Towards the end of the Christian Calendar year, on November 1st, we find the last major holiday: All Saints’ Day. The second half of October leads up to this day with three other Saints’ days: St. Luke the Evangelist (October 18th), Saint James of Jerusalem (October 23rd), and Saints Simon & Jude (October 28th). This is an unusually thick part of the calendar – for most of the year there are only two holidays per month and here there are four within three weeks!
What’s the point of all these Saints’ days?
A lot of Protestants today find themselves in churches that do not celebrate Saints’ days, and generally assume them be one of those “weird Catholic traditions” that have been done away with. But in actuality there are Saints’ days in Lutheran, and Anglican calendars, as well as in a few other traditions like some Methodists and Presbyterians.
And before you scoff at these traditions, saying “how boring!” let’s take a look at why these holidays exist. They don’t exist so we can worship the Saints; that is idolatry and is forbidden across the board. Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Pentecostal, we all agree that we worship God alone: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. But these Saints’ days are also not mere history lessons – they’re not just about obsessing over the past, but are very pertinent to the present and future of the community of the faithful.
What does Scripture say about remembering such Saints?
Ephesians 2:17-21 says “Jesus came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” There are other places in the Bible that talks about Jesus being our rock and foundation, but in this particular instance, St. Paul describes the foundation of the Church to be “the apostles and prophets.” To some extent this can be understood to refer to their writings: it was Apostles wrote the New Testament and Prophets who wrote the Old Testament. But in its plain sense, this text is referring to the people themselves – the apostles and prophets form the foundation of the Church, the household of God. Jesus is still the cornerstone; the building cannot stand without him; he is still first. But with the Church understood as a building, we are built together upon the lives and testimonies of those who have gone before us.
Jude 3 says “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Again, the faith was delivered to the saints – to the holy people of God. St. Jude is careful to state this in a completed sense; the faith has already been delivered in its entirety. This is an emphasis on the work of people in passing on that faith: Christ called his disciples, and they went out and made more disciples, who continued that pattern all the way down to us today. You did not hear about the Gospel from Jesus, you heard about the Gospel from your parents, or your pastor, or a neighbor, or some sort of minister. God was speaking through them, certainly, but it is through people whom God speaks!
1 John 1:1-3 says “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Notice how St. John ends this opening statement to his epistle: fellowship with God comes through fellowship him “us” – the apostles. He’s not setting himself and the other apostles up as intermediaries through whom we must go in order to find God. But he is pointing out that if we are to find God, it will be with them.
Putting all these together, we are drawn to realize that we stand on the foundation of the Saints, we receive the Gospel from the Saints, and we have fellowship with God with the Saints. Even for Bible-centered evangelical Christians, we still find ourselves relying upon the witness of those who have gone before us as necessary vehicles of God’s self-revelation.
What do we do about Saints’ days?
Hebrews 12:1-2 tells us that “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Here we are shown a double purpose in remembering the Saints: 1) their testimony is to inspire us to cast off sin and run race of faith; 2) remembering them is to point us to Christ. Notice how these verses seamlessly connects together both of these purposes. The right celebration of the Saints does not step on the toes of our attention to Jesus, it enhances our attention to Jesus!
Hebrews 13:7 says “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.” If we can be told to imitate our earthly spiritual leaders, who are still alive in this world and struggling against sin like everyone else, how much more should we imitate the Saints whose lives have ended and whose race is done? When reading this verse in chapter 13, we should remember what was said at the beginning of the previous chapter about the “great cloud of witnesses.”
Now, on a practical level, we do recognize that even the greatest Saints of old had their flaws, failings, and sins. But what’s handy about the departed Saints, especially those who’ve been gone for a long time, is that there’s been plenty of time for the dirt to come out, their hype and popularity to fade, and for people to think back from a more critical and objective viewpoint. The good and the bad can be more clearly identified, and the relative “value” of their personal witness to the faith can be evaluated – after all, some people are better examples of Christ-like living than others. And so, when we look at the Saints of old, there is usually just one or two aspects of their lives that reflect Christ and the Gospel particularly well. And so when we observe a holiday in commemoration of a Saint, we tend to focus on exactly how he or she reflected Christ in his or her own day.
By focusing on a Saint’s most Christ-like aspects, our vision is sharpened on Christ.
For sake of examples, let’s look at the three Saint’s Days leading up to All Saints’ Day.
A prayer for St. Luke’s Day reads, “Almighty God, who called Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul: May it please you, that, by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” One of the appearances of Luke in the Bible mentions that he was a physician. And so, in line with the image of Christ as being “the great physician,” we emphasize the work of healing that is accomplished by the right application of biblical teaching, as Luke, after all, did write two books of the Bible.
A prayer for St. James of Jerusalem’s Day reads, “Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” This refers, in part, to the story in Acts 15 where James presides at an important ruling acknowledging the equality of Gentile Christians alongside Jewish Christians. James thus is a picture of “the ministry of reconciliation” which is ultimately brought about in the person and work of Jesus himself.
A prayer for Sts. Simon and Jude’s Day reads, “O Almighty God, who has built your Church upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their doctrine, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable unto you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This points us back to the first verses quoted in this article, Ephesians 2:17-21, which describe the people of God as a Temple building established upon the apostles and prophets. Celebrating the Apostles Simon and Jude, of whom we know very little in the Bible, we are reminded of the solidarity we have with all God’s people no matter how well we may happen to know them. We have brothers and sisters all over the place, and yet we are unified in the bonds of love.
Perhaps this prayer for All Saints’ Day sums up the point of celebration Saints’ Days best:
O Almighty God, who has knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: grant us grace so to follow your blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which you have prepared for them that unfeignedly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This gives us the whole scope of the reality of this “communion of saints” for us.
- We are One Body with the past: we are united even with the Saints long-departed this life.
- We are One Body in the present: those who have gone before us provide us with inspiration and examples for our present pursuit of holiness.
- We are One Body into the future: the Saints departed have gone ahead to where we also shall one day go – to the unspeakable joy of heaven.
Saints’ days are not about idolatry. Saints’ days are not about history lessons.
Saints’ days are about celebrating God’s family members so we can become more at home in His household.
For Further Reading…
- “Who Are These?” – a lyrical exploration of celebrating the Saints
- “For all the Saints” – a lyrical exploration of what the Saints are
- “The narrow stream of death” – a lyrical exploration of our unity with the Saints
- “Rant on Church Unity” – how the Saints challenge our notions of unity
- “Lest we forget” – noting Memorial Day as a secular parallel to All Saints’ Day
- “Veterans Day” – the honoring of veterans is similar to the honoring of Saints