It was my first trimester of college, and I sang soprano in the chapel choir. That normally meant weekly rehearsals and the regular Sunday morning commitment. But that fall there were at least four memorial services (deaths of retired professors, if I recall correctly) held in our college chapel and the choir sang at every service. Every service included the hymn “For All The Saints”—and every verse.
With the impatience of an 18-year-old, I couldn’t believe we were singing all those verses again. And again. I hadn’t known those who had died, so I was just going through the motions of the liturgy. As I think back, those were the first memorial services I attended as an adult. I really didn’t understand the importance of a memorial service or the function that such a service played in the life of the church or in the life of those who loved the deceased.
With experience comes perspective
Four decades later, I’ve attended so many funerals and memorial services I’ve lost count. Both my parents and one of my brothers have died. Too many friends and classmates are no longer with us. Scores of fellow congregational members have passed on. I’ve sung “For All The Saints” at many of those funerals. These days we often sing that hymn on All Saints Day as well. And now, with my life touched by so many deaths (and a whole lot of lived experience), my eyes fill with tears when I sing:
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship 422)
Tears come because I’ve been privileged to be in communion with a great many saints, lots of them through Women of the ELCA. I have such a fuller understanding of that “fellowship divine” from circle members, board members, women who have touched my life in many ways. Through our organization I have come to better understand how sacred community forms the basis for our lives as Christians.
What I thought were struggles at 18 when I first sang this hymn pale in comparison to the struggles I’ve experienced as an adult. I know the feeble struggle that comes with a parent suffering from dementia or the death of a nephew whose life was cut short far too soon. I’ve also come to understand that struggles are lightened when shared in community. Tears come when I think back to these experiences.
All saints day offers much hope
The hopeful words of the final verses of “For All The Saints” paint a picture of a “far more glorious day” when all the saints—“the countless host”—are gathered, from all around the world, singing praises to our Triune God. Tears of joy come as I anticipate that glorious day!
As you gather this month, in your “fellowship divine,” may you remember the saints who now rest from their labors and acknowledge your own sainthood, secure in the promise of a far more glorious day in our collective futures.
Linda Post Bushkofsky is executive director. Today is All Saints Day, celebrated in most Lutheran congregations this coming Sunday.