I visited my parishioner in the hospital. He was very glad to see me, and proudly told me how wonderful I was and that he was the first person to suggest that they should elect me pastor. He later died at home in his sleep. All in all, there were five people who told me on their deathbeds that they were the first to suggest that the church should elect me as pastor.
My point is that saints die, and after they die we remember them. Sometimes we do it in a funeral, sometimes in a memorial service. The difference, according to one of my professors in seminary, is whether or not the guest of honor is present. If the saint was particularly heroic or beloved, if their death was tragic, or if they were killed or tortured because they stood up for Jesus Christ, we might honor them with a memorial service on the anniversary of their death, and in exceptional cases, that day becomes an annual observance.
The early church flourished for a couple of decades in peace, with periodic local persecutions.
The Roman Empire contained many religions with many gods and the government of Rome was indifferent to their number and diversity. The religions just had to prove themselves harmless to the Empire and register with the pontifex. The Roman Empire required everyone to offer incense to the bust of Caesar once a year, as a sort of patriotic gesture to unify the empire. Government officials recorded the names of those who complied, and there were penalties for non-compliance. All registered religions had to accommodate that. Judaism could not accommodate Emperor worship because of its fierce monotheism. The rabbis demonstrated to the Roman government that Judaism was in no way subversive, and managed to get two concessions: Jews were not subject to military service and did not have to offer incense to the bust of Caesar. The rabbis were careful to make sure that Judea remained politically submissive to the Empire in order to keep this bargain and avoid the draconian consequences. Thus Jesus was convicted of blasphemy by the Sanhedrin, but was taken to Pilate as a possible insurrectionist. Jesus’ movement had become large and might look suspicious to Rome, so they wanted to show Pilate that they even policed themselves for possible insurrectionists.
As long as Christianity was regarded as a sect of Judaism, it enjoyed the same status and concessions. Eventually, the rabbis grew tired of them disrupting the service to recruit the congregation for Christ. The rabbis banned Christians from the synagogue and changed liturgy to include prayers that Christians could not pray. (This was called the Banning of the Minim.)
That ban had the effect of making Christianity into a separate religion, one that had to be separately registered with the government. There is no record of why they weren’t able to do this, but after things went sour in Judea, the Roman government would not be receptive to striking the same deal with a former sect of Judaism, and the church at the time did not have a central authority to negotiate a deal.
So persecutions of Christians began.
In the beginning, persecutions were local. The local populace would go to the appropriate government authority, get permission, and then they began hunting down and killing Christians.
Christians took a number of measures to lower their profile. The first half of the church service was open to the public and followed the synagogue liturgy. All of the scripture readings were from the Old Testament. A government spy who attended a church would have no reason to think it was anything other than a synagogue. The worship part of the service, Communion, was held afterwards and was restricted to baptized Christians. Since synagogue services were followed by fellowship hours that were not always open to everyone in the congregation, it did not look suspicious when the catechumens left, the baptized remained, and the doors were closed.
The only way a government spy could find out it was really a Christian church was to implicate himself by being baptized.
A Christian or a church could still get in trouble if someone ratted them out or if they failed to get a non-Christian friend to offer incense to Caesar on their behalf. It was possible to escape a persecution by fleeing to a nearby town. You’d lose your business, your home, your land, and your belongings, but you and your family would be safe with your arms and legs still attached.
Then two unconnected events happened at the same time: First, Emperor Nero went shopping for land to build a new palace and, second, Rome suffered a catastrophic fire—they had a lot of wooden buildings crammed together but no fire department. Nero had been a good and popular emperor, but that was in the past. Personal tragedy had changed him. Rumors followed the flames, blaming Nero for the fire, saying that he deliberately started it to clear land for his palace. This wasn’t true, but it caused Nero so much trouble that he deflected the blame onto the Christians. The general public didn’t know much about Christianity, except that it was controversial, and Christians were largely lower-class people, so the accusation seemed credible.
That ignited an Empire-wide, government-sponsored persecution that lasted over 200 years. Unlike earlier persecutions, you couldn’t escape it by fleeing to another town, it was universal. Back then, persecution didn’t consist of getting your feelings hurt or being fined because you didn’t treat people fairly; persecution consisted of amputations and executions by the most horrible methods imaginable. Imagine, for example, being locked in a cage and swung over a fire until you were cooked to death.
The first ecumenical council was held in Nicæa about about a decade after this persecution ended. A good number of the attendees were amputees.
So many people had died as martyrs to Christ that the calendar was clogged with commemorations. The process of canonizing saints was not centralized, it was up to popular practice or a bishop’s discretion, as it is in Orthodoxy today. People who were regarded as saints in one area might be unknown in others.
All Saints Day, which originally fell on Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, was instituted as a way of clearing out the calendar by consolidating all those observances. British bishops attended a conference of bishops in Gaul in the second century, so we know there were Christians in Britain then, but there is no record of how the church spread to Britain. They were not affiliated with Rome until 700, then disaffiliated themselves in about 1540. Early church leaders in Britain faced a problem. There was a pre-existing holy day in the fall that had to do with the dead. Ancient Christians didn’t wipe out the local culture when evangelizing an area, because all things are the Lord’s. Instead, they transformed and redeemed them. In this spirit, the Celtic Church christianized the day by putting All Saints Day on top of it, and with a few tweaks and changes, it became a thoroughly Christian day.
Somehow word got to Rome about this, and they thought it was a wonderful idea. They didn’t have a bothersome folk holiday that they needed to transform; they had a completely different problem. They suffered a triple threat from religious tourists who came to Rome for Easter, Pentecost, and All Saints. It strained the city’s resources. By moving All Saints, it spread things out. (The Orthodox didn’t have that problem and kept All Saints on the original day.)
The third wave of the Protestant reformation mistakenly thought that everything was invented by the Catholic Church—which gladly took the credit. They discarded all Christian holy days and only observed secular holidays. Since the Puritans derived from the radical reformation, Christmas was banned in Boston for a while.
The result is that many churches in the United States observe Memorial Day, which commemorates the people who died for our country, but we completely overlook All Saints Day, which commemorates the people who died for Jesus.
Two years ago, I drove to Missouri and back. The vistas were breathtaking, along those highways, particularly in Kentucky, America is truly beautiful—but none of them were named the Katharine Lee Bates Memorial Highway, even though she wrote the song America the Beautiful, which was once considered the national anthem. Every highway was Veterans Highway and every bridge was Veterans Bridge. The rest stop in Illinois was dedicated to three soldiers, but it was more of a dishonor than an honor, given the spectacularly poor upkeep.
My point is that commemorating dead heroes is deep in our DNA. We memorialize military heroes to an extreme, and if that is appropriate and good, how much more should we remember the saints as much as we remember the veterans? Isn’t All Saints Day at least as important as Memorial Day?