November First is the festival of All Saints. Not a few saints, or just one, but all of them, which Protestants at least have taken to mean all baptized Christians, all redeemed by Jesus. And all means “all”, the living and the dead.
Typically, we don’t think much about the dead in America now. In fact, we don’t like to think about them at all. We push the graveyards out of our cities, or even better dispense of them all together, scattering ashes to the winds (which is not only cheap but saves relatives the guilt inflicted by not visiting graves of the departed).
But the Christian scriptures are pretty clear that Christians make up a body of people both living and dead, all of us awaiting the final judgment and bodily resurrection. And All Saints is the day that Christians are expected to focus on that bit of theology.
Few places make the communion as physical present as Westminster Abbey, where you quite literally worship on top of the graves of Great Britain’s most famous subjects (I once attended Morning Prayer at Westminster sitting, quite literally, on top of Handel). But Center Church, New Haven, Connecticut, has a bit of the same. When the town green was re-figured, and the city’s principle churches positioned across the green, it was found that the city’s oldest church, for the purposes of symmetry, would need to be placed where the town’s burial ground was. So, rather than disturb the graves of the church’s departed members, the elders of the church decided to leave the graves in tack and simply build the new church on top of them. Visit the church, descend to the church basement, and you visit the colonial graveyard. And every Sunday morning, the living congregation worships above those who have gone on before.
The great hymn of All Saints is “For All the Saints”, the William Walsham How, who ended his professional career as Church of England bishop. His text is usually sung to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ glorious tune called “Sine Nomine” (the first name is pronounced “Rafe” and the “Vaughan” isn’t a middle name but the first part of a double last name). The tune’s name (which is Latin for “without a name”) isn’t a coy joke but a reference to Ecclesiasticus 44.9: “And some be there, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.” And those verses are a rebuttal of the chapter’s opening bravado “Let us now praise famous men, and our father that begat us.” It’s a wonderful hymn to remind Christians that they are surrounded by a magnificent cloud of witnesses.