All Souls Day – a time to remember
The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed is celebrated on November 2. From this day the Church extends the month of November as a month of remembering and praying for the dead. We pray for all who have died; for those who are in heaven and for those who are still in need of purification in readiness for the glory of heaven.
Our Christian tradition of praying for the dead, has its origins in the Jewish faith. One of the options for the First Reading for the Feast of All Souls comes from 2 Maccabees 12:43-45
Judas, the leader of the Jews, took a collection from the people individually, amounting to nearly two thousand drachmae, and sent it to Jerusalem to have a sacrifice for sin offered, an altogether fine and noble action, in which he took full account of the resurrection. For if he had not expected the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead, whereas if he had in view the splendid recompense reserved for those who make a pious end, the thought was holy and devout. This was why he had this atonement sacrifice offered for the dead, so that they might be released from their sin.
The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
In this Old Testament account, Judas Maccabeus, the leader of the Jewish resistance movement against the Greek conquest of Israel, exemplifies how the Jews had a firm faith in redemption and in the resurrection of the dead; praying for the dead is part of their faith. This is important as 2 Maccabees has an emphasis on religious martyrdom.
From the days of the early Christian martyrs it was common for the faithful to gather in cemeteries and even to have a picnic amongst their deceased. By the Middle Ages (with high mortality rates) visiting graves on All Souls Day was a well-established custom where people would leave flowers, light candles and sprinkle holy water on gravesites as they prayed for the dead. In some countries around the world such as in Mexico, it is still common for people to picnic around their family graves. In the Middle Ages it was also common for monasteries of the various Orders to pray for the dead according to their local customs. The Church eventually established November 2 as the official date for the remembrance of All Souls.
In a homily on All Souls’ Day in 2018, Pope Francis said, “Today is a day of memory that takes us back to our roots. It is also a day of hope. It reminds us of what we can expect: the hope of encountering the love of the Father.” The choice of Gospel readings for this feast bears this out. Readings of the account of the Resurrection; If a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it yields a rich harvest; there are many rooms in my Father’s house – these are only a few of the vast array of Gospel options for this Feast Day all selected to offer hope and assurance of eternal life.
You may be familiar with the prayer Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen. This prayer (without the closing few words), comes from one of the options for the entrance antiphon for All Souls. It has its origins in 4 Esdr 2:34-35, “the eternal light will shine upon you for evermore”. It is an ancient prayer to lead us to eternity.
Ms Sharon Boyd
Professional Specialist Liturgy Education
ACU Centre for Liturgy