From Heaven to Earth and Back Again – Celebrating a Great Hymn of the Church

One of the greatest English hymns ever written, is “For All the Saints.” It is a wide and sweeping vision of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. It’s imagery is regal and joyful, it’s poetry majestic and masterful. A vivid picture is painted in the mind as the wondrous words move by. If you ask me it is a masterpiece. Many people know the opening line, but most have never sung it all the way through and thus miss its wondrous portrait.  A number of  years ago I committed words of this hymn to memory, very much like my father who loved to memorize things that moved him.

Spend a few moments now reflecting on this masterwork. It was written in 1864 by William Walsham How, an Anglican Bishop. Ralph Vaughan Williams set it to a stirring melody in 1906. I love to play this hymn at the organ since it has a challenging but exciting “walking base” played  by the feet and big rich chords in the hands. In his recent outreach to the Anglicans the Pope speaks of the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion as a “precious gift” and treasure to shared” (AC, III). This hymn from the Anglican tradition is surely one of those treasures. Permit me to set forth each verse and then comment.

First we cast our eyes heavenward to the Church Triumphant:

For all the saints, who from their labours rest, Who Thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia!

Here then in the first verses is stated the purpose of the hymn. Namely, that we sing to and praise God for all those saints who have finished their course here and entered into the rest of the Lord. Like the the Lord they can say, “It is finished.” Like St. Paul they can say, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day (2 Tim 4:7-8). These saints declared to world the holy and blessed name of Jesus by their words and deeds. They confessed and did not deny him. To them and us Jesus made a promise: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:32). And we too are summoned to take up the cry: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.

Salvation and the living of a holy and courageous life is only possible by the grace of God. Only if God be our rock,  our defender and our strength can we stand a chance in the battle of this earthly life. Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5) St. Paul taught that the ancient Israelites made it through the desert only by Christ for he wrote: they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them in the desert, and that rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:4). So Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm! Only in Christ and by his light could they have the strength for the battle and win through to the victory.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Ah here then is our connecting verse. We, here on earth (the Church Militant) share blessed communion with the saints in heaven because we are one in Christ. The body of Christ is one and so we hav communion with the saints. We are not in separate compartments unconnected to the saints in heaven. No, we are one in Christ and have communion with them. And though we feebly struggle here on earth, the vision of the glory they already share and  our communion with them strengthens us. The Book of Hebrews referring to the saints in heaven says: Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us! (Heb 12:1-2)

Having gazed heavenward and derived strength from our mystical communion with the Saints in Christ, the hymn now sets forth the trials of the Church militant and counsels: Courage!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.

We now who live here are told to be like courageous soldiers holding firm and loyal to the end to the true faith. We like they must often fight bravely in a world that is hostile to Christ and his truth. So fight we must, in a noble way for the crown comes only after the cross. But the victory will one day be ours. It doesn’t always look that way now, But Christ has already won the victory. And even if this world deprives us, ridicules us or even kills us, the victor’s Crown awaits to all who remain faithful. Jesus said, You will be hated by all because of me, be he who perseveres to the end will be saved. (Matt 10:22)

Now comes a call to courage rooted in song that faith puts in our hearts. Psalm 40 says: I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He put a new song in my mouth,  a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. It is a  song that echoes from heaven, through the words of scripture and the teachings of the Church: Victory is our today!  Here the call and source of courage in this verse:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.

For now,  it is God’s will that we hear the call “still to fight on.” For now we are in the Church militant. But here the verses of the hymn direct us back toward heavenly things and the last things. For, one day the battle will end for us. The hymn speaks elegantly of the “golden evening” of life and the “rest” that death will one day bring. And, likely through the purifying effects of purgatory, we shall one day pass where we will cast off our burdens, our sorrows and final sins. There the Lord will wipe every tear from our eyes (cf Rev. 21:4).

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.

And then an even more glorious day breaks forth. The hymn closes the circle and we are back in heaven again! There the saints are clothed in bright array and the heavenly liturgy is beautifully captured in two lines as it describes the saints in worshipful praise as the King of Glory, Jesus passes by in triumuphal procession. What a glorious vision this verse provides:

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.

