Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Feast of All Saints

November 1 is celebrated in many Western traditions as All Saints' Day, a commemoration of all saints, known and unknown. The early church believed that all those martyred for the faith should have a particular day named for their remembrance (the beginning of the various calendars of saints), but as time went on they ran out of days. It was decided that there should be one day for all martyrs and saints (though this did not supplant the individual days of commemoration), and the Eastern church seems to have chosen a day as early as the fifth century (now observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost. The day in Western tradition dates from the seventh century, first celebrated in May and later moved to November 1.

Many churches today move it again; if your church celebrates it, it will likely be tomorrow, and generally the first Sunday in November.

Today's hymn dates from eighteenth century Germany, with a popular nineteenth century translation. Heinrich Theobald Schenk, a pastor's son, wrote this text with imagery from Revelation 7, describing the throng of saints in heaven. It's absolutely one of my ten all-time favorites.

Who are these like stars appearing,
These before God’s throne who stand?
Each a golden crown is wearing;
Who are all this glorious band?
Alleluia! Hark, they sing,
And to God their tribute bring.

Who are these of dazzling brightness,
These in God’s own truth arrayed,
Clad in robes of shining whiteness,
Robes whose luster ne’er shall fade,
Ne’er be touched by time’s rude hand?
Whence come all this glorious band?

These are they who have contended
For their Savior’s honor long,
Wrestling on till life was ended,
Following not the sinful throng;
These who well the fight sustained,
Triumph by the Lamb have gained.

These are they whose hearts were riven,
Sore with woe and anguish tried,
Who in prayer full oft have striven
With the God they glorified;
Now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.

These, like priests, have watched and waited,
Offering up to Christ their will;
Soul and body consecrated,
Day and night to serve God still:
Now in that most holy place
Blest they stand before God's face.

Heinrich Theobald Schenk, 1719; tr. Frances E. Cox, 1861; alt.
Darmstadt Gesangbuch, 1698

Schenk's text was probably written for this slightly older tune which, though it has had a number of names in hymnals of the last hundred years, was originally matched with a text that began Zeuch mich, zeuch mich mit dem Armen.

P.S. The illustration above, the glorious band in their golden crowns, is by
Fra Angelico, the Italian Renaissance painter. Who are these? He probably could name them all; most seem to have been painted with particular details, such as what they are wearing or what they are holding, that would identify each one.

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