Written by English bishop Walsham How in the late nineteenth century, Hymn 287 in our hymnals has become a popular favorite, not just for Anglicans and Episcopalians, but in many churches, especially for the Feast of All Saints on November 1.
For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
It is tempting to think of the saints as people not like us, those whose virtue and piety far outshine ours, and Bishop How’s hymn, so majestically set by Ralph Vaughan Williams, does cast them in a heroic light: “Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might: thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight….” But whatever their virtues or the strength of their piety, their example is not simply for us to marvel at, but to emulate. Indeed, it is the saints that beckon us ever deeper into the life of God. But that means that everyone and any one who draws us deeper into God’s presence is a saint. Indeed, what it means is that we are called to be saints, too.
Consider the way that Paul addresses the Corinthians: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” (1 Cor. 1.2) These are the same Corinthians who are squabbling about who are better Christians—those who follow Paul, or those who follow Paul, or those who follow Apollos (1 Cor. 1:10-17), and at least one case of someone sleeping with his mother-in-law (1 Cor. 5). So how can Paul call them saints?
I think we make a mistake when we think saints are supposed to be morally or religiously perfect. We are all called to be saints, not because we are called to be perfect, but because we are called into the mystery of God’s kingdom, in which we are shaped more and more after the glory of God, and in which we as a people are transformed into a people of compassion and forgiveness. A people who live together in compassion and mercy, with justice and forgiveness, live holy lives. They become a holy people. They become saints.
In our common life, through trial and error, through hurt and forgiveness, through cooperation and our common vision of God’s abundance and the world’s deep needs, we, too, take our place with all our loved ones who set us on this Godward path, in the communion of the saints.
More than ever, in this time when even our grief has been sequestered in our homes, and our isolation feels much too palpable, this celebration of All Saints can remind us that we are not alone, but that we have been surrounded and are still surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses! Even though we may remain distant in body, our hearts can remain close to one another in love and mutual affection, and in prayer.
Hold on to what you have learned from those who have gone before us in the faith, but whom we see no longer: parent and grandparents, friends and siblings, spouses and even our children, who have revealed to us something of the heart of God. Held and strengthened by that blessed fellowship, let us renew our resolve to live bound not by what divides us, but by what unites us; let us live our lives bound by the love of God. For one another. For the life of the world. For all the saints.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.