There’s something about our commemoration of All the Saints each year that appeals to historical sensibilities. Each year, as I reflect on the day and prepare my sermon, I find myself drawn to the stories of Christians who lived in the past. Usually my focus is not on the famous saints, the ones we remember in our calendar of commemorations, but on ordinary men and women who lived out lives of faithfulness in obscurity. Continue reading
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Three of the images that are at the forefront of my mind today:
The marvelous and awe-inspiring procession of martyrs that grace the walls of S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna:
And from a very different historical period, and a radically different expression of the communion of saints (the 16th century Anabaptist Dirk Willems, who after breaking free from his captors, went back to save one who had fallen through the ice. Willems was executed):
To those who know a little of christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves — and sins and temptations and prayers — once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each one of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew — just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: — ‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione — and to the millions like her then, and every year since then? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever-repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought.
Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (1945).
h/t Wesley Hill
There’s something of a confusion in our commemoration of All Saints. We’re not quite sure what we should be doing today in our worship. Our lessons, all of them, are among the lessons chosen for the burial service. We are worshiping as the choir sings Faure’s Requiem, and later in our service, we will remember the faithful departed, those of our congregation who have died in the past years, and others, our loved ones, who have died in the past year or before. So, what we really seem to be doing is celebrating what used to be called All Souls’ Day, or what in our calendar appears on November 2, the commemoration of all the faithful departed. Continue reading
I love cemeteries; I have loved cemeteries for a very long time. The best ones are sacred places of beauty and repose, where one can wander and ponder the lives of those who lie buried. I suppose I first encountered the sacred power of graveyards when I visited the Jewish cemetery of the German town of Worms, which was established in the Middle Ages and chronicled the life and struggles of that community through the centuries to the Nazi period. But it was in New England where I come to love spending time in cemeteries. There were the colonial cemeteries in Boston and elsewhere, like Copps Hill, or Old North burial ground, the churchyard of St. Paul’s Newburyport, or the old burying ground in that same city. I could wander in them for hours, reading inscriptions of famous men and women, and of those who were known only to a few friends and family. I also liked to visit Mt. Auburn cemetery, said to be the first in America to be created as much as a beautiful landscape as for more utilitarian reasons. Continue reading
We sang this hymn yesterday on All Saints’ Sunday. I suppose I’ve sung it many times before, but as with so many hymns, I didn’t pay particular attention to the text. Then, a parishioner drew my attention to verse 4:
These are they whose hearts were riven,
sore with woe and anguish tried,
who in prayer full oft have striven
with the God they glorified;
now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.
The first two verses of the hymn are a description of the saints arrayed before God’s throne, asking the question: who are they? Verse three begins to answer the question. So verse four is an answer to the question of who are the saints?
What’s wonderful about verse four is that it describes people who do not simply submit to God’s will:
“who in prayer full oft have striven with the God they glorified.”
In other words, their prayer has often been an intense struggle with God. It’s a powerful description of one aspect of a devout Christian life.
The text is a translation by Frances Elizabeth Cox of a hymn written by Theobald Heinrich Schenck (1656-1727). I tried to learn more about the author. He was German, educated at Giessen University (in Hesse) taught in the high school (Gymnasium) there and then became a pastor. It’s the only hymn he wrote that was published. His other publications are several funeral sermons (a popular genre of edifying literature in the early modern period). Giessen was a hotbed of Pietism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but whether Schenck belonged to that reform movement is not mentioned in the material I found.
I was also unable to find the original German text of the hymn. No doubt I’ve got it in a hymnal somewhere, but apparently the Germans aren’t as quick to put stuff like that on the internet. I’d be curious to see what it reads like in the original. There are a total of fifteen verses in the original.
One of the questions I often get from newcomers to the Episcopal Church, especially if they are coming from more Protestant backgrounds, has to do with the meaning of the saints. There’s a view among some Protestants, and it goes back to the Protestant Reformation, that devotion to or commemoration of the saints, is not quite biblical. Often these questions turn to whether, if someone joins the Episcopal Church, they need to start praying to the saints. Other times, though, there’s a bit of an edge to such questions, not unlike the time a former student once blurted out during a discussion on the Virgin Mary’s significance in the Christian tradition, “What’s so special about Mary?” My response? “She’s the Mother of God.” Continue reading