For all the saints,
who from their labours rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confess’d,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Those of us who have been involved with Christian celebrations for a number of years have likely memorized some of the lyrics of the beautiful and rousing Christian hymn For All The Saints. The text is by the Anglican Bishop William Walsham How and he composed it in 1864 for use as a processional hymn.
The musical setting we have used since 1906 is from Ralph Vaughan Williams. I dare say that most of us have the tune on the hard drive of our memory. The hymn is based on Hebrews 12:1 – With so many witnesses in a great cloud all around us, we too, then, should throw off everything that weighs us down and the sin that clings so closely, and with perseverance keep running in the race which lies ahead of us.
November is a month of remembrance. Fall has settled in and our thoughts are turning to the end of another year and the reminiscing that comes with that. The Feast of All Saints’ is a celebration of all the saints, known and unknown. It arose out of the Christian tradition of celebrating the martyrdom of saints on the anniversary of their death.
When martyrdoms increased during the persecutions of the late Roman Empire, local dioceses instituted a common feast day in order to ensure that all martyrs, known and unknown, were properly honoured. It was Pope Gregory III (731-741) who named November 1 as the common date to celebrate the saints, whether martyred or not. This is a day to celebrate all holy men and women, and ask for their prayers and intercession. We honour those who are known and recognized as enlightened souls, but also the unknowns and the misfits.
We are fortunate to have such a great cloud of witnesses – the Communion of Saints. The saints are not necessarily perfect. As a matter of fact, they likely aren’t perfect. George Bernanos, author of The Diary of a Country Priest, says “A saint doesn’t live on the interest of his income, or even on his income; he lives on his capital, he gives all his soul.” In other words, a saint shows total dedication to God and to the neighbour.
It is precisely with their imperfections, searching, struggles, doubts, unique personalities, and daily efforts that we can relate to certain saints. That’s why so many of us have favourite patrons, asking them to intercede on our behalf. Who do you turn to? Is it different for a special need? If you find yourself online and bored, check out the lengthy list of patron saints that you can find at http://www.catholic.org/saints/patron.php .
The background stories of the saints explain why they have been given this task of interceding for us. Whatever their quirks or oddities, it is helpful for us to know that there is a special saint who knew precisely what we struggle with.