There are two important days in our church calendar just before the first Sunday in Advent. The first is Reformation Sunday, a celebration of the birth of the Protestant faith, which arose during a unique time in history in the mid-1500s. The second is All Saints’ Day, on which we honor our church heritage.
Martin Luther was a troubled Catholic priest when he wrote his Ninety-Five Theses critiquing certain church practices. According to one church leader at the time, he posted them on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. Due to the newly-invented printing press, copies of Luther’s theses quickly spread through Germany, then all over Europe.
Luther did not intend to begin a new branch of Christendom; he simply wanted to confront church doctrines which he deemed unbiblical, such as the common practice of paying money to purchase a “free pass” out of purgatory for one’s sins.
However, there had been growing unrest among many church people over these and other church matters. When Luther’s criticisms were published, this “spark” ignited a raging fire of debate which quickly spread through many countries of Europe. Luther was brought to trial before a group of church leaders and condemned as a heretic. He was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
At the same time, the writings of John Calvin, a French theologian, were echoing many of the same criticisms as Luther. Calvin’s influence spread through Switzerland, Scotland, and elsewhere.
The new invention of the printing press and Luther’s translation of the Bible into German helped spread these new ideas more widely and quickly than had ever been possible before. Three core beliefs of the Protestant faith emerged: 1) justification by grace through faith alone (not good works), 2) the priesthood of all believers, and 3) the Bible (not tradition) as the ultimate authority in matters of faith and order.
The growth of the Protestant church over the past 500 years has been phenomenal. According to the New World Encyclopedia, there are an estimated 590 million Protestants in the world today, which represents 27 percent of all Christian believers (the other two major branches of the Christian church are Catholic and Orthodox). Reformation Sunday is the day we remember this history.
All Saints’ Day
All Saints’ Day is celebrated on the first Sunday in November. On this Sunday during church services at UPC, we honor our heritage by reading the names of all the church members and friends who have died in the past 12 months.
We may think of “saints” as those officially canonized by the Catholic Church. However, the Bible uses the word in reference to all believers. Paul frequently addressed his New Testament letters “to the saints” in a certain city, such as Ephesus (Eph. 1:1) and Philippi (Phil. 1:1). Paul also said that all the believers in the church at Rome were “called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7).
So, in summary, this is a day to remember faithful believers who have gone into eternity before us. “The All Saints observance is a time when all can reflect on and give thanks for deceased persons who have been influential in their spiritual formation and growth,” says Laurence Hull Stookey in his excellent book, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church. “As a result, all are reminded of the influence their lives can have upon others. This in turn may strengthen our resolve to lead lives worthy of imitation, to open ourselves more fully to the sanctifying power of God.”
Another aspect of this day is celebrating all believers—both those who have died and those friends who share our pew on Sunday. “On this day we rejoice in the communion of all the saints, here and now, from before time and forever.” (Welcome to the Church Year, Vicki K. Black). In the words of a favorite hymn for this day, “For All the Saints”:
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
One year ago, I began this series of columns on the church year. We have seen how, throughout the year, the church calendar reminds us of the central events of Christ’s life, and also helps us to commemorate key events in the history of the church. This annual cycle gives rhythm, boundaries, and structure to the weekly worship services in which we celebrate our new life in Christ. Like the seasonal changes in temperature and weather, the various seasons of the church year help us focus on different aspects of our Christian discipleship. As the years go by, I continue to develop a greater love, and deeper appreciation, for this annual cycle of celebration and remembrance.
This is the sixth (and final) column in a series published during the past year.