In the coming month, believers will be treated to a trifecta of holy days. The three feasts of All Saints, All Souls, and Christ the King, each represent one aspect of the full Church, namely, the saints in heaven, the souls in purgation, and believers on earth. Traditionally, these have been called the Church Triumphant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Militant.
And so, in preparing for their annual celebrations, it could help us to ask: Where do these feast days come from? Are they holdovers of Roman paganism and imperial customs? What assistance could they provide for believers today?
Since the time of the earliest Christian believers, the Church has always seen herself as the Body of Christ, living through time and consisting of many parts. The early Church lived this reality, as they saw the martyrs of the faith still connected to them in the Lord’s Resurrection. As they prayed for one another on earth, they saw no pause to this intercession upon death since all were united in the Risen One.
Saint Paul picked up on this lived reality and incorporated parts of it into his preaching and writings. In a similar way, Saint Luke records aspects of these beliefs in the Acts of the Apostles. And so, rather than some adulterated form of paganism, these three holy days (and the beliefs behind them) are vintage expressions of the most basic and historic convictions of the Christian religion.
Admittedly, there have been theological developments of the three dimensions of the Church through the ages, which have deepened and expanded our awareness of their place within the Body of Christ. Such developments, however, have always sought to display more broadly and beautifully the Church’s unity in Jesus Christ.
The Church’s unity transcends all things, from socioeconomic status, language and citizenship, to personality and politics, to even time and space, and – yes – even death.
In worshipping the Risen Christ, believers are comfortable in acknowledging their communion with all believers, even those who have died, who have gone before them marked with the sign of faith. As we pray at the Funeral Mass, we know that at death “life is changed, not ended.”
With this summary of early Christian practice and biblical wisdom, perhaps we can approach our trifecta of holy days with fresh eyes and new perspectives.
Believers celebrate All Saints. On this holy day, Christians on earth honor all the believers in heaven, who share forever in the triumph of the Lord Jesus over death and darkness. They are revered and petitioned for prayers. While every soul in heaven is a saint, only a few have been canonized by the Church. And as canonized saints have specific feast days every year, so each family and each believer acknowledges and respects the saints in their own lives and networks of loved ones. Death cannot destroy this love, and it’s perfected in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Believers observe All Souls. On this feast day, Christians remember those who have died within the past year, as well as those who have died with sinful habits or under uncertain conditions. These prayers of believers are united with the work of Jesus Christ as the only one who purifies, purges, and redeems for salvation. United in Christ, believers are privileged to be a subordinate part of this work. As we pray for one another on earth, so we continue to pray for one another after death. And as we ask for God’s goodness and mercy upon others while in this life, so we continue these petitions after death. By themselves, these prayers have no power. In the Risen Christ, however, they become sources of hope and charitable help to others.
Believers rejoice in Christ the King. At the end of Ordinary Time, as the Church prepares to enter into Advent, the Church celebrates the feast of Christ the King. This is the universal declaration of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. All believers on earth are called to make this declaration their own. In their own walk as a Christian disciple, they’re summoned to announce in their own heart, and in their lives, the lordship of Jesus Christ. Everything they do – from showing mercy, spending money, planning their families, voting, etc. – is to be done under the gentle yoke of Jesus Christ. And so, Christ the King is properly the holy day for the Church Militant, namely, for those on earth who are still fighting the good fight and seeking out their salvation in all that they do.
These feast days show all men and women, especially believers, the staying power of the Resurrection. They display our communion with one another and remind us that we are not alone in our struggles for meaning and purpose. The holy days reveal the weakness of death and mightily announce to the world the reality of eternity and the possibility of eternal life.