The key to a good holiday is specificity. Historical events are always good candidates: Christmas, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July. Right away you have some visuals, a theme to work with, and before you know it there are decorations, music—the whole nine yards. Failing a particular historical event, you can go for an individual: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Columbus Day, or Groundhog Day. Again, there’s a visual to work with, and if the person is worth commemorating, there’s usually opportunity for a good educational moment, too.
When you get down to holidays for a group of people, it depends on how closely connected people are with individuals in the group. Mother’s Day, for example, is great because we can take a moment and thank all of the mothers in our lives—most especially our own, of course. Veterans Day is a chance to pause and thank those who have served in our armed forces, especially those we’ve known well.
The Solemnity of All Saints is more difficult, though. We can’t exactly send all of the saints flowers or have them stand up for the Jumbotron at a baseball game. We don’t even know most of their names. Whereas, for the feast of a particular saint, there is usually some story, image, or teaching that draws us closer to the saint we’re celebrating and helps us to see how Christ had a profound effect on that person, this is obviously impossible when it comes to celebrating all the saints.
Moreover, All Saints sometimes seems like a bit of an afterthought. It’s like the last line of some acceptance speech, where the speaker tries to cover all of his bases and ensure that no one’s feelings are hurt. The real honors we reserve for the wonderworkers, the mystics, the doctors of the church, and so on, but some sort of democratic impulse tells us that we should also throw a bone or two to all those who slipped in the side door.
Of course, this is a wrongheaded way of seeing things for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it obscures whom exactly we are honoring when we honor any saint. While we can and should marvel at the miracles or the spiritual vision or the profound insight of the saints, these are not a testament to their own strength, but to the grace of God working through imperfect instruments. It’s wonderful to meditate on the particular ways that God’s grace has worked in the lives of particular saints, but if we forget that these are manifestations of His grace, not human achievement, we lose sight of what the saints themselves regarded as their whole reason for being: God and his glory.
Second, there is something beautiful about the anonymous multitude of the heavenly choir. The countless mothers and fathers, grandparents and children, parish priests and simple religious, teachers and workers, unknown to all but Christ Jesus himself . . . And they wouldn’t have it any other way. Yet, in another sense, they are not unknown. They are known in the legacy of love they gave to those around them during their lives on earth, and by the unceasing chorus of prayers they now bestow upon us from heaven. These anonymous saints, just as much as those whose names we remember, are wonderful witnesses to the truth of Christ’s saving work.
On this holy day, we take a moment to thank those who allowed God’s grace into their hearts, who let their lives be transformed by his salvific work; and by honoring them we become truly aware of the wonderful mercy of God. In His wisdom, He has brought countless imperfect men and women, from every time and place, to the perfection that is sanctification, giving them a place in that heavenly homeland where, some day, we all hope to dwell.