All Saints to Advent

This month we look at three things in particular -All Saints' Day (November 1st), All Souls' Day (November 2nd) and Advent (December 1st - 24th). These form something of a whole summed up in the words of the Apostolic Creed, "I believe in.....the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,.....and the life everlasting. Amen."

All Saints and Advent belong together because the celebration of the Saints cannot but cause us also to be mindful of the judgement of God. The saints who stand before the throne of glory have also stood before the throne of judgement. The light and dark of humanity are true facets of us all - while we are called to be saints, we know ourselves to be sinners. This is the season for us to contemplate the Church's destiny in eternity. We know ourselves both to be caught up in "so great a cloud of witnesses" and yet also to be watching, waiting, for the coming again of Christ when all things shall be gathered up into the Kingdom of God.

All Saints' Day (p810 ASB). This is also known as All Hallows' Day, hallow meaning to make holy, consecrate and honour. It is from this less commonly used name that we derive Hallowe'en (the Eve of All Hallows). Throughout the year the church commemorates specific saints, but on November 1st we commemorate and celebrate all saints and thus God's mercy and love for us, for it is God who bestows sanctity. Although martyrs have been remembered in services dating from the early churches - about 270AD, the celebration of saints (i.e. those who served God but died in the faith rather than for the faith) comes later, about the 7th century. Egbert of York brought the festival to England where it is found as a marginal addition to the Martyrology of Bede under 1st November. By the 9th century it had become a major feast in the church calendar in England.

Devotional writers have expressed the feast as the fulfilment of Pentecost. Christ's gift of the Holy Spirit after his resurrection and ascension is his gift of holiness to humanity.

"All Saints" is the second most popular dedication of English churches. They number 1,255 - a number only surpassed by dedications to the Virgin Mary.

All Souls' Day - also known as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (p834 ASB). It isn't of course possible to categorise the dead! The provision of this day provides an opportunity to commemorate "those we have loved but see no longer". The services also recognise the pain of human grief and fragility in a way that an All Saints' Day celebration cannot. If a service is held on this day it is often used as an opportunity to invite residents of the parish to come to church, perhaps for the first time since the death of a loved one, and remember. The service emphasises the unity of the living and the dead, one body in Christ, celebrated in the breaking of bread.

Advent is a time of expectation and preparation, it expresses our yearning for the coming of Christ to be born in us afresh and for ever. It also has a penitential flavour, we must be ready in soul and spirit at all times to stand before the throne of God. At the Eucharist we use the Summary of the Law (p120 ASB) and the Kyrie Eleison (p121 ASB) instead of the Gloria in Excelsis. These both add weight to the penitential demands of Advent.

The congregational response to the Summary of the Law is "Amen, Lord have mercy". The "Amen" signifies our acceptance that this is indeed the commandment of God; the "Lord have mercy" expresses our sorrowful awareness of not having kept the commandment.

The mood of reflection is emphasised by the decor of the church, the hangings are made plainer, there are no flowers, the clergy wear purple stoles as in Lent (to signify anguish - the anguish of humanity for the anguish of Christ dressed in purple robe on his way to Calvary). In simplicity our frailty is unveiled and our complex lives laid bare. The season cannot carry the same solemnity as Lent because we are immersed in the practicalities of life and the growing excitement (both secular and spiritual) as Christmas approaches, but it does urge us to take stock.

Advent is a time to examine our desire and our liberty to let go. Not only in the final sense of relinquishing life but as a daily response of love; relinquishing ourselves even to those from whom our inclination is to withhold. For in this season we prepare to greet our Saviour who left his throne to be born in a manger and on a cross relinquished his life for the world.

Helen Walker, October 1996
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997