And the hymn takes one final look. We have come full circle from heaven to earth and back to heaven again. We have made our journey but now the hymn bids us to cast our glance outward and see the magnificent procession that continues for all who will come after us. Jesus had said, “And I when I be lifted from the earth with draw all men unto me.” (Jn 12:32) So now look fellow Christian! Look outward from a heavenly perspective and see the harvest as Christ draws countless numbers to himself:

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:

Ah, what a hymn. What a sweeping vision and woundrous celebration of  the Christian life. Though the battle be now engaged, victory is sure if we but stand firm and hold to God’s unchanging hand.

19 Replies to “From Heaven to Earth and Back Again – Celebrating a Great Hymn of the Church”

  1. I love this hymn and pulling out all the stops on the organ for the last two verses is always, dare I say, exhillarating?

    I actually wrote an additional verse to this hymn a few years ago. I have never figured out if I like it or not, but I thought I would share it. The text specifically honors the martyrs among the saints.

    The band of Martyrs, join the living throng,
    Lifting their voices up in joyous song.
    Praising our God for all the ages long.
    Alleluia, Alleluia.

      1. Bill, your mention of verse-writing brings to mind the following memory:

        A couple of years ago, we attended Vigil Mass on Super Bowl Weekend. As we walked into the church, I suggested to my husband that the recessional hymn might sound suspiciously like the fight song for one of the teams.

        Him: One canNOT make a hymn out of a fight song!
        Me: One can TOO. ANY tune is fair game.
        Him: No, you just can’t do it.

        The gauntlet thus thrown, instead of paying attention to the homily (topic: Fill Out Your Pledge Form For the Archbishop’s Appeal) I thought about fitting hymn-like words to my rather sketchy repetoire (sp?) of fight songs.

        As we drove home from Mass, I sang the following:

        Praise to the Father,
        Praise to the Son,
        Praise to the Spirit,
        God, the Three in One!

        The Redskins, after all, haven’t had much need for their fight song. Not for quite some time.

  2. Dear Msgr. Pope,
    I can’t begin to express the great appreciation that I feel for your daily posts, especially this one.
    Reading your words and listening to this great hymn brought tears to the eyes of this disaffected Episcopalian; who longingly looks forward to reunion with the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, through the Holy Father’s Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus.
    Your posts are jewels that I love to share.
    Yours in Christ,
    J. David Hill

    1. Thanks. I am glad to be of some use in your journey. God bless you and thanks for reading and for your journey. I am sure you birng many riched to the Church! Oremus pro invicem

  3. Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, the Pope of Christian Unity, we Roman Catholics can now unabashedly claim the likes of Ralph Vaughn Williams and T.S. Eliot as truly our own.

    Msgr., are you familiar with the old Latin hymn “Mirabilis Deus” ? It, too, can be a tour-de-force on the pipe organ. “Mirabilis Deus in sanctis suis!”

      1. Christian Brothers Hymn Book for Catholic Youth has it. Enhance it with some fancy footwork and improvisation!

  4. Absolutely agreed–what a majestic hymn, what poetry!

    With some songs, the parishioners are tempted to start leaving Church after the second or third verse. With this song, there is no such temptation even when one sings every single verse!

    1. Brian, some of us don’t have a choice but to leave after the 2nd verse…because that’s all that are played! Even on TRINITY SUNDAY the Holy Spirit gets the shaft, because he is referenced in the 3rd verse!

      I understand that due to time constraints it isn’t always practical to sing all verses of a hymn, but when one snips out too much, the beauty of the poetry is lost. It’s a darn shame.

  5. A hymn well sung and much appreciated. It gives glory to God and those He has called to His kingdom.

  6. If you want something completely different check out the Rock Bottom Choir’s version of this hymn. Stripped down to guitar, bass, and drums.

  7. I totally look forward to the feast of All Saints in our parish – we sing this in procession as the opening hymn – it is truly soul stirring !

  8. Dear Monsignor Charles Pope,

    If I may presume to add a note to your welcome commentary, the last two stanzas include (if I am not mistaken) a reference to the “glorious day” upon which all “the saints triumphant” at last “rise” (again) in the “bright array” of their “holy and glorious flesh” (to use the words Solomon speaks in Dante’s ‘Paradiso’, canto XIV, lines 43-45: “Come la carne gloriosa e santa / fia rivestita, la nostra persona / piu grata fia per esser tutta quanta” , the last line-and-a-half of which Wicksteed (in a version published 7 years before Vaughan Williams set the hymn) translates “our person shall be more acceptable by being all complete”).

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