In Revelation 7 we read that, standing before the Apostle John was “. . . a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. . . . and they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” This innumerable throng represents the whole Christian Church on earth—past, present and, given our time frame now, future. These are the faithful martyrs of Rome, whose bodies lie in the catacombs. They are the reformers of the Middle Ages before Luther who, like Wycliff and Hus, were burned at the stake for daring to counter the corruption of the Church. They are the faithful Christians today who live in China or Africa and find themselves practicing their faith secretly so as to avoid death at the hands of secular or religious authorities. They are also those Christians who have lived their whole lives comfortably—the righteous of all ages who are unnamed and unremembered by history.
William How’s (1823-1897) hymn encompasses the idea of the “communion of saints” as it dwells upon the “saints who from their labours rest.” How refers to the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs who “Before the world confessed,” as we read in Hebrews 11. Howe sets the second stanza in the past tense, noting that God “Wast their rock, their fortress, and their might, Thou, Lord, their captain, in the well-fought fight.” The strength that was theirs is now ours, even as “. . . we feebly struggle, they in glory shine. Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.”
Victorian hymns such as this one are by nature nostalgic in that they always look to the past with surety and to the future with trepidation. After all, this was the national ethos of Britain at the time—it was no longer the empire on which the sun never set, but was losing its colonies and having to share superpower status with other nations for the first time at least since Napoleon’s defeat. Though certainly not universal, we Americans can be characterized as optimistic, forward-looking and always ready to tread new ground. We conquered our own continent a century ago and our influence is world-wide, for better or for worse. There is seemingly little we cannot accomplish if we simply strive hard enough, or so the thought goes. Such thinking does not lend itself to hymnody such as How’s text—we are not particularly comfortable being reminded of our mortality. . . such is an admission that we are not infallible nor omnipotent, either as a society or as individuals. We would rather sing safe and innocuous music about God in the abstract or about our feelings toward God or one another—certainly nothing that would remind us of our impending death. But How does not shirk from the reality of the world when he reminds us in stanza 5, “And when the fight is fierce the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong.” Our life brings us strife, but death brings us hope and rest, as he continues, “The golden evening brightens in the west; soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest; sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.” What poetry this is! Most of us think of the evening as darkening, but here Howe ironically says it brightens, as if our transient life is but the beginning of something greater. To those in this brightening light “cometh rest,” again using light and dark imagery in the opposite sense to which we are used—we then rest in the light. And indeed How continues in stanza seven speaking of this new “day” which is breaking, “The saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of Glory passes on His way.” Here we are reminded not only of the King of Glory who a week before His death was lauded by the crowd with hosannas, but also of the King of Glory who will be born in a manger and for whom we prepare in Advent.
Just as Christ was resurrected, we, too, will rise again on the last day to experience the communion of all the saints, all who have lived by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.