Saturday, October 31, 2009

An Introduction and Overview of the history of All Saints’ Day

What makes this feast so important that the Church celebrates both the night before All Saints and the day after it? 

The Church has always honored those early witnesses to the Christian faith who have died in the Lord (The Greek word for "witness" is martyr). During the first three hundred years, Christians were severely persecuted, often suffering torture and bloody death -- because they were faithful.  They refused to deny Christ, even when this denial might have saved their own lives, or the lives of their children and families.
The early history of the Church is filled with stories of the heroic faith of these witnesses to Christ's truth. The stories of these saints -- these baptized Christians of all ages and all states in life, whose fidelity and courage led to their sanctity or holiness -- have provided models for every other Christian throughout history.
Many of those people whose lives were particularly noteworthy and whose names and stories were known, the Roman Church later canonized (that is, the Church formally recognized that the life of that person was without any doubt holy, or sanctified -- a state to which all Christians can strive).  The Church's calendar contains many saints’ days, which Romans, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants observe.  These days are ones in which we can honor the life and death of Christians who gave all that we may know the Gospel. During the years of the primitive Church, there were thousands and thousands of Christian martyrs, the majority of whose names are known only to God.  How could the Church remember them?  In order to honor the memory -- and our own debt -- to these unnamed saints, and to recall their example, at some point during the 4th century, it seems that the Churches dedicated a special feast day -- a sort of "memorial day" -- so that all living Christians would celebrate and be encouraged by the lives and witness of those "who have died and gone before us into the presence of the Lord.”  The earliest memorial of the death of a saint in recorded history is the Martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna in 155 AD.  Observed at least as early as 167 AD, it was included in the Eusebius epistle entitled, Ecclesiastical History.  Although scholars debate the actual dates of the memorial observance of Polycarp, recent discoveries of early Christian calendars in Rome list the first known undisputed feast day of two saints in the year 258 AD (still the height of pagan persecution of Christians).  The Feast Day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, who are considered the founders of the Church in Rome, was celebrated on July 29.   Remember, it was in the 4th century that the Edict of Toleration (313 AD) was issued.  Memorials of those who had been martyred may have been commonplace during earlier years, but would have been secretive.  Christianity was not the official religion of Rome yet, although Christians are now permitted to worship and express their faith freely.  It was during this time that the Church would have publicly reminded the world of the gruesome deaths of Christians during the preceding 300 years. 
Soon, the Feast Day of All Martyrs was being celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. At the height of the ministry of Boniface IV (608-615), Bishop of Rome, many pagan temples were consecrated as Christian churches.  In 609 AD, the Byzantine emperor Phocas donated the Pantheon to the Bishop of Rome as a gesture to recognize the Bishop of Rome as the supreme bishop of the Christian Church.[1]    Marcus Agrippa[2] built the Pantheon in 27 BC as a tribute to all the gods.  The legacy of persecution by his future family served as somewhat of an irony for what would follow.  On May 13, 609 AD, Bishop of Rome Boniface IV (608-615) reburied the bones of martyrs in the Pantheon and dedicated it as the Church to the Mother of God and all the Holy Martyrs. 
About a hundred years later, the Bishop of Rome Gregory III (731-741) consecrated a new chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to all saints (not just to the martyrs) on November 1, and he fixed the anniversary of this dedication as the date of the feast.  With the rise of an emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire,” Charlemagne pushed for a standardization of religious holidays.  Up until that time, local bishops appointed particular seasons for particular celebrations that differed greatly throughout the world.  A century after that, the Bishop of Rome Gregory IV (827-844) extended the celebration of All Saints to November 1 for the entire Church.  Since the time of Boniface IV, the Roman Church showed great interest in the Christians of Scotland, England and Ireland.  Gregory I (the Great) established the first Archbishopric in Canterbury in 597 AD, and circa 840 AD, Gregory IV invested the pallium[3] upon the Archbishop of Canterbury.  It is relatively apparent that the moving of the date of All Saints was in some way connected to an already established celebration rooted in Celtic Christianity and pre-Christian Celtic celebrations.  Many of the images and traditions of these Celtic celebrations begin to find their way into universal world observances.  Ultimately, the vigil of this important feast, All Saint's Eve, Hallowe'en, was apparently observed as early as the feast itself.
Ever since then -- for more than a millennium -- the entire Church has celebrated the feast of All Saints on November 1, and of course, Hallowe'en on October 31.
All Soul’ Day began to develop as the “doctrine of purgatory” grew more popular in the 6th - 11th centuries.  There were many groups within the Church who believed in some intermediate state between life and heaven.  These groups were spread through the ancient world and differed widely.  Some groups believed that souls were in a state of sleep, others believed there was a time and place for people to have one last chance to accept Christ, and still others believed that souls went through a time of purification.  This purification would not be defined for over 600 years and became commonly known as Purgatory, where Christians who would ultimately go to heaven were purified by fire.  Luther rejected this doctrine, though he refused to reject the tradition of praying for the dead.  During the English Reformation, most Anglicans who were sympathetic to Rome maintained the doctrine of Purgatory and the celebration of All Souls’ Day.  Though Methodism as a movement rejected the doctrine “as repugnant,” John Wesley, who was an Anglo-Catholic priest and died an Anglican priest, believed in the intermediate state between death and the final judgment “where believers would share in the ‘bosom of Abraham’ or ‘paradise,’ even continuing to grow in holiness there,” writes Ted Campbell, a professor at Perkins School of Theology, in his 1999 book Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials (Abingdon). The Methodist Church has not officially affirmed this view.
