All The Saints – November 6, 2017
William Walsham How was the epitome of the nineteenth century Church of England establishment. Hailing from a prosperous family and the son of a lawyer, How graduated from a famous prep school and then Oxford, before serving a long career as a parish priest and eventually becoming a bishop. As a bishop, How sat in the House of Lords, one of the two houses of Parliament, and thus he not only served as a prominent church leader, presiding over a flock of thousands, but also held a prestigious post in government, determining policy for a whole nation.
Now How is chiefly known as the author of the hymn we sang at the beginning of today’s liturgy, “For All the Saints.” For many Christians—and virtually all Episcopalians—the hymn is basically synonymous with All Saints Day, the feast we celebrate this morning. Every first Sunday in November, as I pass through the two double doors behind the pulpit and the organ embarks on the deliberate plodding of this magnificent hymn, I picture How smiling with smug satisfaction, knowing that his tasteful work is being put to good use.
One of the fascinating things about hymns is how their meanings change when they are sung in different contexts. Isaac Watts never intended “Joy to the World!” to be a Christmas carol, yet its triumphant strains are now indelibly associated with Christmas trees and hot cocoa in the Western world; the great Reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” likely had very different connotations for the German Lutherans who first sang it than it does for the Roman Catholics who now find it in their hymnals.
In college, I was surprised to learn that “For All the Saints” was sung by Mormons. Mormons, of course, do not celebrate All Saints Day; from its very beginning, the Mormon religious movement shunned most of the liturgical customs practiced by traditional Christian denominations, including festivals like All Saints Day. At the same time, Mormons have chosen not to place the same emphasis on the early saints of the Church that many other Christians do; Mormon meeting-houses are not named after St. Paul or St. Philip, for example. I was curious, then, as to why Mormons would sing this great hymn, “For All The Saints.” Soon, though, I remembered that the official name of the so-called Mormon Church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and that Mormons often referred to fellow Mormons as Saints. I also noticed that the Mormon version of the hymn incorporated subtle revisions that shifted the overall focus of the hymn from the past to the present. I realized that for Mormons “all the saints” meant “all of us.”
This is almost certainly not what William Walsham How had in mind. How’s hymn includes a prayer that we might be like the saints who have gone before, but it also suggests that all the ones who are saints have already died: “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” The original version of the hymn included three stanzas that respectively honored the apostles, evangelists and martyrs, all figures from the first few centuries of Christianity. For How, the saints were clearly the “heroes of the past.”
The past is important. The Christian tradition has always honored the people who have gone before us, and the people who have gone before us deserve to be honored because we owe so much to them. The world as we have inherited it was shaped by their attitudes and deeds, and remembering them helps us understand who we are. Why else would our worship be so saturated with the stories and gestures and music of the past, if not to teach us about ourselves? Acknowledging the past—both its successes and its failures—also prepares us to face the future. In examining the past, we learn about what has worked well and what would be better to avoid.
Yet I can also understand why Mormons emphasize the saints of the present. Mormons do acknowledge that saints have existed in the past—and they do honor the people that played significant roles in their history—but in their regular use of the word “saints” to refer to one another, Mormons tellingly highlight the saints among us now. Following their Calvinist forebears, they see the saints as the community of the chosen and the faithful across the ages, a community that happens to include many folks who are living at this very moment.
“I believe in the communion of saints.” It’s a phrase we all proclaim in the Apostles’ Creed, a classic formulation of Christian belief that is used in daily prayer and at every baptism. But what does it mean? I fear that, for many of us, the saints are just an arbitrary collection of very special people, mostly men, mostly from long ago, typically portrayed as white, who have passed some mysterious test of holiness and proven their worth. We chiefly know the saints through churches named after them.
The first letter of John, however, promises that we are all “children of God,” that we will all “be like him” and “see him as he is,” that we can all be “pure.” Likewise, the holiness Jesus speaks of in the Beatitudes is not something inaccessible: blessed are the peacemakers and the persecuted, he says, but blessed also are the meek and those who mourn. And who hasn’t mourned for someone or something? The point Jesus is making is that holiness is not some ethereal fantasy; holiness is close, within reach of all of us.
So, yes, “all the saints” means “all of us”—but “all the saints” also means all the others. Revelation describes a “great multitude” of saints “that no one count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” The communion of saints, it claims, is less an inward-looking, exclusive club of bland sameness and more a never-ending, ever-expanding tapestry of infinite diversity. Believing in the communion of saints that Revelation depicts requires seeing holiness in all who are different from ourselves—whether because of race or language or country of origin or even religion—and stretching our imaginations to make room for everyone else in the heaven that we share.
In a few minutes, we will welcome four new saints into this family of faithfulness we call the Church, four children whose parents and godparents are claiming for them the holiness promised by God. Right before their baptisms, as we process to the font, we will sing another hymn written for All Saints Day, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Like How’s “For All the Saints,” it also is a quintessentially English text, a little too cute and a little too enamored with the particulars of English culture, but, written at least two generations after “For All the Saints,” it displays a more expansive idea about what it means to be holy. Saints may have existed in the past, it suggests, but they are very much still around today—and all of us can be saints, too:
I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green;
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.
They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
and his love made them strong;
and they followed the right for Jesus’ sake
the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
and there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
why I shouldn’t be one too.
They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.