Pentecost -- Honoring the Saints

Planning All Saints Day - Ideas for Worship Planners
November 1, All Saints Day

Who Are the Saints?

Honoring the saints has been a feature of Christian worship from the origins of the church, when names of local martyrs were included in the Sunday eucharistic prayer.

Soon, special days were set aside for remembering martyrs and other exemplary Christians whom individual Christian communities proclaimed to be saints by consensus. When the church became centralized, local saint making was replaced by a more universal and controlled process called "canonization." Eventually, only the "official saints" were liturgically commemorated as models of faith. Many seemed too lofty to imitate, however, and a gulf opened between saints and "ordinary" Christians.

Because the saints were thought to share Christ's saving work, Christians relied heavily on their intercession, praying to them and venerating their relics. In the late medieval church, the influence of the saints was enormous. When Protestant reformers shaped new churches, they democratized sanctity, retrieving Paul's teaching that saints are all whom God justifies through grace by faith alone. Rather than a posthumous honor for the extraordinary few, sainthood is the common calling of all who are baptized. This was a favorite insight of the Puritans, who routinely called each other "saints."

All Saints Day

As early as the fourth century, days were set aside to commemorate all the saints at once. This was done to honor unknown saints and to remedy deficiencies in people's observance of a particular saint's day. The most enduring of these commemorations in the Catholic Church falls on November 1. All Saints Day is now celebrated on or near this date by many Protestants, too. We do not canonize or pray to saints, but we look to these towering figures of our heritage for inspiration and encouragement in our own Christian pilgrimage. Some churches use All Saints Day as an opportunity to learn more about these great saints. Others focus broadly on the "great cloud of witnesses," living and dead, whose seemingly humdrum lives glow with everyday virtues. Still others observe the day as a memorial for members who died during the year. All these emphases are in the spirit of the day, but worship planners could minimize the parochialism and sentimentality that can result if a community focuses exclusively on local loved ones. All Saints Day should challenge us by presenting us with a variety of figures from different times and places whose oftencontradictory styles of faithfulness enlarge our notion of what it means to be a disciple and a saint.

Honoring the Saints: Some Ideas

All Saints Day is primarily an ecclesial celebration—a celebration of the church's abundant life, the Spirit's gifts, and the grateful responsiveness of God's holy people. Planners should stress foundational themes of Christian life—grace, the gift of faith, baptism, the ministry of all believers, the communion of saints, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, and the cost and joy of discipleship (note that the lectionary gospel text for Year A is Matthew's version of the Beatitudes). Doing so will help to distinguish All Saints Day from purely secular commemorations of the dead, such as Memorial Day. Here are some suggestions for worship and related activities:

Celebrate Holy Communion and Baptism

Taking into account people with special needs, gather the people in a circle around the table or in front to emphasize the radically egalitarian, inclusive nature of the communion of saints. During the eucharistic prayer, recite a Litany of All the Saints in which God is praised for the example of both local and universal saints. Intersperse verses of "For All the Saints" or a song from another culture or language as the response.

Recognize First Communion

If your congregation admits young children to communion after a period of instruction, make All Saints Day a "first communion day." Write a welcome prayer or special blessing for little saints who come to the table for the first time to be sanctified by the Spirit along with the offered bread and cup and the whole assembly.

Renew Baptismal Vows

See resources in the Book of Worship for baptism (pages 127–66) and the Easter Vigil (pages 225–23). Open the service with a sprinkling (asperges) to "refresh" the memory of baptismal commitment, or, at the offering, invite people to come forward and have water poured over their hands while a hymn or anthem with baptismal themes is sung.

Emphasize the Ministry of the Baptized

Have members come to worship dressed in "holy work clothes" — suits, uniforms, aprons, baby pouches, lab coat, overalls, and hard hats. During the education or fellowship hour, create an opportunity for celebrating the diverse ways God is made known and the world is ministered to by the work and example of the saints.

Have Children and Youth Research the "Heroes" Who Gathered the Congregation

Prepare a song, mime, dance, or skit about them. Perform it as a Call to Worship, or perform it in place of a sermon. Construct life-size figures of these saints and carry them in a festive opening procession, positioning them around the sanctuary as a "cloud of witnesses." Have them lead the congregation out into the world after the benediction.

Conduct a Bible Study on Matthew's Beatitudes

In small groups, have members compose biographies of saints they have read about or have known, taking notes of the ways in which each saint lived the spirit of the Beatitudes. Participants may then write their spiritual autobiographies, reflecting on the Beatitudes they experience in their own lives. Gather all these stories into a large binder and bring it forward to be included in the blessings of the people's gifts at the offertory on All Saints Day, or read selections from the binder as additional lessons in the service.

In addition to the lectionary readings (Rev. 7:9–17; Ps. 34:1–10, 22; 1 Jn. 3:1–3; and Mt. 5:1–12), the following texts are appropriate: Is. 25:6–9; Ps. 24:1–6; Eccl. (Sir.) 44:1–19 and 2:11; Wis. 3:1–9; Eph. 1:11–23; Lk. 1:46–55; 6:20–36; and Mt. 25:31–46. Hymns with baptismal, communion, and consummation themes may be chosen. Hymns about the church are also apt. See The New Century Hymnal numbers 298, 299, 304, 306–309, 311, 313–314, 374–385, 595–605, 407, 448, 451, and 454.

Information about traditional saints can be found in many bookstores and on the Internet. Most are Roman Catholic sources, but can easily be adapted. A popular history of saint making in the Catholic tradition is Making Saints by Kenneth Woodward. Among Tommie DePaolo's many wonderful children's books are a few about saints, including a marvelous book on St. Francis of Assisi.

Mary Luti is the senior minister of First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, United Church of Christ. For more information about worship and liturgy, contact the Worship and Education Ministry Team at

Copyright © 2002 Worship and Education Ministry Team, UCC, Cleveland. Permission is granted to reproduce or adapt for use in services of worship or church education. All publishing rights reserved. Designed and printed by United Church Resources, Local Church Ministries.


Rev. Susan A. Blain
Minister for Worship, Liturgy and Spiritual Formation
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44115