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
I received an inquiry today from someone who wanted to know if we had a service today. We don’t, and until she asked, I hadn’t even considered the possibility. We celebrate All Saints on the Sunday following November 1. So far as I can remember, that’s been the custom at every parish I’ve been at. That’s going to change.
All Saints is one of my favorite celebrations of the church year. I probably say that about all of them, but All Saints is unique because of what it is about. As I was writing a brief description of the service for our parish newsletter, I came across this explanation: “In the Prayer Book tradition All Saints’ Day is essentially a celebration of Christ in his whole Mystical Body—the ‘elect’ and the ‘saints’ in the New Testament sense of these terms.” (Quoted in Hatchett’s Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer).
It’s a celebration of the church; to use traditional language with which I am uncomfortable, the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. It’s an important reminder that the community to which belong encompasses both the living and the dead; that we are united in our faith in the Risen Christ, all members of his body.
I want to sing Sine Nomine today–Ralph Vaughan Williams’ majestic “For All the Saints.” I want to hear the lessons that are appointed for the day. I want to join with my brothers and sisters on earth and in heaven in one hymn of praise.
Maybe next year…
All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2009
All Saints’ is one of my favorite Sundays. I love wearing white after all of those Green Sundays of Summer. I love singing “For All the Saints.” I relish the opportunity to pause and reflect over the past year. All Saints’ is always tinged with grief as I inevitably am put in mind of those people at whose burial services I’ve presided in the last year, but it’s also an opportunity to remember them again, to pause and think of all of those people to whom we’ve said good-bye. It is also a glorious celebration. All Saints is a reminder that the community to which belong, the body of Christ is not confined to the living alone, but rather that we are united with those who have gone before in one communion, one Church.
Traces of those who have gone before us surround us. It was they who built, renovated, and preserved this beautiful building, the women and men who were a part of Grace long ago. There’s a closet that’s full of memorabilia of Grace—photos, records and the like that go back decades. Some of that material is on display in the Guild Hall today. For some of us, as we look around at the various memorials, as we go into the Guild Hall later to enjoy the food prepared for us, some of us will remember the men and women whose names appear in the documentation. Some of us may still grieve their passing.
The legacy of the past is not only something to celebrate and enjoy. It can also be a burden. It is a temptation to live in the past, to remember things as they were and to desire a return to a great golden age. History can be a burden in another way; it can be so oppressive that it prevents us from living in the present, and developing vision for the future.
All Saints’ may be a time when we want to look back, remember, and perhaps become somewhat nostalgic. But that is not the primary purpose of this feast. As a reminder that we belong to a communion that is larger than ourselves, larger than this life, All Saints’ challenges us to remake our lives, our community, our church, in accordance with the divine example.
What that means can be different in different contexts. Given what we are doing today in our worship and at our coffee hour, I would like us to think about our worship and our feasting. You may think it odd that I choose to focus on these things today, but I don’t think it’s obvious, or given, that we worship the way we do. Certainly not in this day and age—when most Christians in America worship in spaces that resemble movie theaters or corporate headquarters rather than the beautiful sanctuary in which we find ourselves.
Some of you may have come because of the Kodaly mass; others may be wishing they hadn’t. After the service, I hope you will join us for the celebration of Grace’s cooks over the last 125 years, the saints who fed Grace all of those years.
It’s fitting given the latter event that our lesson from the Hebrew Bible is a vision of a new day. In fact, the prophet sees a New Jerusalem, a new Zion, but he describes it somewhat differently than does John in the Book of Revelation: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” It is a vision of divine hospitality that moves into speaking of a time when there will be nothing dividing God from God’s people, and where there will be no mourning.
Some of that imagery is carried over into the reading from Revelation. It, too is a vision of the New Jerusalem. One thing that distinguishes the new Jerusalem from the old is that God will be dwell there, “The home of God is with mortals.” Later in this same chapter, John will tell us that there is no temple in this new Jerusalem, there is no need of a temple, because God is present everywhere.
In the New Testament, in Revelation and in the Letter to the Hebrews that we’ve been reading this fall, there is a strong connection between the worship that takes place here on earth with that which takes place in the presence of God. But it’s not just the New Testament—in our Eucharist, we sing “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” Our worship is an imitation of what takes place in heaven. And that’s why beauty is so important.
It’s been interesting for me to see the reaction of visitors who enter Grace Church on Saturday mornings. We all know that it is a wonderful space, but it is also a holy space, a beautiful space, where people can gain a sense of the divine. It’s clear in watching people as they enter, that they are experiencing something new and different, something quite unlike the rest of their lives.
Of course, for us, we know that and we come for the same reason. But our experience is not limited to the visual, and the aural. We also taste and see that the Lord is Good. At the Eucharistic table, we experience God’s hospitality, bread and wine that become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
This fall, in our adult formation program, we have been exploring the connections between our faith and food, both the ethics, and the aesthetics. For many of us, it is hard to see a connection between what we do in the Eucharist, indeed, what we do in worship, and the way we eat. That’s largely because the Christian tradition sought to separate the two, but the Eucharist began as a meal, and in early Christianity, one of the most popular forms of devotion was to throw big parties in the places where the saints and martyrs were buried.
“The Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.” It may be difficult to see the connection between the Eucharist and a feast—after all, the wafers that we eat are only distantly related to bread, and the wine, well the wine is not the finest either. But the Eucharist is a feast and it is important that we see the connection between this table, at which our Lord is a host, and the tables around which we serve as hosts. And I mean it, whether those tables are the ones we set for dinner guests in our homes, or the tables on which the food for coffee hour is spread, or the tables for the meal that will be served to our homeless neighbors tomorrow night.
We also say in the Eucharist “give us a foretaste of that heavenly banquet” For us to worship in ways that not only reflect our needs, desires, faith and doubt, but also reflect the glory of the one we worship, everything we do, our music, liturgy, and yes, the food we eat at this table and at every table, should be beautiful, delightful, and glorious. When we do that, we truly are joining with all the company of the saints. Thanks be to God!