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A Reformed View of All Saints Day

Through the years I have noticed that Christians have different perspectives on Halloween -- some don’t observe it because of references to the occult and practices of the day of the dead, while others enjoy it because it gives them an opportunity to leave their houses and even knock on a neighbor’s door for a rare conversation so they celebrate the social benefit of the holiday without glorifying the darker parts. I don’t want to get into that debate here but rather discuss a different element of the holiday, as it is literally All Hallows Eve, thus the night before All Saints Day (Hallowed is an old word for saints and holy; think of the King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer: Hallowed be Thy name).

All Saints Day and All Hallows Eve are often associated with the Protestant Reformation, with October 31 also being known as Reformation Day since it is the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. This action sparked discussion about various issues in the church which ultimately led to the existence of Protestant churches (Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed, Methodist, Anglican/Episcopalian, etc. - basically denominations other than Catholic and Eastern Orthodox). It is not just an historical marker for different branches of the Christian church, but also shows how different branches have different understandings of who is a saint and how we are to honor them, on All Saints Day and also every other day.

Who is a Saint?

In the Catholic tradition, there is a special title of “Saint”  given to a person who has been officially recognized by the church as having an exceptional amount of holiness or closeness to God; the church teaches that one can have  confidence that these individuals are now in heaven. Before a person receives the title of Saint, there is a process that takes place (one moves from Venerable to Blessed, then to Saint) that involves an investigation into his or her life and discovering two miracles that occurred through the prayers of the proposed Saint. After being recognized as a Saint, they are then venerated by the people of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church teaches that just as Christians can ask believers who are living to pray for certain things, so they can ask those who are now living with God to pray for us, which would include these Saints. Many of these Saints are “patron” Saints of particular areas that might be called upon to pray for people in that area. In Catholic teaching, All Saints Day is a day of holy obligation to remember the known and unknown saints, with particular reference to those who did not have another feast day.

In official Catholic teachings, there is a recognition that all Christians are saints (with a lower-case “s”), but this is what is emphasized in Reformed circles - if you are a follower of Jesus, you are a saint, as Paul calls the members of the churches to whom he writes saints. If the people in Corinth were considered saints, then you can say you are a saint! There is no special class of “capital S” saints in this tradition; people might have made significant contributions but this does not lead to any special honor for them; this belief comes from not seeing any sort of special class of believers in Scripture. Therefore, for a Reformed Christian, “All Saints Day” is a day to remember all Christians, not just a class of them (this is also true of other branches of Protestantism); there is no obligation to celebrate this day (we are free to celebrate it if it helps us to worship Jesus), and thus there are not special services on this day.

How to Honor Saints

How does a Reformed Christian celebrate All Saints Day if we view all Christians as saints? Well, it is a day that we can remember and praise God for those who have traveled before us, both those who have made great marks on the church and those how have made great marks on our lives. In some ways, American Christians might think of it akin to the American holidays like Memorial Day or Veterans Day in which we remember those men and women who have given their lives to protect the nature (Memorial Day) or who have given their time to serve (Veterans Day); we honor them and recognize them. Similarly, we can remember those who have been martyred for their faith, knowing that their deaths often have brought the gospel forward (as the 2nd and 3rd century Christian writer Tertullian said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church"). In addition, we can find encouragement from the examples of believers who have gone before us, recognizing that we are not alone in following Jesus; these are not just believers who made big contributions to the church, but those who have lived quiet but faithful lives. It might also be a day in which we remember brothers and sisters in the faith who have passed away this year - not praying for them (as we know that with faith we can have confidence of our eternal state), but thanking God for the way they encouraged us to remain faithful to the very end.

The Saints Point Us to Jesus

In looking to those saints who have gone before us, we must always make sure we look to them as they point us to Christ. Hebrews 11 looks at figures in the Old Testament but then leads us to Hebrews 12:1-2 that points to Jesus: “Therefore, 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 endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder 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.” In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul tells the Corinthians to look to him and imitate him because he is seeking to imitate Christ: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” A true saint points not to himself or herself, but rather to Jesus.

That is why we do not pray to the saints, as we should instead follow their example and pray to Jesus himself; there is no need for someone else to pray for us and their prayers are less effective than the prayers of the Son of God himself who invites us to prayer. In fact, as the Belgic Confession notes in Article 27:

“the practice of honoring the saints as intercessors in fact dishonors them because of its misplaced faith. That was something the saints never did nor asked for, but which in keeping with their duty, as appears from their writings, they consistently refused. We should not plead here that we are unworthy—for it is not a question of offering our prayers on the basis of our own dignity, but only on the basis of the excellence and dignity of Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is ours by faith. …. Since it has pleased God to give us the Son as our Intercessor. let us not leave him for another—or rather seek, without ever finding. For, when giving Christ to us, God knew well that we were sinners. Therefore, in following the command of Christ we call on the heavenly Father through Christ, our only Mediator, as we are taught by the Lord’s Prayer, being assured that we shall obtain all we ask of the Father in his name.”  (For more on the meaning of Belgic Confession Article 27, see  this post ).

Because of the practice of many people praying to saints or elevating individuals too high, many Protestants will not recognize All Saints Day. However, like Hebrews 11-12, we can remember those who looked to Jesus and then turn to him in prayer and faith

The saints ran to Jesus in prayer because he became like us and died for us; may we run to him in prayer each day. And as we pray to him, we honor those who have done so before us. May All Saints Day be a day in which we remember that we are not alone as we pray to our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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