Recently, I have begun trying to read more poetry. I was inspired to do so when I read some of my wife’s poetry, which I am sure is but a small fragment of the number of works she has composed over the years. I did not use to have the time or wanted to offer much mental space to poetry. It seemed frivolous and unimportant to most of what makes up my life. I always struggled with the fact that so much of Holy Scripture is poetry, but I reasoned it was necessary for an oral tradition which handed down the words through memory and recitation. But I must tell you, I have found there is something not just cool or neat about poetry, but it is powerful, even necessary. There are times when reading a poem that you feel yourself get caught up in a moment, in an emotion or a powerful image which can catch you off guard and you feel connected to something much bigger than yourself, a greater truth perhaps, or a deep experience that holds us together as creatures of God.
Of course, the Christian Church is full of such poetry. From our liturgy to our hymnody and prayers, there are moments when we get caught up in something bigger than ourselves. Poetry is all around us. It shapes our expression of the faith and deepens our confession. And all of us have our favorites, our preferred section of the liturgy or our beloved hymn of the Church. I know I definitely have my favorites. One of them, which I regularly argue is of the very best hymns in our hymnbook, was written by William How in the late 1800’s. It is sung every year on All Saints’ Day. It is the great hymn, “For All the Saints.” I have sung this hymn year in and year out, probably like many of you, without giving it much thought, just getting through the hymn and being carried along with everyone else, not really caring for its poetry or beauty, or even what it was saying. Then a few years ago I was at a funeral for a pastor. He was not someone I knew well, but a colleague who I respected. So, a few of my friends and I went to the funeral, and guess what hymn was chosen as the processional? That is right, “For All the Saints.” And in that moment as I was singing along, like I always have, I was caught up, choked up, tears filled my eyes. Suddenly, the words of this hymn sank in deep, and at one moment I had to stop singing because I was going to become a blubbering mess.
Now, I do not know why it happened, I am not even all that sure what exactly happened. Perhaps the poetry had finally done what it was seeking to do all along. It has been said that good hymnody is the signing of theology into your heart. The hymns of the Church, from ancient to modern, move the teachings of the faith from our heads down into our hearts. They are relocated from some sort of academic exercise to a lived-out reality of the faith. They give voice to our emotions and paint images which give us focus. So, I thought that since today is All Saints’ Day, perhaps it would be a good idea to slow down and actually consider the words, the imagery, the profound confession that is made in this old hymn. For the Feast of All Saints is a day of tension and longing for the people of God. It is a day when we think especially about those we know, those brothers and sisters in Christ we have loved and walked with, who are now with our Lord. It is a day to drag out into the open the longing in our own hearts, the pain of separation. It is to live in the assurance of the resurrection even as we weep for all those saints who have died and now rest from their labor.
The first two stanzas turn our attention to the past, to the saints who have died in the faith. Therefore, we confess:
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might.
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight.
Thou, in the darkness drear, there one true light.
In these first two verses, the focus is on the connection between the saints and our Lord. They confessed the name of Jesus before the world. By faith they held fast to Christ. He was their rock, their fortress. I love that bit about Him being the Captain who led them into the well-fought fight. These saints were never alone, never abandoned. Christ goes first. He is the firstborn of the dead. He is the one who leads them off to victory. So, we think of those we have buried, all the funerals we have attended, and we are reminded that even in the darkest of times, the one true light of Christ continues to shine.
The next few stanzas focus on what we usually think of on All Saints’ Day. Those who have faithfully gone before us are held forth as an example or inspiration for the living out of our faith here and now:
Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old;
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold!
Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Here we confess what we all know and feel. The fight goes on. Even as we mourn the loss of those we love, we know the struggle continues. The struggle is the bearing of our crosses, the life of repentance and trust in the gifts of Christ alone. Now, we struggle while they rest in glory. We battle on so one day we may all wear the victors crown of gold together. But did you notice how hope is not found in our strength or even in the strength of the saints who have gone before us? The hope is that you, just like the saints of old, are all one in Christ, one in His gifts, one in His deliverance. All are His. He did not abandon them to the darkness, and He will not abandon you.
Then, the next two stanzas sing about our hope in these days. They are a reminder that time and struggle and pain and hardship will not go on forever.
And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
The battle is waged. It is a battle which is not just “out there” with those who oppose your faith and want to see your confession silenced. No, it is also the battle within you. It is the war with the sin that so easily entangles, the fight with the doubts and fears which turn you toward the idols of your own making. Perhaps this is what happens when you come to church, when you gather in the midst of the fierce battle. You are tired and done for and just want to rest. Yet, here you are, greeted with the distant triumph song. The Words of promise and hope and life fill your ears, so that your hearts are made brave and you find the strength, once again, to get up and enter the fight knowing rest will come. Paradise does await you, for it has already been secured by the blood of the Lamb. Its gates stand open to receive each and every one of you.
Lastly, we get to the final stanzas, the ones I always have a difficult time singing through. Having looked back and examined today and longed for tomorrow and the rest that will come for all the saints of God, the closing section focuses us rightly on the goal of it all, the culmination of everything God has done for His children.
But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day:
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
“Lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day,” more glorious than resting in Paradise, more glorious than the end of the warfare and fighting and struggle. What is this glorious day? It is the resurrection of the dead. The saints triumphant will rise. Here we sing of reunion, of the celebration when you will greet again all the saints of God. You will embrace and rejoice and sing the praises of the King of Glory. Here we are given a vision of the countless host streaming in from all of creation, into the new Heaven and the new Earth. This is the image from Revelation 7: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes.”
In that day, God promises to end thirst and hunger, pain and violence. He promises He will wipe away every tear from your eyes. This is the more glorious day to come. This old hymn is the poetry of our life of faith. In the midst of wars and rumors of wars, strife and hardship and terror on every side, there remains hope and the promises and gifts of Christ for you. They are gifts of compassion, gifts of assurance, gifts of forgiveness for you, for all of you, for all the saints.