Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Songs Saints Sing
(A Homily for All Saints Sunday)


I sing a song of the saints of God. This day, All Saints, Day, is all for singing. The emphasis lay on the joyful noise and the song itself, so the untrained ear need not fear the invitation of the psalmist, when he says: “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.” Our usual places for singing are few: showers, cars, maybe the 7th inning stretch, if you are a fan of baseball. But nowhere do we sing as often with others as in the congregation of the faithful. So nowhere is our singing so bound up in listening, reconciling, and friendship. It’s as if both 1) to be a in communion is to sing, and 2) the song of God is a song to sing with others.

All Saints’ Day remembers the others, the countless others, who sang the song before us as well as those who sing it still, around us, across boundaries of geography, denomination, politics, even death: remembering that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. So All Saints’ grows our imagination for what we mean when we say “Church.” 

I wonder what difference you imagine it makes that the believing faithful are knit together in one communion? And how does one rightly remember the saints now departed? For example, I know traditions for which having died disqualifies you from being prayed for. The idea is “She is with God, what more does she need?" (And, perhaps unspoken, "If she isn’t with God, it’s too late for her now.)” For what it’s worth, I hope you will pray for me after I die. And I hope you will not wait until then. It is good to remember that to sing with one another implies a commitment to pray for each other. 

The Prayer Book gives us prayers for departed saints, a helpful thing for those of us afraid we might accidentally pray the wrong thing. Evidently, good things to pray for include “that your will for them may be fulfilled,” peace, that light perpetual would shine upon them, and “that we may share with all your saints in your eternal kingdom.” 

Another good thing to pray, with respect to saints departed, is prayers of thanksgiving for what they gave you, the things they showed you, the ways they opened up the life of faith to you - the song they taught you to sing. We all have bits of undeserved holiness - little guide posts, virtuous habits, and unaccounted for wisdoms - that have stuck with us or to us in spite of ourselves, and we owe most of them to the lives of saints who modeled these things for us, sometimes without their knowing it. But they let us watch their attempts to love God. I thank God for the imagination and courage with which generations of saints lived their sometimes peculiar loves for God in public. So St. Paul says to the saints in Ephesus, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” 

So the tradition rightfully commends the departed to our prayers, but what about the prayers of the departed saints for us? A variety of beliefs and practices here, but what evidence does the tradition offer for the existence or content of their prayers? Just one thing, really. A small and wonderful thing. Not surprisingly, maybe, it’s a song:

“Therefore we praise you,” we pray, “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
    Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
    Hosanna in the highest.”

The song and prayer of the departed saints is holy, holy, holy. Every time we gather, they meet us in this song. In our worship, the company of heaven are as inevitably present as Christ himself, so trained are they to celebrate his presence. Significantly, it is not they who join us, but we who join our voices to theirs in this thinnest of places, because these are the ones who never stop singing. And it’s the song of the conquering Lamb that they sing: holy, holy, holy.

To sing holiness like this can be daunting. For us, gathered around the table, lifting this marvelous song, to be surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses is meant to be a gift. The company of the saints is meant to give us encouragement and resources beyond ourselves for the high calling of praise and the good race set before us. But sometimes the effect is the opposite. After all, to be surrounded by an audience can be intimidating, as any little league batter belonging to over-zealous parents can attest. And this effect can be heightened in the Church, because many of us imagine the communion of saints as a kind of Hall of Fame for the faithful. The best of the best. In other words, we aren’t always convinced we belong.

The Beatitudes at the center of this day, especially, can seem frighteningly inaccessible to us. Blessed are the hungry, poor, and weeping? Blessed are the hated? Woe to the rich, full, and laughing? Woe to the well reputed? All of this seems to confirm our suspicion that saintliness is a noble ambition, but one that is hopelessly unrealistic for the rabble like us. But then we remember how the Son of God emptied himself, became poor, that he wept, that the Word by whom all things were made was held of no account. These things point to Jesus as the blessed in whom we find salvation and blessing and an alternative to our clumsy and decidedly un-saintly attempts to not need God. The self-emptying love of Jesus - even his forgiveness of us - reminds us that goodness apart from God is not the goal or object of the saints, but rather the Beatitudes name the gifts given to and found in the community centered on Christ. Like all the saints, then, we find our belonging and blessing around this table, in the presence of Jesus.


So without having to cross our fingers behind our backs, we sing a song of the saints of God as full-fledged saints of God. The emphasis lay on the joyful noise and the song itself, so the unskilled or untrained ear need not fear the invitation of the psalmist, when he says: “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.” Our usual places for singing are few: showers, cars, maybe the 7th inning stretch, if you are a fan of baseball. But nowhere do we sing as often with others as in this congregation of the faithful. So nowhere is our singing so bound up in listening, reconciling, and holy friendship. It’s as if both 1) to be in communion is to sing, and 2) the song of God is a song to sing with others. So… please stand and sing with me just now. Number 293.

 


St. Francis House, 11.3.13.

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