For all the saints who from their labor rest
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest
These words begin the hymn “For all the Saints.” The hymn was written in 1864 by William How. In 1906 a new tune was composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams with the title “Sine Nomine.” It is a particularly apt hymn for today’s celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints.
The hymn captures in music the triumph or victory of those who faithfully follow the Lord. It celebrates all those who have gone before us, strived to live life according to the Gospel, overcame the struggles and obstacles through faithful perseverance who now share in the glory of God. It is a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ for being “their Rock, their Fortress and their Might,” “their Captain in the well fought fight.” And it encourages the faithful today, weak and frail as we may be, to persevere in living the faith and running the race to the finish line.
The celebration of All Saints is a celebration of the universal call to holiness. It reminds us that all of us are called to become saints.
There is a funny Catholic school anecdote regarding saints. The teacher covering the topic asks the students “What is required to become a saint?” One of the students, a bit of a prankster, raises his hand and says, “You have to be dead.”
There is some truth to that if it refers to canonized saints. But today’s feast celebrates “all” the saints — the vast multitude of whom are not canonized. These are the faithful — forgotten by history, but remembered by God. They were the ones who lived ordinary lives sanctified by grace and now share in the fullness of life. They were fathers and mothers. They were sisters and brothers. They were sons and daughters. They were farmers and mechanics. They were teachers and professors. They were salesmen and statesmen. They were doctors and nurses. They were soldiers and sailors. They were homeless and poor. They were rich and charitable. They lived in the countryside and city, the desert and the jungle, the mountains and the plains. People just like you and me who lived life striving to glorify God in the simplicity of everyday life.
Each one of us is called to be holy. Our lives are to be dedicated to the Lord. This does not mean we have to be “holy rollers” or street-corner evangelists. What it means is that we strive daily to live life as a response to God’s love and goodness.
The beatitudes give us direction in living a holy life. The basis or foundation for all the beatitudes is the first – “Blessed are the poor in Spirit; for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” The one who is poor in spirit recognizes not only God’s existence, but that he has been good to them; he is a welcome and necessary part of their lives. They are thankful for the graces God has bestowed on them. They also recognize that they need God and his grace and mercy to live a good life.
St. Paul will later capture this idea with the phrase “it is only when I am weak that I am strong.” The other beatitudes build on the first giving encouragement for living life amid the pains and struggles common to all. Faithfulness with see us through the times of sorrow, distress, want, tribulation and even persecution. As the first beatitude is foundational for the others, so is its reward — “the kingdom of God.” For the kingdom encompasses perfect love and mercy, compassion and consolation, righteousness and truth.
The Book of Revelation likewise encourages us to live a holy life remaining faithful, especially when times are difficult and seem hopeless. The passage in today’s liturgy celebrates the victory of those who have given their lives in faithfulness to God. These come from “every nation, race, people and tongue” and now share in the glory of heaven. They have persevered and now God gives them a share in his kingdom.
The second reading likewise offers encouragement and a call to holiness. God so loves us that we are called his children. John points out that this is a tremendous blessing from God, one that entails a blessing indefinable when we see him face to face. Thus, we have hope, and that hope drives us to lead pure lives; in other words, lives dedicated to the Lord.
The hymn mentioned above is a long one, and most of its eleven verses are not used regularly. But as the verses progress, there is a recognition that living a holy life involves a struggle. It is not always easy. There are temptations and falls. Yet through God’s mercy, one is lifted on and moves forward, striving earnestly toward victory urged on by those who have gone before us, all the saints.
The last two verses point to that celebration which we all hope to share someday:
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:
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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