Sunday November 1, was beginning to loom large on the horizon. I was scheduled to occupy a nearby pulpit. Reformation themes were already crossing my mind. I was bracing myself more than usual, for this promised to be a rather unusual weekend. Instead of Saturday leading up to Sunday, Sunday would likely draw heavily upon Saturday. For that Saturday was clearly marked: October 31. Every year on that date, loyal heirs of the reformers faithfully relive the sounds of Luther's hammer blows centuries ago in Wittenberg.
But then one evening the telephone rang. The worship committee of the host congregation was meeting to plan upcoming worship services, including those for November 1. They came with a very up-front request: would I allow them to take the initiative in shaping the liturgy and choosing the text, in keeping with the special significance of that day? For, you see, November 1 is All Saints Day—a holy day, set aside since early medieval times to remember the great saints and martyrs of the church, past and present, on earth and in heaven.
For a moment I was taken aback. I scrambled quickly to collect my thoughts. What about Reformation Day? Was it about to get lost in the shuffle? And since when has All Saints Day become an accepted date in our church year?
As the prescribed text the committee pointed to John 14:2: "I go to prepare a place for you." Jesus is speaking there of that state of glory that beckons us heavenward. His words have a strong "otherworldly" pull to them. In contrast the October 31 tradition capitalizes on certain ringing affirmations of Paul, such as, "Being therefore justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1)—focusing on the need for ongoing reformation here and now. This stance keeps us in good company. For nearly every reformation throughout the history of the church was sparked by Paul's letter to the Romans.
It seems that the good people on the worship committee were taking their cues from the All Saints Day litany published in Reformed Worship (No. 24, June, 1992, pp. 42-43).
In considering the close connection between November 1 and October 31, November 2 also comes into play—All Souls Day. Are we about to "redeem" this holy day too? To do so implies an acceptance of the dubious distinction between "saints" (who are few) and "souls" (who are many), the distinction upon which these longstanding, complex, and ambiguous turn-of-the-month practices rest. Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers disputed this distinction. They believed that the gospel regards all believing "souls" as "saints." This biblical teaching imposes an impossible burden on every attempt to do full justice to an All Saints Day service.
Is it asking too much that those in the Reformed tradition who wish to incorporate All Saints Day into our cycle of Christian festivals, whether instead of Reformation Day or alongside it, prepare the way by offering a persuasive biblical/confessional rationale for such an innovation—one that demonstrates clearly the possibility of sanctifying it, transforming it, reforming it from what it historically was to what they wish it to be?
This challenge is the more urgent in light of the following lines from the classic encyclopedia, Schaff-Herzog, Vol. I, p. 133: "Luther did not approve of [All Saints Day], and Lutheran and Reformed churches do not observe it." All Saints Day "is founded on the doctrine of the value of prayers and the Eucharist for the dead," for which reason "Luther demanded that the festival be given up, and it soon disappeared among Protestants."
Is it now about to reappear?
Gordon J. Spykman
Grand Rapids, Michigan
In RW 7, an article entitled "Encouragement from the Saints" attempted to enrich our understanding of what it means to confess "the communion of the saints" Though not directed to All Saints Day, the article offered one way of remembering Christians from past centuries, sometimes from traditions very different from our own.
Standing or Kneeling for Prayer?
Thank you for your perceptive and constructive editorial, "Light One Candle ..." (RW 25). As you explain, we are called to engage in corporate worship.
I notice, however, that you seem to approve of kneeling in public prayer. Unless I'm mistaken, the normal posture for public prayer for God's people in Old Testament worship, in the early Christian church, in the church of the Protestant reformers, and up to now in the Eastern Church, is standing (though, of course, kneeling in private or family prayer has always been practiced). Why should we imitate Rome and Canterbury by adopting a posture in keeping with hierarchical subservience?
Richard W Hudelson