The Connection of Non-Christian Celebrations with Christianity
When most people think of Halloween, ghosts, ghouls and witches are the first things that come to mind.  In many ways, these are recent aberrations to a once-sacred Christian holiday.  The word Halloween is a modern English transliteration of an Old English word Hallowe’en which when translated means, “The Holy Eve.” 
In the ancient world, questions of why days got shorter or longer and why temperatures rose and fell were difficult to answer.  Earth’s orbit around the sun was unknown and so it became the job of pagan (as in non-Christian) religious leaders.  Myths and stories were used to explain these changes and celebrations around events within the community marked the transitions of life.  With the harvest and the cold of winter beginning to set in, the world seemed to die.  It was a good time to remember the ancestors as the world slept in a winter slumber to awaken again in spring.  Many of these celebrations and symbols were culturally specific and what was seen as bad in one culture was considered good in another.  We will discuss some of these symbols later.
Perhaps more than any other culture, the myths of the Germans, the Scandinavian tribes and the Celts/Picts of the British Isles most influenced the Church’s celebrations.  Christmas marked the Winter Solstice; Resurrection Sunday was changed to Easter, a pagan celebration of the goddess Ester during the spring equinox.  For the ancient people of the Northern Hemisphere, the rotation of life with the Summer Solistice (June), the Autumnal Equinox (September), Winter Solistice (December) and the Spring Equinox (March) were the cycles of life.  When Christians converted most of these European peoples, they gave Christian meanings to these holidays.
Some seasons and their pre-Christian origins:
Holiday: Literally means “Holy Day.”
Christmas: This is a more recent term taken from the phrase “The Christ Mass.”  Originally known as the Feast Day of the Nativity, Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Jesus.  The early church did not celebrate births, as such a practice was known only among the pagans.  However, Christians in North Africa are the first to celebrate Christ’s birth. 
The Evergreen Tree: Commonly known as the Christmas Tree, the Germanic tribes revered the evergreen tree because it did not appear to die in the winter with all the other trees.  Evergreen has become a Christian symbol of eternal life.
Mistletoe: In pagan tradition, it too was symbol of life as it continued to be green after autumn.  It appeared to grow from a “dead” tree.  In Christian tradition, the cross that was used to crucify Christ was from a mistletoe tree, a once proud and strong tree.  After the crucifixion, the mistletoe tree was cursed (or embarrassed, depending on the myth) and from that day forward only grows as a small bush.
Santa Claus: A combining of Norse mythology and the Greek tradition of St. Nicholas.  “Santa” means “Saint” and is no way to be confused with “Satan.”  The modern day Santa Claus is a 19th century creation.
Easter: The later identification of the Feast Day of the Resurrection.  Easter was a pagan celebration of the fertility goddess Ester.
Rabbits and Eggs: Originally symbols of Ester.  Eggs became associated with Mary Magdalene, who used a painted egg to convert a pagan king.
All Saints’ Day/ All Souls Day / Halloween: One of the four oldest holidays which are Pentecost, the Feast Day of the Resurrection, the Feast Day of the Nativity and All Saints’ Day.
Bats: In Celtic culture, bats were seen as good animals in that they conquered the night and ate insects and mice/rats.  Mice and rats were seen as the enemy of the farmer, especially after harvest, the event that culminated with the celebration of All Saints’ Day.
Black Cats: Another enemy of mice, and therefore, considered a good omen.  They were also considered good signs of fertility due to their reputation for procreation.  It was not until the Puritans that cats were viewed as evil as they were most active at night and considered promiscuous.  Black was not considered an “evil color” until the age of the Puritans.
Skeletons: Used as ancient symbols of mortality and were the prominent “visual aids” used by early missionaries to the British Isles to convert the Viking invaders.  Skeletons were to remind Christians of the Saints who died and humanity’s mortality.  Therefore, the skeletons were a visual admonition to “get right with God.”
Pumpkins: A new world gourd used as household lights. The ancient tribes of Scotland used a hollowed out turnip as a lamp.  The idea that they were used to scare off evil spirits is a 19th century creation with no historical proof.  The pumpkin was prolific in the new world and considered a sign of God’s blessings as they were used for food, for light and for vessels from which they would eat and drink.
Trick or Treat: Commonly viewed as a pagan celebration, but there is little evidence to support this claim.  There are myths of begging for alms among the poor in pre-Christian Scotland, but this was commonly done in the season after the Winter Solstice (January).  During the period when All Souls’ Day was celebrating by Roman Catholic England (pre-Reformation), the poor would often rely on the good will of the wealthy.  Soul Cakes (modern doughnuts) would be distributed as a gesture of goodwill.  The first documented “Trick or Treat” was not until 1930.
Witches: Practitioners of the Wiccan religion.  Wiccans consider themselves modern day Druids.  Witches view the world as a battle between good and evil elements.  Druids did not have such a concept.  During the Middle Ages, witches were considered anyone who used divination or other sorcery.  Horoscopes are a form of divination.  
Werewolves/Vampires/Frankenstein/Zombies: These are all late 19th and early 20th century creations.  Such images were matched with the All Saints’ Day, giving Halloween its “evil” tone by novelists and moviemakers, many of whom were intentionally shadowing already established Christian practices as a way of discrediting the Faith.

