Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Saints and All Souls? Differences should be black and white

Durer: Altarpiece of Saints

Yesterday, we discussed the origins of today's solemnity: All Saints. And today, in Masses all over the world, the Church joins together in commemorating and celebrating all of the saints who are enjoying the beatific vision in heaven. Tens of thousands of men and women from all ages, all walks of life and all cultures have been "canonized" (that is, officially added to the Church's list of saints) and we have full confidence that they intercede for us before God's heavenly throne.

The truth is, we don't really know how many saints there are. Estimates are that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have canonized well over 10,000 men and women over the past centuries. But we also know that, for whatever reason, only some of the heavenly company have been made known to us through this official process. This is one reason for today's presence on the Church calendar: to celebrate all of the saints in heaven - even those whose names are not recorded in history.

Who are the saints?

The concept of "sainthood" really isn't that difficult to understand. Through the merits of Christ's redemptive sacrifice on the Cross, we believe that some men and women will be admitted to the eternal life of heaven, where they will spend eternity praising God. All Christians believe that much.

Icon of Orthodox saints
For Catholic (and Orthodox) Christians, however, there is another facet: we believe that death does not sever a Christian from the Body of Christ. In other words, even in death, the Church is united as one body: the Church militant (those of us still here, "fighting the good fight" here on earth), the Church suffering (those in purgatory undergoing final purifications to enter heaven), and the Church triumphant (those in heaven - whom we call "saints").

Since we are all part of the indissoluble and eternal Church, we are called to help one another and pray for one another. This means that we here on earth should pray for those suffering in purgatory and we all ask for the prayers of the heavenly saints. Truth is, life is tough, the devil is real and we need all the help we can get!

In addition to their prayers, the saints also left behind another important legacy: their lives and Christian witness. Some exuded holiness from an early age, but many were quite despicable people before definitively giving their lives over to God. All of these (but especially the latter group) give us hope and set before us an example to be emulated. Truly, we are all called to be saints, and - if we just look - we have many blueprints to follow.

Black or White?

All of that being said, today's feast of All Saints is wholly different from tomorrow's feast: that of All Souls. Today, we celebrate the men and women who have entered heaven; tomorrow, we will remember the souls of our friends and family members who are being purified to do the same. Today, we pray to the saints in heaven with full confidence that they will intercede for us; tomorrow, we pray for the souls in purgatory with full hope that others will do the same for us after we are gone.

There's a big difference between the emphases (and purpose) of the two days.

Medieval depiction of Funeral Mass
Honestly, though, you may be hard pressed to find a difference between the way these two feasts are celebrated in your local parish. Today, the priest will wear white vestments - a liturgical color which denotes heavenly purity and which reminds us of the biblical descriptions of heaven, replete with white-robed saints. Tomorrow, though, you're again likely to see white, but then, the symbol is of baptismal purity. But it's not likely that anyone will bother to belabor or stress the (important) differences between the two uses of white, or even between the theological emphases of the two days.

It wasn't always this way. For centuries, the traditional liturgical color for All Saints' Day has been white. The traditional color for All Souls' Day, though, was black. And despite what you may have been told in the past, black is still an acceptable liturgical color - its just that black vestments fell out of favor over the past 30-40 years and many parishes simply packed or threw them away.

But using white for All Saints and black for All Souls just makes more sense, really: white denotes heavenly purity while black is the traditional Western color for mourning. On All Saints, we celebrate the saints we know to be in heaven. But on All Souls, we mourn and pray for, the souls we hope will be received into heaven. To wear liturgical white on both days is confusing at best, or - at worst - deceptive.

The same hold true for funerals. We've shifted, as a culture, away from our traditional grounding in the reality of sin, the reality of death and the reality of suffering. We try to sterilize and ignore all of them by making funerals less "gloomy" and more light-hearted. Even Catholic funerals have taken a spiritually unhealthy turn from praying for the soul of the dead to "celebrating life" and virtually ignoring anything remotely uncomfortable like the fact that the dead need our prayers. In most modern funeral Masses, the priest chooses to wear white vestments instead of black - an extension of this "think on good" mentality.

It's certainly a good thing to remember the joys of heaven that await the souls that God deems just. Hope is an important Christian virtue! But we can't deny that mourning is proper and healthy ("Jesus wept," remember?) and should be given its symboling place in our funerals in in our annual remembrance of the departed souls: All Souls' Day. To skip over the "black" of mourning and go straight to the "white" of sainthood displaces the virtue of hope. But, more importantly, it does not encourage prayer for the dead, accomplishes a real injustice to the souls of the faithful departed who rely on our prayers.

Priests celebrating Mass in black vestments

Back in Black

But all is not lost. Despite the best (though, perhaps misguided) efforts of some, the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater (though he's barely hooding on the edge of the tub by a fingernail). Slowly but surely, black is making a comeback as a liturgical color. Especially on All Souls' Day, more and more priests are donning black vestments to return an aire of somberness and sobriety to Masses for the dead. In large part, it is the newer generations of priests who are doing this - the same priests who are answering Pope Benedict's call to recover a sense of the sacred in the Church's liturgy, and who are embracing the liturgical changes of Vatican II as being organically connected to all that came before (black vestments and all).

Lex orandi, lex credendi - a Latin axiom which teaches that "how we pray affects what we believe." If we want to be reminded tomorrow that the souls of the dead need our prayers, we should ask our priests to wear black. Come on priests - be rebels! Wear the black!