I’ve long wondered whether there was any significance to Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the eve of All Saints Day (All Hallows Eve). I still have no conclusive evidence, but I ran across at least the possibility of a more fulfilling story this afternoon while reading Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis X. Weiser.
All Saints was a feast day established originally by Pope Boniface IV in 606. About two hundred years later, the date was moved from May 1 to November 1 cheifly because of the influx of people to Rome for the feast each year. There was far more food and prosperity at the end of the harvest than in the Spring. At any rate, in addition to this memorial feast, Abbot Father Odilo of Cluny established the celebration of the Faithful Departed or All Souls in 1048 for the Benedictines of his community. The feast was to be held on November 2nd, the day after All Saints. The practice soon spread to other communities of Benedictines and Carthusians, and by the 14th century it was firmly engrained in the fabric of the European church.
All Souls, however, was from its inception concerned with those faithfully departed saints particularly in need of our prayers and masses to merit them grace to enter heaven. All Souls has long been concerned for souls in purgatory. Thus the church authorized the issue of special indulgences on All Saints and All Souls, along with various other grave rites and special masses for the souls in purgatory.
All that to say, it would make great sense then for Martin Luther to post his theses on the day before All Saints as his concern was rightly directed at the abuses of grace, indulgences, and various other practices and assumptions central to the celebration of All Souls Day. And in God’s kindness, Reformation Day is a great precurser to All Saints and All Souls. Luther was instrumental to the renewing and reforming of those feasts of the church, if not in intent, at least in deed. Luther’s insistence on the priesthood of all believers (All Saints) and the meritorious work of Christ (All Souls) as central to the gospel are a wonderful thematic preface to these historic feasts of the church.
By the way, if November 2nd falls on a Sunday (as it does this year) the celebration is postponed until Monday the 3rd which just so happens to be my birthday. So get yourself a German beer or two and have a three day holiday.