On some Elements of All Saints’ Day’s liturgy

THE ACCLAMATION 146

Priest Worthy is the Lord our God,
People To receive glory and honor and power.

For a good half of the year the opening words with which “acclaim” or worship God is an adoration of the Trinity: “Blessed be God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit / And blessed be his Kingdom…” But on All Saints’ Day and most other major saints days the Prayer Book offers us this one instead. It is found on page 146 at the end of the “Seasonal Greetings” list, and quotes from Revelation 4:11. This biblical citation is significant because Revelation 4 (and many other portions of that book) contains a song of worship that St. John sees the saints in heaven crying out. This, along with the famous Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy) are examples in our liturgy where we literally join with the words of worship that take place in the heavenly places. The church “militant” joins the church “triumphant”, but more on that later.

THE COLLECT OF THE DAY 107

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body of your Son: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

This prayer (called a collect because it collects the themes of the day into a single prayer) picks up on the unity of the church militant and triumphant in the mystical Body of Christ and makes a request on that basis: “give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living.” This may be unusual for those with an evangelical background: don’t Christians follow Jesus, not the saints? But the address in this prayer provides the context needed to understand this petition: if God has knit together all his people into one fellowship, one Body, in heaven and on earth, then when the individual Christian follows Jesus he or she does so as part of a massive group! If we on earth are walking the Way of Christ, then we literally following the saints who have gone before us and are now at rest. Jesus said it is a “narrow way” to heaven, but did not say the road was empty. We have many excellent examples of virtue and godly living in the saints before us from which we can learn, and imitate.

THE FIRST LESSON: Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations. The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and were men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and proclaiming prophecies; leaders of the people in their deliberations and in understanding of learning for the people, wise in their words of instruction; those who composed musical tunes, and set forth verses in writing; rich men furnished with resources, living peaceably in their habitations— all these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times. There are some of them who have left a name, so that men declare their praise. And there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived; they have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them. But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their prosperity will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance to their children’s children. Their descendants stand by the covenants; their children also, for their sake. Their posterity will continue for ever, and their glory will not be blotted out. Their bodies were buried in peace, and their name lives to all generations. Peoples will declare their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise.

I have heard it said that honoring the saints is a uniquely Christian idea, of no Jewish precedent. I have also heard it said that honoring the saints is a pagan practice, “ancestor worship”, which corrupted Christianity during the middle ages. Texts like this one offer a different story: in the “intertestamental history” (between the Old & New Testaments) lived a man named Jesus, son of Sirach, who wrote a long book of Jewish wisdom, and his grandson translated this work into Greek. This became the book of “Sirach” or “Ecclesiasticus”, from which this reading comes. Chapter 44 famously begins a long survey of the great Old Testament saints. The verses here provide an excellent “purpose statement” for why those before us should be remembered among the living, even those “who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived”. After this paragraph, the author celebrates the lives of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, the Prophets, Ezra, and even some of the men we read about in the history of the Maccabees who delivered Judah from Greek oppression.

THE PSALM: 149

1 Praise the Lord. O sing unto the Lord a new song; * let the congregation of the faithful praisehim.
2 Let Israel rejoice in the one who made him, * and let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
3 Let them praise his Name in the dance; * let them sing praises unto him with timbrel and harp.
4 For the Lord has pleasure in his people * and gives victory to those who are oppressed.
5 Let the faithful be joyful with glory; * let them rejoice upon their beds.
6 Let the praises of God be in their mouth * and a two-edged sword in their hands,
7 To inflict vengeance on the nations, * and to rebuke the peoples,
8 To bind their kings in chains, * and their nobles with links of iron,
9 That they may execute judgment upon them, as it is written; * this is the honor of all his servants. Praise the Lord.

