By Jean McCurdy Meade
For all the Saints who from their labors rest. (Hymnal 287)
I sing a song of the saints of God (Hymnal 293)
O when the saints go marching in (African-American Spiritual)
These two hymns from the Hymnal of the Episcopal Church are usually sung on All Saints’ Day, November 1st. And here in New Orleans, and probably in many other places, the spiritual “O when the saints go marching in” is sung as well. The saying “one who sings prays twice” is attributed to St. Augustine. And the Episcopal Church has appropriated the classic principle lex orandi, lex credendi, or “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” So perhaps those who sing believe twice, or at least do so very enthusiastically. So with that in mind let’s look at these All Saints’ Day mainstays.
Some clergy emphasize that All Saints’ Day is to commemorate “canonized” or “official” saints of the church, whose exemplary lives merit our reverence and imitation. This commemoration is then followed the next day, on All Souls’ Day, which remembers the lives of ordinary Christians, along with those whose faith in known to God alone, as the prayer book puts it. By contrast, many in the Reformed tradition believe that every Christian is a saint, as St. Paul says in his letters, and can thus can properly remembered on All Saints’ Day along with Mary, the mother of our Lord, the apostles, martyrs, and heroic Christians throughout the centuries. And when November 1 falls on a weekday, the following Sunday is usually celebrated as “All Saints’ Sunday,” which perhaps can include All Souls’ as well.
In Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd there are tragic consequences to getting the two mixed up. The pregnant girl waits at All Souls’ Church to be married to her soldier lover, who is waiting for her at All Saints’ Church in a village nearby. Each finally leaves alone, thinking the lover has been faithless. But when we look at the actual practice of Christians, and the songs we sing about the saints, we can see how to two can converge, if not become identical. Our collects for a saints’s day usually include, not only the mention of the good works and faithfulness of a given saint, but the aspiration that each of us can follow their example and become one too.
“I sing a song of the saints of God” lists people in various occupations who are saints, “One was a soldier and one was a queen and one was a shepherdess on the green,” who can be found anywhere, “You can meet them in trains or in shops or at sea…” and says they are “just folk like me,” and urges us all to resolve to be a saint also: “There’s not any reason, no not the least why I shouldn’t be one too.”
There is an explanations of exactly who was the inspiration to author Lesbia Scott for each of these “saints” from church history, but the emphasis in the text of the song is definitely on the fact that anyone who lives a life worthy of her or his calling as a Christian is a saint, and that we all, whether children or adults, are urged to strive to be worthy of that calling, and thus sainthood.
For example, I believe that the 11th-century St. Margaret of Scotland is supposed to be the queen in this hymn, but after the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the memorial tributes to her long life of sincere Christian faith and undaunted service to her country, I think she is the “one [who] was a queen” who will come to our minds most readily, whether or not she is on the list of official saints of the church.
In the spiritual, we sing of our longing to be there on the last great day with all the saints, famous or not; and when you think of the community in which the song was composed and first sung, it means especially those who were known only to their families and friends as saints. “O when the saints go marching in, O Lord I want to be in that number!”
Does it lessen the import of biblical or traditional saints to include in “all the saints who from their labors rest, Who thee by faith before the world confessed” Queen Elizabeth, William Wilberforce, Billy Graham, our parents who brought us to baptism and raised us in the faith, and so on in each of our hearts and memory? I don’t at all think so. St. Paul in First Corinthians, writes, “To the church of God which is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” That seems to say that everyone anywhere who calls upon the Lord Jesus Christ is a saint. Then in Ephesians, he writes “to the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus,” and in Colossians, “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossae.” The biblical standard seems to be clear; faithful believers in Christ are all saints.
I think also of C. S. Lewis’s depiction in The Great Divorce of “the great ones.” One of them, a woman he describes in heaven, is surrounded by angels and happy souls and is a great saint, although her life was not famous or dramatically heroic. Her faithfulness, charity, kindness, and good will blessed everyone who came in contact with her in this life. Now she is honored in heaven, an example and inspiration to our pilgrim who is trying to get his feet used to the real grass there.
So it seems to me that we are all urged to become saints like her, and like those we have known who have gone before or who are still laboring in the Church Militant. I hope we gather those thoughts and memories this All Saints’ and/or All Souls’ Day, looking forward to the last great Day of the Lord, and sing with gusto:
I want to be in that number… they lived not only in ages past there are hundred of thousands still….all are one in thee for all are thine…in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost…Alleluia!