Vigils or “times of watching” are celebrated in the Catholic Church before the celebrations of Special Days, known commonly as Holy Days of Obligation. Christmas, Easter, The Assumption of Mary and others have ‘Vigil-Masses’ the day before. The feast we celebrate today is preceded by such a Vigil known as Halloween or All Saints Eve.
The history of this day is quite a mix of myth and fact. As a Christian celebration, it dates back to the mid-eighth century when the celebration of all the martyrs of the early Church was inaugurated. Vigils are days of preparing for a more prayerful realization of the upcoming faith-reality. The more secular celebration of the Vigil stems from an anti-Catholic movement discrediting, hopefully, the very saints’ lives which would be remembered and celebrated the next day. Ghosts, death, the after-life were meant to be a mockery of the ways of life on earth which lead to a heavenly existence after an earthly life in the following of Jesus.
The two days then stand in opposition to each other. Pretense, violence, fear and death are a distraction from the preparing for the Truth, the Way, and the Life which are celebrated in the recalling of the holy lives of all those who have experienced their own martyrdoms, bloody or unbloody. Halloween has become a fun event for young and old. It has also become a convenient occasion for some to create destruction or chaos as a statement of opposition to God’s loving humanity and all of creation. Masks, costumes, re-creating our realities, in a way, actually are wonderful ways to prepare for the recalling of all the saints of history, of our histories and of our own holiness of which John recalls in the Second Reading of today’s liturgy.
One dramatic way we can celebrate this feast would be to become aware of how God’s grace assists us in taking away our fakeries, our untruths, our masks and comforts us in the complicity of our being “Children of God”. Those who wear the “white robes” in the First Reading are those who were stripped of any identities the world had given them which were washed away by the “Blood of the Lamb”. They showed up in their facing of the destructive and violent ways of the opponents to God.
The Gospel is quite familiar to us and we know the first items in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The seven “blessed are you” statements are celebrations of the taking-off of seven costumes or masks or illusions. The saints of the Church’s history and the saints of our own histories, are those whom we recall as resisting wealth, power, vengeance, regret and other forms of pretending. It would be of great comfort and consolation to recall during this feast, persons we knew or know whose face is on the label for the advertisement of each Beatitude.
It is what the Church does in presenting us with the various saints of its history: from Peter and Paul to Theresa of Calcutta, from Mary of Nazareth to Janet of Milwaukee, or Grandma Carrey of Sussex. We will have many names and faces from our own family’s and our own histories who lived, and perhaps are still living, in ways which help us understand each Beatitude and so the Way, the Truth and the Life which is their revelation of holiness.
If I were ever in charge of the liturgy for this Feast, I would have all the members of the congregation wear some mask or symbol of their falseness and drop them in a huge bucket of Holy Water after the hearing of these Readings. That would be quite a bucket of trash and a lot of freedom from fear and violence, power and resentment. This is what we celebrate at every sacred recalling of Christ’s dying and rising. We are all saints in Christ, except we tend to forget it.