feastday transfer – “All Saints 1 November This festival may be observed on the Sunday following 1 November, in addition to its observance on the fixed date”, BAS p. 427)  Because All Saints’ is one of the primary baptismal days in Anglicanism, it is almost always transferred. This means that the commemorations are often reversed, with All Souls’ preceding All Saints’ (in spite of the rubric: “All Souls 2 November or a convenient day in the week after All Saints” BAS p. 429)

My questions, however, are not so much about the annual dance between these two beloved observances, but about the other commemoration of the departed on November 11, Veterans Day in the US, and Remembrance Day in Canada (also Armistice Day for both). Armistice Day, observed on 11 November, commemorates the signing of the armistice marking the end of World War I. Veterans’ Day was established as a federal holiday in the US and remembers all who served in the military in all wars (distinct from Memorial Day which honours those who died in service). Aside from some prayers incorporated on nearby Sundays, the bulk of the ritual (in actions and in words) falls on the actual day, November 11th.

Remembrance Day, however, has become something quite different throughout the Commonwealth, including here in Canada. It is first the date of

“remembrance for the men and women who have served, and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace”; particularly the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, and all conflicts since then in which members of the Canadian Armed Forces have participated.” (Veterans Affairs Canada, 23 October 2014).

The primary ritual is the one in the capitol, Ottawa, which begins at 11:00 on November 11th with a mixture of military, national, and royal traditions. There are many vigils and public gatherings throughout Canada, often centred around the town cenotaph. One is also grateful that the common understanding of November 11th as the bulwark against “Christmas creep”, still endures in many places, making it inappropriate to decorate or advertise until Remembrance Day is complete. So far, so good – what’s the problem? The problem was the introduction of “Remembrance Sunday.”

The addition of Remembrance Sunday was partially coincidence (during WWII the Armistice commemoration was moved to Sunday so as to not conflict with a day of necessary work). But it was also calendrical (November 11th fell on a Sunday in 1945). Lastly, it was legislated in 1946, when the second Sunday in November was officially marked as Remembrance Sunday in the UK. From there it spread throughout the Commonwealth where it is often observed twice: on November 11th in a civil observance, and on Sunday as a hybrid of civil religion and Christianity in countries where there is no state church. The Canadian 1962 BCP points those searching for Remembrance Day propers to look at the “Commemoration of the Faithful Departed”, or “the Burial Service” (p. 329) The BAS leaves it to the imagination of clergy and lay leaders. Following the English model, Remembrance Sunday throughout the Commonwealth this year would be this coming Sunday, November 13.

But what is increasingly happening at the parish level (with a noticeable ‘spike’ post-pandemic) is Remembrance Day is being observed on All Saints’ Sunday (this year, November 6th) as well as replacing All Souls’ Day. The joys of social media produced many passionate accounts of successful Remembrance Sundays last week, along with photos of wreaths, poppies, flags, and more – in one photo completely obscuring the altar (the primary symbol of Christ in our midst)… Why? I suspect part of it is that Remembrance Sunday is more popular, it reaches more people, remembering the war veterans, past and present, in our families links more people together than the observance of All Saints – especially when the latter is vaguely mixed together with All Souls. I have used the occasion of Remembrance Day to explore my 4 great-uncles and 2 cousins who fought for Canada in WWI – it was a great exercise in searching out family history. I know many others do the same, judging by the photos on Facebook this week. It is easier and more culturally acceptable to ‘remember’ our family and friends than it is to pray with and for the dead, especially when so much of the November preaching does not aid people in even feeling free to talk about death or ‘the last things.’ It’s not unlike former neighbours for whom Halloween was their favourite holiday because “it’s the only one we don’t argue about…” Remembrance Day is a day to which many can sign on (but, in all honesty, many cannot – this year included an indigenous remembrance day two days earlier).

In reflecting on the major days of our liturgical calendar, I find it uncomfortable that All Saints is overshadowed by Remembrance Day in a number of places. I don’t think my discomfort is with a militarization or nationalization of all the saints (but the irony of St. Martin of Tours on November 11th, often with the reminder of his saying “I am a soldier of Christ, it is not lawful for me to fight” lingers!) I think it is more the gradual replacement of one with the other as an example of the creep of MTD (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). How can we make this extraordinary month of November work together theologically, ritually, and pastorally as our scripture readings remember a longer Advent also preparing us for the day of judgment?

2 comments

  1. I don’t have a good answer to your question, but I applaud the idea of at least holding off on Christmas decorating until after Remembrance Day. I wish Thanksgiving Day had the same impact on our population in the US. To paraphrase a song lyric, we need a little Christmas, just not this very minute.

    Quite a few congregants here are so completely done with Christmas by the time the Feast of the Holy Family arrives that singing Christmas carols seems almost like an embarrassment. “Why are we still doing these? Christmas is over already. Shouldn’t they be shelved again until next October?” Even so, “Coventry Carol”, “In the Bleak Midwinter” and many other carols shaped my early understanding of the whole Christmas season, so I pray that the dilution of Christmas across 2+ months doesn’t lessen the impact of these lyrics for others, as there’s much theological content to be gained.

  2. It is a mess, isn’t it? I celebrated All Saints’ thrice this year – on the 30th at my home church, on the 1st online (nowhere in the area seemed to have a service on the actual 1st, or perhaps it wasn’t well advertised), and on the 6th at my parents’ church (including a baptism)!

    I wonder if one of the reasons people want to celebrate remembrance day the Sunday prior to the 11th is because you normally place your poppy on a cenataph or wreath at the 11 AM service or memorial on the 11th – it’s inappropriate to continue wearing it afterwards. I’ve heard parishioners complain about not being able to wear their poppy when the Remembrance Sunday is celebrated after the 11.

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