Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

All Saints Day - Year ABC

All Saints Day: Introductory Remarks about "Saints"

Our Lutheran practice is to celebrate All Saints Day on November 1 or the Sunday that falls after that date.


Traditionally, the commemoration of martyrs occurred on the anniversaries of their deaths. However, for all those whose death-dates were unknown, a commemoration for "all the martyrs" was established perhaps as early as c. 359 in Edessa (presently Urfa, Turkey) and certainly by 411 in Eastern Syria. So this feast day is nearly as old as Christmas, which began in the 4th century.

By the 7th century, this feast had begun to include non-martyrs as well.

The date for the festival varied in different parts of Europe and Asia. The use of November 1 for this feast is first recorded in England in the 8th century. "According to John Beleth (died c. 1165), Gregory IV in 835 transferred the feast from May 13 to November 1 after the harvest so that there would be sufficient food in Rome for the pilgrims. In the twelfth century the date of May q13 for all saints disappears from the liturgical books" (Philip H. Pfatteicher, "Festivals and Commemorations: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship").

This Sunday would be a good time to discuss "What is a saint?" Some quotes on this topic (which have been posted before) follow.


A young man once came to a great rabbi and asked him to make him a rabbi.

It was winter time then. The rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the rabbinical candidate was droning into his ears a glowing account of his piety and learning.

The young man said, "You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I perform austerities. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also daily, the "shammes" [a synagogue sexton] gives me forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance."

And as the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do.

"Just look!" cried the rabbi. "That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse?" [from "A Treasure of Jewish Folklore," page 109]


Hoi hagioi is the Greek phrase often translated "The saints." More literally it is "The holy ones." Most often this adjective in the singular, hagios, is used to modify "Spirit," i.e., "Holy Spirit." What does hagios mean? Simply stated, it refers to something or someone who has been dedicated to God. Two bowls make look exactly alike, but if one is dedicated or "set apart" to God for use in the temple, it is holy. The other is common. The verbal form, hagiazo, is translated with words and phrases, such as, "to set apart as sacred for God," "to consecrate," "to make holy," "to sanctify."

Often I will paraphrase "holy" with "special." It is something that is not ordinary or common, but special, because of its function or connection with God. We can have all kinds of communions or fellowship with other people, but "Holy Communion" is a special communion -- special because it is with God and with God's people. There are all kinds of winds or breath, but the "Holy Spirit" is a very special Wind or Breath because it is God -- it comes from God.

What does it mean with this adjective refers to people? First of all, it is almost always in the plural: "Saints." "One Saint Ain't," is the title to a John Ylvisaker song.

The World Series has just begun. The following is a modern parable, (from The Lamplighter, edited by Dr. Ray Montgomery, Speedway Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana,) uses the image of baseball -- and the need for a team.

Behold, a ball team went forth to play a game of baseball. Just as the umpire was saying batter up, the catcher for the home team arrived and took his place. The center fielder didn't show up at all but later sent his regrets. The third baseman likewise failed to come to the game, having been up late the night before. The shortstop was present but left his glove at home. Two of the substitute fielders were away on a little weekend trip, but were there in spirit.

Verily, when the pitcher went to the mound he looked around for his teammates, and lo, his heart was heavy, for their places were empty. But the game was announced and the visitors were in the stands and there was nothing to do but to pitch the ball and hope for the best. But he had to serve as pitcher, first baseman, third baseman, and cover short and center field. When the absent members of the defeated team heard that their team had lost, a decision was made to get a new pitcher!

This modern parable points out a truth about saints. One player doesn't make a baseball team. A one-player team will lose the ball game.

I know that it is a common motto in America that one person can make a difference. That may be particularly true this week as each of us casts our votes, because one vote may make a difference. However, Jesus doesn't seem interested in such Lone-Ranger-types, but with a community. Not even he conducted his ministry alone. He gathered at least 12 around him. He created a community from the very beginning. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them," he said [Matthew 18:20]. If you want Jesus around, get together with other people in his name!

At the end of Matthew, Jesus gives the promise of his never-ending presence. "I will be with you always, to the end of the age" [Matthew 28:20b]. "You" is in the plural. The promise is addressed to the eleven. Jesus' presence is promised in community not with individuals. That is the promise we have. Jesus is with us!

