As a child (indeed until I became an Episcopalian) I had never heard of “All Saints’ Day” or the “Feast of the Holy Name”. November 1 was simply the day to sort out the haul of Halloween candy from the night before. January 1 was the day my family sorted through the remains of Christmas decorations and stowed them away for the ensuing eleven months. As a child, I experienced both days as sad occasions — no more trick-or-treating; no more Christmas presents. Both days marked “endings” for me.
Even though I was raised in a Christian household where church attendance, Bible reading and personal devotion were strongly encouraged, there was no overt connection between the home, school and work calendars and any sort of “calendar of faith.” My ignorance as to the significance of November 1 and January 1 was the result of an unintended alliance between secular America and austere Protestantism. One of the interesting aspects of this country is our ability to gut holy days (i.e., “holidays”!) of their historic connection to the sacred and recast them into a profit-driven marketing opportunity with all of the surgical precision of eviscerating a pumpkin to bring forth a Jack-o-Lantern. For hardline Protestants the call to live “beyond this world” meant not paying much attention to the world we were living in and salvation was purely an individual matter without much thought to how God’s wholeness is reflected in the diversity of the “blessed company of all faithful people.”
All Saints’ Day celebrates the “great cloud of witnesses”, who surround us in ways beyond our knowing (Hebrews 12:1). This holy day reminds us of our connection to the community of those who have gone before us. Some of those saints are remembered for their mighty acts or robust dedication. The identities of the vast multitude of the saints, however, have long since been forgotten. To celebrate All Saints’ is to confront our dependence and transience. We didn’t come to faith through the triumph of an individual choice, but rather, we were gifted with the Faith through faithful people who said their prayers, raised their children, lived their lives and died in the hope of the Resurrection.
The Feast of the Holy Name proclaims the scandal of particularity — that God, the Creator takes up residence within creation and lives the divine life from the inside of a tent of flesh and blood. On January 1, the Church calls us to receive the God who dwells in the vastness of eternity but who, nonetheless, takes up time and space in human history. For Christians, this enfleshed God has a name — (“above all names” according to Philippians 2:9) — “Jesus”. Christians say that because of the birth, life, ministry, death and Resurrection of God-with-us, humanity is taken up into the very life of God’s Self.
All Saints’ and Holy Name don’t get much attention. Most parishes move the observance of All Saints’ to the Sunday following November 1st in recognition of the challenge inherent in getting people to attend a worship opportunity during the week. Observing Holy Name mostly occurs every few years when January 1 happens to fall on a Sunday (New Year’s Day is simply too much competition). But, I think it’s significant that the last two months of the calendar year are bookended by these two holy days.
We live our lives within this dynamic interplay between community and individuality — at the nexus of All Saints’ and Holy Name. Jesus was given his name at the time of his circumcision. This name was not merely an identifier . The act of naming simultaneously set Jesus apart and connected him to all of salvation history — the Covenant between the Hebrew people and God, the Exodus, the Exile, the Return. All of those stories were part of Jesus’ story, just as the stories of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection have become part and parcel of our respective stories. When we baptize people, we say their names, recognizing their uniqueness as individuals even as we submerge them into the community of the faithful — the Church — the Body of Christ.
These two holy days are poignant reminders that love does surround us on every hand. We were loved before we were even born. Loved by people who would never see us or know us — the saints who passed the Faith from generation to generation until that Faith finally landed within us. Yet even as we take our place within that cloud of witnesses, we are also loved in our individuality and uniqueness — loved by the God who knows each of us by name.