All Saints’ Sunday has always been one of my favorite church celebrations not only because of some of the wonderful hymns we sing, but also because the Gospel lesson challenges us to see beyond the physical surroundings in which we worship to the dimensions of our life visible only to faith. Our buildings ultimately crumble, our bodies decay, our money dissipates. Yet by faith we live on in Christ and belong to God even in death, because our God, says Jesus (Luke 20.38), is a God of the living. All live in him, even those who are physically dead. Such a thought is a powerful challenge to our reason and it makes this day one of bold-spirited confidence.
Can you see this? Sometimes this statement of Jesus seems like nothing more than mere words. But as we sing today’s Introit hymn, and the power of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s tune builds in us, we begin to say with Thomas, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’.
O blest communion, fellowship divine;These words were written by the Rt Rev’d William How (1823–1897), Bishop of Bedford (London), and later of Wakefield. How did quite a bit of writing, and was known for his work with children and with the poor. Although he wrote only a few hymns, we fondly remember many. Among them, in addition to our Introit hymn, are ‘Jesus, name of wondrous love’, ‘Soldiers of the cross, arise’, and ‘We give Thee but Thine own’.
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.
Yet all are one in Thee,
for all are Thine. Alleluia. Alleluia.
The tune, ‘Sine nomine’, reminds me of many an art work with the same name, ‘Untitled’. Sometimes, I jokingly say to myself, ‘Good thing he/she didn’t, because it doesn’t deserve a title.’ In Houston’s Rothko Chapel, all the blank canvases are untitled – maybe fittingly so. In Vaughan Williams’s case, this tune deserves a title. It builds as the tune develops, and, as with few other hymns, involves the singer both emotionally and powerfully. We all know it as ‘Sine nomine’, but it could well have been titled ‘Saints Alive’.
The first Communion hymn, ‘Who are these like stars appearing’, was written by Heinrich Theobald Schenk (1656–1727), a Lutheran pastor and professor at the University of Giessen . Based on the question of one of the elders in Revelation 7 (the Lutheran lectionary reading for this day), the hymn provides the response that these clothed in white are those who have come out of the great tribulation. It is a hymn that celebrates the heroes of the faith who have gone before us and are remembered not because they conquered armies, but because they were often conquered physically and had their robes made white in the blood of the Lamb.
The second Communion hymn begins with the same theme, but brings the matter up to the present time saying that ‘in school, on the street, in the store, in church, by the sea, in the house next door’ we still meet these saints and we are among them as well.
The Postcommunion hymn, ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’, sings about saints and martyrs in endless rest in a very developed chant to those who have gone before us to sing God’s praises. Finally, calling out to ‘O friends’, we are asked to join them in a hymn of gladness. The hymn was written by a well-known Anglo-Catholic layman, Athelstan Riley (1858–1945), whose only other well-known hymn, ‘O food to pilgrims given’, secured a place in the indie film Ed Wood starring Johnny Depp.
The hymn builds on nine celestial categories, a rather specious, but somewhat biblical, construct that even St Paul at times referred to as inhabiting the realms of space separating humans from their God. The tune to which the text is set, ‘Lasst uns erfreuen’, is a German tune which was harmonized by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer of our Introit tune today, and, actually, a good friend of Athelstan Riley.
Such a thought brings us back to the beginning and, in a way, summarizes the theme of this wonderful day in the church year when we feel particularly surrounded by the saints triumphant and the saints militant. All are one in Christ and all are alive. Saints alive!