Listen to it:
“The Holy One and Holy Ones”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Feast of All Saints is not about when the saints go marching in. It’s not about that football team down in New Orleans. In fact, it’s not really about the saints at all. Imagine the scene as St. John sees it: you see the biggest crowd you have ever seen, far beyond all numbering. No arithmetic will do it justice. And the colors of the faces! Colors far beyond red and yellow, black and white, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. No anthropologist or sociologist has ever seen anything like this. It is not something that we could accomplish by quotas or well-designed programs. This is the work of God; this is divine affirmative action! And there they are, these faces, these joy-filled faces: some solemn in reverence and holy awe, some smiling or laughing with the beauty of an external light in their eyes, some on their knees, some with hands in the air. All of them wearing white robes; all of them alike and different at the same time. They are standing in a circle, but their eyes are not on each other. You walk through the crowd toward the center and, though there are millions, you find yourself quickly at the inner edge of the circle. And that’s when you hear the words; that’s when you see the One around whom this multitude is gathered. The words of a song that is both familiar and new. “H SWTHRIA TW QEW HMWN TW KAQHMENW EPI TW QRONW KAI TW ARNIW” (Revelation 7:10). At first the words are foreign, but they become clear: “The salvation belongs to our God, to the one sitting on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And then another song behind or with or over the top of the first one: “Amen, the blessing and the glory and the wisdom and the thanksgiving and the honor and the power and the strength belong to our God into the ages of ages. Amen” (Revelation 7:12). And there, in the center of the great circle, is the God to whom these songs are addressed: His is a throne unlike any you could have imagined and there is a Lamb to the right of the throne, though there does not seem to be much distinction between the One on the throne and the Lamb. They are surrounded by creatures so bright it is hard to look at them, but it is also clear that they have their light from the One on the throne, whom you cannot really see, let alone describe. Within the ring of angels, there are twenty-four others, who, having left their own thrones, lie with their faces on the ground toward the throne and the Lamb. Within their circle are four living creatures, covered with never-closing eyes and having six wings each, speaking an eternal refrain to the eternal hymn: “AGIOS AGIOS AGIOS.” Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord, the God, the Almighty, who was and is and is coming!” (Revelation 4:8).
And then, moving toward you is one of the twenty-four, and he asks you about the crowd: “These ones who have been clothed with the white robes, who are they and from where have they come?” (Revelation 7:13). “My lord, you know.” So he answers his own question: “These are the ones who are coming from the great tribulation and they washed their robes and they made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and they worship Him day and night in His temple, and the one sitting on the throne will spread a tent over them. They will not hunger nor thirst nor will the sun or heat fall upon them; because the Lamb, the one in the center of the throne, will shepherd them and will lead them beside living springs of water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:14-17).
There you stand, in the midst of the multitude, and you see that the vision is not really about the ones in the white robes, but about the Holy One in the center of this enormous throng, the same Holy One who is in our midst today. It is about the God to whom the hymn is addressed, around whom are the four, ever-seeing creatures, and the twenty-four elders, and all His messengers, and the numberless crowd. It is about the Lamb who was slain, who, by His blood, ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, beyond imagining and understanding: this God alone is holy, and all these who have been ransomed from sin and death by the blood of the Lamb wear a white robe in His presence. How poor is our clothing compared with those robes! How trivial the things we carry in our hands compared to those palms of rejoicing! How feeble our singing compared with those voices! Compared with those saints, what are we? We, who remain in the distress of these days, which seems to grow greater every year; we, who find the tribulation within us, as well as without; we who, like the autumn days, seem to grow colder and colder in the long, dark winter before that great Day. But spring is coming. The Day is still on the horizon, though it can be blocked out by the smoke rising from this dying earth.
But turn your eyes back to the one on the throne. The One who clothes His own in robes washed white in the blood of the holy Lamb. Blood that makes white! Blood that washes the stains out of your life from the inside out. You know the ones. Horrible stains that you can’t remove: stains of words that should have been said but weren’t, and words that should not have been said that were. Stains of the times you should have expressed your love, those lost chances that multiplied until your marriage ended or you found yourself estranged from your family. Stains of the closing of your ears and the deadening of your heart to the Word of God, until you found yourself believing, well, nothing much at all. Or maybe the stain of your goodness. Maybe, as you hear these words, you are looking around in your mind at all the other sinners who are here, and you’re slapping down the labels. But the stain of your pride and self-righteousness, like the stain of mine, also needs to be gotten out. All those stains; even after all your rubbing and washing and working, you find that the stains have become worse than ever. And what now? Well, you are here. You are gathered with the countless multitude, throughout the ages and throughout the world. You are taking stock of your day, your week, your year, your life. And you’re having a hard time matching John’s vision of angels, archangels, and the whole company of heaven to life in the world, and even-or especially-to life in the Church. But that’s the point. Those saints in the vision, the saints gathered around the throne and the Lamb, worshiping day and night in His temple, they never expected it to be like that. They’re the same as you. They had the same fears, the same pride, the same judgmental attitudes, the same unbelief, the same missed opportunities. If this story were first of all about them, there would be no white robes, no palms, no worshiping, no multitude. This story is first of all about the God who wants to wipe every tear from the eyes of His people, the Lamb who bears the scars of bloodshed, the holy God who makes unholy sinners into saints.
And the saints in the vision are not only like you, they are you. You-glorified and finally made what you should be, but you, nonetheless. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are”! (1 John 3:1, ESV) Your God has knit you together with the saints of all times and places, washed you white in bloody, cleansing water-only the blood of the Lamb, after all, can get your stains out; He has made you one holy communion, the mystical body of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is that holy, unseen-but absolutely real-Body that is gathered around this altar, this Jesus week by week, and that will, one day, be gathered together around the throne and the Lamb in the new creation. How clear St. John is: “Beloved…what we will be has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2, ESV)! That is obvious. “…but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3, ESV). Pure ones hoping in the Pure One. Holy ones gathered around the Holy One. Saints gathered around the Lamb whose blood has washed you white. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them, their God, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will be no longer, neither will there be mourning, or wailing, or trouble anymore, because the first things are passed away'” (Revelation 21:3-4).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/28/08