Church Unity: For all the saints

As All Saints’ Day grows nearer, here’s another hymn (this time a more popular one) to walk through together.  For all the saints is a long hymn, clocking in at 8 verses.  Unless you sing it during a nice long procession, chances are you usually only get to sing 4 or 5 verses at one time. So now’s your chance, finally, to check out all the lyrics in one go!

1. For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

We’re singing about God’s saints, but we’re still worshiping God alone.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but because a lot of people with non-catholic backgrounds get very cautious about idolatry the moment the word “saint” appears, it’s worth pointing out.  The saints who now rest from the labors of this life are remembered here for their confession of faith in Christ, and we bless his name along with them.

2. Thou was their rock, their fortress, and their might:
thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
thou, in the darkness drear, the one true Light.

What was so great about these saints of old?  They had Jesus in their lives.  Jesus was their rock, fortress, strength, leader, and light.  That’s what made them great.  That’s what can make us great, too!

3. O 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.

Now we’ve taken what verse 2 said about the departed saints, and turned that into a prayer for all of us still alive on earth today here in verse 3.  We’re still going to where they’ve already gone.

4. O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.

Verse 4 now celebrates what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the Communion of Saints.”  Even though the situation of the living & departed people of God is different, we’re still united in Christ.

5. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.

The militaristic imagery of verses 2 and 3 now come back with a vengeance!  There are several images in the New Testament of Christians being like soldiers, instructed to put on the “armor of light” or “the full armor of God.”  Our enemies are “not flesh and blood,” however, but spiritual beings.  We fight against sin and evil, especially within ourselves.  The “distant triumph song” in verse 5 is a description of our unity of worship with the departed saints.  When we worship together with them (who have finished their fights against sin), we are strengthened and emboldened to continue in our own spiritual battles.

6. The golden evening brightens in the west;
soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.

Continuing from verse 5, we now sing about the approaching end of our own fight against sin.  The promise of eternal “rest” in God (as Hebrews 4 details) is seen in the departed saints’ present condition, and thus is not just a hopeful goal for us but also a promise.  Jesus has gone “to prepare a place” for us!

7. But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array;
the King of glory passes on his way.

It’s one thing for our individual battles to come to an end – that’s encouraging to know about.  But even better is for the sin of the whole world to be defeated.  Verse 7 describes that: the return of Christ, our King of glory, with all the saints, at the end of the age.  The final and complete victory of Christ on the Cross will be realized everywhere, and the individual struggles against sin will finally be finished.

8. 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, Alleluia, alleluia!

On that final day of the victorious return of Christ, the world world will be united in praise to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  There are visions of this in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Revelation, and other books in the Bible.  Indeed, the worship of the Church even now, uniting the saints departed (the “church triumphant”) with the saints on earth (the “church militant”) is a preview of that final vision of universal worship of God.  All nations, tribes, and languages are being united at the Altar of his praise.  The classic “already/not yet” dynamic of Gospel reality is very much alive here as we sing about the future, overflowing back into the present.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
A
s it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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