The season of Fall is one of my favorite times of the year. The turning of the seasons gives us a wonderful visual experience of the beauty of God’s creation. Many years ago, I was blessed to have a sabbatical experience in the northeast, outside Boston, in Dover, Massachusetts. The Dominican house that sponsored the program was out in the country. That fall was my first experience of the many beautiful colors of the hardwoods changing as the leaves gave up their last hurrah. I took so many pictures that my brother asked if I had taken pictures of every tree in Massachusetts.
This time of the year with the changes happening to the many trees around us also presents us with two Feasts of the Church that harken back to the changes we as humans face in the Fall of our lives–the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (i.e., “All Souls’ Day”).
The Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day stems from a belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those alive in heaven and those on earth. In Catholic theology, All Saints’ Day commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven and All Souls’ Day remembers all who await the full experience of that beatific vision after having departed this earthly existence.
The entrance antiphon for the Mass on All Saints sets the tone for the Feast: “Let us all rejoice in the Lord as we celebrate the feast day in honor of all the Saints”.
Pope Benedict XVI, in a homily for All Saints, Day, tells us that the Saints referred to for this feast are not a small group chosen souls but an innumerable crowd to which the liturgy urges us to raise our eyes. This multitude not only includes the officially recognized Saints, but the baptized of every time and nation who sought to carry out the divine will faithfully and lovingly. We are unacquainted with the faces and even the names of many of them, but with the eyes of faith we see them shine in God’s firmament like glorious stars.
Included in this multitude are the Saints of the Old Testament, starting with the righteous Abel and the faithful Patriarch, Abraham, those of the New Testament, the numerous early Christian Martyrs, and the men and women of later centuries–all of whom were witnesses of Christ in their particular time in history. The Saints are joined together by the common desire to incarnate the Gospel in their lives under the impulse of the Holy Spirit. This, then, is the meaning of the Solemnity of All Saints: looking at the shining example of the Saints to reawaken within us the great longing to be like them; happy to be near God, in God’s light, in the great family of God’s friends. Being a Saint means living close to God, to live in God’s family. And this is the vocation of us all, vigorously reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council and solemnly proposed on this feast for our attention.
The Church’s experience shows that every form of holiness, even if it follows different paths, always passes through the Way of the Cross, the way of self-denial. The Saints’ biographies describe men and women who, docile to the divine plan, sometimes faced unspeakable trials and suffering, persecution, and martyrdom. They persevered in their commitment.
The example of the Saints encourages us to follow in their same footsteps and to experience the joy of those who trust in God, for the one true cause of sorrow and unhappiness for men and women is to live far from him.
Holiness demands a constant effort, but it is possible for everyone because, rather than a human effort, it is first and foremost a gift of God, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (I Jn 3: 1). It is God, therefore, who loved us first and made us adoptive sons and daughters in Jesus. Everything in our lives is a gift of God’s love: how can we be indifferent before such a great mystery? How can we not respond to the Heavenly Father’s love by living as grateful children? In Christ, God gave us the gift of self and calls us to a personal and profound relationship.
The purpose of the feast is twofold. As the prayer of the Mass states, “the merits of all the Saints are venerated in common by this one celebration,” because a very large number of martyrs and other saints could not be accorded the honor of a special festival since the days of the year would not suffice for all these individual celebrations. The Solemnity of All Saints commemorates all those holy men, women, children, the unnamed others who lived lives of such holiness that upon death they either entered directly into God’s presence in heaven or duly purified their soul of every imperfection in purgatory before then advancing into His presence.
“Almighty ever-living God, by whose gift we venerate in one celebration the merits of all the Saints, bestow on us, we pray, through the prayers of so many intercessors, an abundance of the reconciliation with you for which we earnestly long. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.”
By Sister Janet Marie Flemming, OSB
Image: Left panel of Fra Angelico’s Predella of the Fiesole Altarpiece, c. 1423-24 (National Gallery, London)