By Organist-Choirmaster Benjamin Kolodziej
We prepare for All Saints Sunday this week, a liturgy which we begin with the great hymn, “For All the Saints.”
In Revelation 7, the Apostle John has a vision of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb…and they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” This innumerable throng—this “communion of saints”—represents the whole Christian Church on earth—past, present, and future.
William Howe (1823-1897) wrote this hymn text to encompass the whole communion of saints while focusing particularly on those who have died: i.e. the “saints who from their labors rest.” Howe refers to the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs who “Before the world confessed,” alluding to Hebrews 11’s chronicle of Israel’s faithful. Howe sets the second stanza in the past tense, noting that God “Wast their rock, their fortress, and their might, Thou, Lord, their captain, in the well-fought fight.” However, Howe also shifts to the present. The strength that was theirs is now ours, even as in our mortal lives, “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” Howe reminds us, finally, that in Christ, “All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed this memorable tune, which, although stately and grand, almost bears the lilting character of a folk song, of which the composer was a fond collector. As an organist, I cannot help but feel a bit of nostalgia when playing this hymn. In fact, hymns from the Victorian Era are usually nostalgic anyway; their attempts at glancing longingly back to those heady days in which the “sun never set” on the British Empire are never far below the surface of the poetry. Like the Victorian hymn writer, we turn our eyes elsewhere—in this case not back, but toward the future, and towards Christ and His return.
“For All the Saints” reminds us that we are but travelers and pilgrims, standing in a long succession of travelers and pilgrims who, having successfully completed their course, now stand as an example in the faith for us.