This is a classic appointed psalm for All Saints’ Day. It’s what I was going to preach on, had I not fallen ill this week. The language of this psalm is intriguing: verses 1-3 are fairly standard expressions of praise to God like many other psalms, but then things get interesting. Verse 4 celebrates God’s works, which is a normal next step in biblical worship: in this case God has pleasure in his people and gives victory to the oppressed – a standard appeal to his justice. Verses 5-9, then, take an unusual turn to focus on “his people” and what they (we!) will do. Let us be joyful in the glory of God shared with us; let us worship God even from our beds when we’re waking or going to sleep. And in verse 6 we get swords. Yes, let us “inflict vengeance on the nations”, “rebuke the peoples”, “bind their kings… and their nobles” in order to “execute judgment upon them” all to “honor of all his servants.” Wait, all this warfare language is for our honor!? If the idea of us following the saints was jarring to the evangelical mind back in the Acclamation, how much weirder must this be, that we should be honored in the deliverance of vengeance to the world around us. The answer is found in the biblical imagery of spiritual warfare. Most famously expounded in Ephesians 6:10-20, the idea is that we are armed and armored to fight against spiritual powers, authorities, forces, not flesh and blood. There also it is said that we wield a sword – the sword of the Spirit – by prayer. Alternatively (or perhaps just another take from a different angle) the “two-edged sword” is the Word of God written, according to Hebrews 4:12. The double edge is a warning to us: what can be used to cut others can also cut us. The Word of God divides lies, breaks down arguments, and demolishes spiritual strongholds anywhere it is wielded. This is the judgment that we, the saints, have to execute on the nations as well as upon ourselves: the Gospel of Jesus Christ has come into the world and we must spread that news everywhere, bringing light and justice and hope and peace and truth to every dark and corrupt corner of the earth. This is the honor of all his servants. Praise the Lord.

THE EPISTLE LESSON: Revelation 7:9-17 108

I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

This is the historic Epistle lesson in all the Prayer Book tradition before ours. It is another picture of heavenly worship in the book of St. John’s Revelation. But it is not only a picture of worship, but of the worshipers themselves: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” They are a numberless multitude from all over the world, worshiping together in perfect unison. The three sentences at the end depicted in verse are quotes from the Prophet Isaiah, showing this heavenly reality of God’s people finally washed from their sins. One day you and I will join them!

THE GOSPEL: Matthew 5:1-12 108

Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

This is the historic Gospel for All Saints’ Day, where Jesus makes his “beatitudes”, or proclaims his blessings upon the virtuous. I have heard some people nickname this text the “be-attitudes”, on the basis that these are ways that we are called to live. We’re supposed to practice these virtues, and let these actions pervade our attitudes – our hearts and minds. But they’re not just “be-attitudes”, they are promises. These are pictures of how God intends to grow us. You don’t pick and choose these as if they’re a list of possible ways into heaven. No, they are all one reality: if you would own the kingdom of heaven as your home, be comforted by God, inherit the earth, etc. then you must become poor in spirit, a mourner, meek, etc. The Christian life is not a matter of if/then, but of because/therefore. If you don’t fancy yourself as meek, or a peacemaker, or merciful, or anything else on this list, don’t fret. Continue your life of submitting to God and turning to Christ, and by his Spirit you will be transformed, inch by inch, and made ready for that last great Day. The Spirit is like a servant helping you put on your wedding garment for the heavenly banquet.

THE COMMUNION SENTENCE

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. MATTHEW 5:8-10

A new feature of the liturgy that I’ve adopted a few weeks is the “Communion Sentence”, which is read after the distribution of Holy Communion and before the Post-Communion Prayer. There’s a little rubric on pages 120 & 136 authorizing this practice. It’s a call-back to older liturgical tradition where every Mass has its own unique Sentence. The purpose of the sentence is to provide a tiny devotion from the Scriptures to help keep the moment holy and speak some Eucharistic truth to the people. Only the first Prayer Book (in 1549) provided this practice; it had been in remission for most of the past 500 years. I compared the list of Communion Sentences pre- and post-Reformation, and the difference is subtle but powerful: the old Prayer Book’s list is very much focused on salvation through faith than the previous Roman Rite’s list. Yes, the Sacrament is a blessing and a means of grace, but we only profitably receive it through faith. The sentence I chose for All Saints’ Day is actually from the Roman list, as it repeats a piece of the Gospel reading. As we digest the Body and Blood of Christ we would hear the words spoken again over us: “Blessed are the pure in heart…” because that is precisely what God is transforming us into by his grace, bit by bit.

Go forth, O saints of God!

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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1 Response to On some Elements of All Saints’ Day’s liturgy

  1. Pingback: Video: the Holy Days in the Prayer Book – The Saint Aelfric Customary

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