The First Reading for this Feast of All Saints features a rare moment of dialogue between two flesh-and-blood humans in St. John’s Apocalypse:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.Revelation 7:13-14
This dialogue is creatively expanded upon in an oft-sung hymn for this Feast Day, which you can listen to below (if you travail through the youtube ads!):
Verses one and two of the hymn paraphrase the Elder’s rhetorical prompt, while verses three to five explore the implications of his reply. The third verse as it appears in our blue hymnal (#281) expresses a classic conception of holiness, or “set-apartness,” that marks the saints:
“These are they who have contended
for their Saviour’s honour long,
wrestling on ’til life was ended,
following not the sinful throng;
these, who well the fight sustained,
triumph through the Lamb have gained.”
It isn’t too hard to see how this describes those who have “come out of the great ordeal,” and have thus endured this ordeal. They have wrestled with, fought against and triumphed over a “sinful throng.” They have refused to go along with the wayward masses, choosing instead to “contend for their Saviour’s honour” and suffer the consequences.
This language of “fight” and “triumph” makes immediate sense under the violent, first-century spectre of Roman Imperial self-aggrandizement, but there’s no way it can possibly proclaim a Gospel of love and hope in our day, can it? Especially since the ethos of “following not the sinful throng” has been co-opted and distorted by anti-maskers, Qnon and others hell-bent on presevering the power of violent, twenty-first century imperial self-aggrandizement.
On its own, yes this language can be distorted in this way. But verse four provides a critical corrective that demonstrates the true power of the saints:
“These are they whose hearts were riven,
sore with woe and anguish tried,
who in pray’r full oft have striven
with the God they glorified;
now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.”
The saints have indeed fought and triumphed over an enemy: they’ve struggled against apathy, self-interest, fear and hate, in others and in themselves. They have gone head-first into the realities of life, with all its riven hearts, woe and anguish. They have borne the risks of seeking peace, showing mercy and forgiveness, offering compassion, humility, generosity and radical welcome, to those who might receive and requite them, hate and murder them, or simply dismiss them as irrelevant.
In other words, they have journeyed with Jesus to Gethsemane and Golgotha, where the Lamb himself became “sore with woe and anguish.” But their real triumph is that their lives are marked by the God who journeys with us, the God who plunges head-first into the painful realities of our lives through his own journey from Bethlehem to Golgotha. The saints are flesh-and-blood people who have been eternally set apart from the apathy, fear and hate of the world. Their lives are marked by the God whose compassion outlasts our apathy, whose hope outlasts our fear, whose love outlasts our hate, and whose life outlasts the grip of death itself.
And God continues to welcome us into this eternal life, offers to set us apart from the motives of hate and fear by plunging himself, head-first, into the reality of our lives. This is, actually, what it means to be among the baptized, whose heads have been “plunged into” (usually, just sprinkled with) water in God’s Triune name, whose foreheads have been signed with the cross and “marked as Christ’s own forever” (BAS, 160), whose lives have been joined with the Lamb’s own life. We recall this when we offer this prayer throughout Eastertide:
“Lord, we died with you on the cross.
Now we are raised to new life.
We were buried in your tomb.
Now we share in your resurrection.
Live in us, that we may live in you.” (BAS, 213)
May we indeed be set apart, known to be a people imbued with God’s compassion, forgiveness, hope and love, and numbered among his saints in everlasting life.