This Sunday is All Saints’ Day. A couple of people suggested this hymn and I thought it made sense to place it here and consider what this festival is all about. I can’t recall hearing about All Saints’ Day when I was growing up, and must admit to not knowing much about it other than often singing this hymn at church. Basically, this day is set aside to honour the saints – known and unknown. Depending on one’s tradition, culture or religious affiliations, this can mean those beatified as saints or those departed who have not yet reached heaven. It can simply be all who are part of the church or deceased members of a congregation. The roots of this festival are ancient and variations of it are observed in many cultures. In ancient Gaelic and Celtic traditions, it was a time when dead souls were thought to revisit their homes and a warm welcome would bring blessings. The Mexican Day of the Dead celebration that has its roots in an Aztec festival, is a national holiday dedicated to prayer and remembrance of family members that have died.
It seems to be a time to consider the spiritual connections between those living and those already gone and, whatever you believe, there is something comforting in thinking that we are still connected to our loved ones after they die. It is a way of coping with grief and loss. It is a way to understand the greatest mystery of life. It is a way to find hope.
I will admit to having some difficulty with the words of this hymn. And there are many. Although most hymnals don’t include them all, I found at least eleven verses. There are many expressions of conquering, winning a fight and triumphant uprising. I understand these images are meaningful to some, but I find them challenging. I have trouble with militaristic God imagery, and it comes up often in hymns. I suppose I lean towards a more peaceful understanding of the Divine. But, that can be found here as well. There is a verse that speaks of community, fellowship and inspiration to those still living.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
I find that a lovely thought and often think of those who are gone in this way – sort of beaming from somewhere to show us a way. Maybe providing a historical perspective and experiential wisdom to help us see and understand the realities of our present. I also find the very first line quite moving.
For all the saints, who from their labors rest…
Again, regardless of what you believe, there is something reassuring about the rest that can be found in death. Death is not something we’re very good at understanding or embracing, but it is something we all share. Celebrating those who have already walked this road is a sacred act. Filled with sadness, joy, fear, memory, anguish and calm.
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful servants cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.