Why is Jesus' presence so important?

In the Old Testament, holiness happened by being in contact with something or someone that was holy. Moses is given this instruction: "For seven days make atonement for the altar and consecrate it. Then the altar will be most holy, and whatever touches it will be holy" [Exodus 29:37].

In a number of places in the Old Testament, where the people believed God touched the earth, that became holy ground, such as Jacob's dream where the ladder came from heaven to earth. He even changed the name of that place to Bethel, which means "House of God." Or in front of the burning bush, Moses had to take off his shoes, because it was Holy Ground. God was there.

We often express the same truth with other phrases. We talk about "birds of a feather flocking together." We become like the group we are a part of. Parents become very concerned when children start associating with the wrong group of friends. One can become guilty by association -- being with the wrong group at the wrong time. Hanging around the wrong group, encourages people to think that you are just like all the others in that group. Contact with scum can make one a scum. That was an accusation leveled against Jesus -- he hung around with sinners and tax collectors. How could he be holy? Perhaps his eating with such people made them holy. They became special people.

For a short time, I worked at a drug and alcohol recovery hospital. I saw the power of the group -- both for bad and for good. Often, for a person to remain sober, he or she could no longer associate with those drinking buddies. The association with that group would bring them back down. Contact with the drunks can make one a drunk. On the other side, when the enticement to drink becomes greater than one can handle, AA members call up each other for encouragement and support. What one can't do alone, can be done with the help of others. Contact with other sober people can help keep one sober.

Becoming and remaining a saint comes from being in contact with God and God's people. The Holy Bible and Holy Communion (both as the fellowship of holy people and as a sacrament) keep us connected to the Holy One, which maintains us as the Holy People = hoi hagioi = Saints.


There is an article in The Difficult But Indispensable Church, entitled, "Re-Membering the Body of Christ: Creating Trustworthy Places to Be Different Together," by Norma Cook Everist.  She writes in her opening paragraphs:

Entering a congregation a few years ago to be guest preacher and presider on a summer Sunday, I was greeted at the door about a half hour before services by an usher who said, "Good morning. We're not the church we used to be." "Then who are you?" I asked. Crucial to our life together is our own sense of identity as a church body, and particularly as a local congregation. When we apologize for our present predicament, only remembering the past, we cannot fathom what God may be doing now and as we live together into God's promised future.

The church is not merely the carrier of the gospel, a place to hear the good news preached and taught, an organization to preserve as history. The church is good news, the radical, possible impossibility of being joined together with people different from ourselves, even with people we may not like very much. For Christ's sake, the church is the reality of the alienated reconciled, the rebellious returned, the lonely encompassed with love. But on any given day in any congregation, one may experience something quite different. [p. 45]

We saints need the church -- as imperfect as it is -- for us to be saints -- for us to be in contact with the loving, forgiving, reconciling, and holy God.

There are many congregations, who, on All Saints Day, remember the members who had died during the previous year. Kennon Callahan (Dynamic Worship: Mission, Grace, Praise, and Power) raises an interesting point about this practice, and offers something in addition.

I once attended a Sunday morning worship that included a memorial service in which the congregation, once a year, remembered all those who had died during the previous year. At one point in the service the pastor thoughtfully read the names of each person who had died. As the names were read, the organ played softly in the background, and outside, the church bell tolled slowly. The service climaxed with a prayer of thanksgiving for those lives and a hymn of victory.

Afterward, when the pastor asked me what I thought of the service, I told him, "It was excellent, most helpful, most meaningful." Then I asked him, "When do you do the same for each new baby born this past year, for each person who has discovered Christ during this past year, and for those who have significantly advanced God's mission during this past year?"

"Oh," he replied. "Well, when a baby is born, we place a rose on the altar."

I said, "Yes. One rose, one service. And when a person dies, you often have flowers on the altar from the funeral service, and people take food over to help the family in the midst of their grief. You offer prayer for the person and the family during the illness; then you offer prayer for them on the Sunday following the funeral service. You do all these things for those experiencing grief at the end of a life. And you do this excellent memorial service once a year. You are celebrating the past. Celebrate the future as well." [p. 89]

All Saints Day is a time to re-member all the saints.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364