When I was a kid growing up at Trinity in Red Bank, every All Saint’s Sunday we sang a song called I Sing a Song of the Saints of God. I’ll go to my grave swearing it’s Stephen Bearse’s favorite hymn, even though I know he hates it. I Sing a Song of the Saints of God was written by a British poet to sing to her children as a lullaby of sorts, and she published it as an illustrated children’s book back in 1929. An American Episcopal priest wrote the now familiar tune just for those words, and the hymn became a hit in the U.S. It is so beloved that when the editors of the 1982 Hymnal proposed revising it or dropping it altogether, due to a lack of theological significance, a huge letter-writing campaign was launched for it to be retained. In the second verse when they hymn reads And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, And one was slain by a fierce wild beast, we insisted on singing that that last saint was slain by a fierce wild priest. It was our one chance a year to call Fr. Aldrich fierce and wild, and we weren’t going to miss it.
As lacking as I Sing a Song of the Saints of God is in theological significance, the actual feast of All Saints couldn’t be more significant. Celebrating the Saints was an early practice, as early as Christian practices get. The earliest big S Saints were the martyrs and only the martyrs, and Mass was said on or at their graves, their deaths commemorated year after year. Something like the feast of All Saints began on May 13, 609, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the Martyrs; the feast of the dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres has been celebrated at Rome ever since. About 120 years later, Pope Gregory III founded an oratory in St. Peter’s for the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world”, and effectively moved the feast of All Saints to November 1st.
The operative term found in all this is “of all the just made perfect who are at rest.” The big S Saints who we celebrate today are just that, righteous men and women who, having been made perfect in Purgatory, rest eternally with God in Heaven; they are the Christians who have finished the race, they have quite literally gone before us to the throne of God.
That may seem elementary, but it is vitally important, and it is a core doctrine of the Faith that has, for some inexplicable reason, been all but rejected by big E Evangelicals. When people ask me if Episcopalians ask the Saints to pray for them, I say “Of course we do.” Catholics and Orthodox seem pleased; Pentecostals frown. That’s when we can turn to the Gospel according to Matthew and read the words of Jesus Himself: “…as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead,” Jesus said, “but of the living.”
Our God is the God of the living; He does not reign over a Kingdom of the dead but rather a Kingdom alive with glory and honor and worship. A Kingdom constantly in prayer, a Kingdom in waiting, a Kingdom built for us. A Kingdom praying for us.
And don’t we need that? Don’t we, as the Church Militant, the Church still here on Earth fighting the good fight, don’t we need the prayers of the Saints, don’t we need their example? Do we not need to be knit together in one fellowship? The fact is we are knit together, and the result is the greater glory of God. This past week we saw the evidence of just how knit together we are; in the passing of Geraldine Spady we saw how many lives she touched, how many people are better off because of her. When our neighbors on Mary Street lost everything in a fire on Halloween, this parish and this whole town showed just how knit together we are in providing for that family.
And so we find ourselves, with all Christians, knit together, surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses to the goodness and mercy of God in Christ Jesus, that we are nothing if not a family, brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. The Christ Church part of that family is called to continue the work of the Saints, to grow in wisdom and strength and faith, to proclaim the same Gospel proclaimed by those whose race has been finished, whose rest has been won. May all the Saints pray for this our Christ Church family, that through us, Jesus Christ may be praised now and unto the ages of ages.