[1] Phocas was not universally accepted as emperor, earning the title “usurper.”  Although the Bishop of Rome had enjoyed an unofficial role as a “first among equals” with regard to the major cities of the Roman world, the establishment of Constantinople as the new capital also led to the establishment of the new Patriarchate of Constantinople (formerly the bishopric of Byzantium) that now claimed primacy over Rome.  When Phocas seized power from the emperor Maurice, he sought to execute the empress, Constantia and her daughters.  The Patriarch, Cyriacus II, prevented Phocas from removing them from the church’s sanctuary, incurring Phocas’ wrath.  Upon Cyraicus’ death, a new Patriach, Thomas I, was named.  Inept and with little social graces, Thomas was not well liked by the populace.  Phocas lowered taxes and increased government sponsored entertainment, like chariot racing, garnering great approval from the people.  Phocas’ decree that Rome was still over Constantinople became as much a political ploy as a religious one.
[2] Agrippa was a loyal supporter of Julius Caesar and served as judge during the trial of Caesar’s assassins.  The Pantheon was finished by Agrippa’s successor Hadrian, who built Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland.  Agrippa’s grandson, Caligula, was a persecutor of the Church.  Caligula is also credited with bringing back the obelisk, now known as the Vatican obelisk, from Egypt after having Ptolemy executed during an invitation for peace.  Agrippa’s great grandson is none other than Nero, who burned Rome and blamed the Christians, leading to one of the most horrific eras of Christian persecution.  
[3] The pallium was an ancient symbol worn by Greek philosophers as a sign that they were permitted to teach.  During the earliest years of the Church, this replaced the prayer cloth worn by rabbis, as a sign that the presbyter (elder, priest) was permitted to teach.  By the 8th century, the Bishop of Rome conferred the pallium upon certain leaders of the Church as a sign that they ruled with the same authority as the Bishop of Rome.

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