Thousand, thousand saints attending: The sanctoral cycle

July 25th, 2023

This article is the thirteenth article in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
once for favored sinners slain;
thousand, thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.[1] 

We do not travel alone. We are part of a community across time and space. It’s not just me and Jesus, but, for the very fact I walk with the Lord, I am always, simultaneously, with others. In time, we might struggle between the poles of individuality and community, sometimes tilting toward one, sometimes the other. That is a dialectical tension that will only be resolved in eternity, where our individuality and our community with others will be in perfect harmony. 

This baptized multitude with whom we travel is the communion of saints, of which we are made part by those same baptismal waters and their animating Spirit. So, why don’t we get to know the saints better, just for that reason alone? 

There are other reasons, too, to get better acquainted. As United Methodist Christians, we stress holiness, sanctification, moving on to perfection. One definition of a saint is those in whom that perfect love of Jesus surely dwells, despite their imperfections. Wesleyans, of all Christians, ought to have a special interest in keeping company with the saints, lest holiness become a theological abstraction, apart from lives lived, deaths died. Holiness doesn’t exist elsewhere than in redeemed bodies and souls. 

Wesley was a saint-watcher. He spent much of his ministry watching others to observe how God’s power was alive and at work in them. The work of the Holy Spirit is saint-making, adorning the otherwise ordinary lives of women and men throughout the ages with holy love, a love decked in the work clothes of a thousand vocations: nurses, teachers, preachers, reformers, the vocal, the quiet, the musical, monastics, evangelists, leaders, followers. Holiness works, literally. And the work of holy people reiterates and embodies the story of Jesus in a particular time and place, with its own unique circumstances, needs, and hopes, a call to which they (forgiven sinners first of all) have responded. Do we not need examples, models, teachers, to show us how that calling might be (literally) worked out in our own lives?

So, it makes little sense for United Methodism to live without a sanctoral calendar. We have always kept Wesley’s habit of pointing to holy lives. The obvious step is to keep a calendar to goad our memories to remember. 

In fact, there already is one. An unofficial one, at least. For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations for United Methodists, edited by Clifton Guthrie (Order of St. Luke Publications, 1995). This volume is a great start, and includes universally observed festivals of apostles, martyrs, mystics, pastors, theologians, and so forth, figures such as Augustine, Macrina, Catherine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Wesley. But it adds Methodist saints, too, such as Lucy Rider Myer, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Francis J. McConnell. Luminaries from other traditions find their places on the calendar, too. The saints are grouped into “commons” by their characteristics, e.g., martyrs, preachers, teachers, etc. A year’s calendar at the beginning of the book lists each saint’s day (in a format like that of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pages 19-30).  The day set aside for a saint’s commemoration (e.g., Nicholas Ferrar, December 1) features a page-long overview of the person written by one of the volume’s 61 contributors. 

Sanctoral calendars are representative, not exhaustive. Local churches should be encouraged to add their own commemorations. My home church is Trinity UMC, DeLand, Florida. Years ago, Euretta Faber lived out her Christian faith in that congregation, teaching Sunday School, feeding the hungry, befriending the friendless. When she died, “Miss Euretta” was remembered with a pantry in the fellowship hall. The congregation began stocking it and fed and clothed many from it for years to come. The “Miss Euretta’s Closet” sign over the door was enough to prompt the storytelling that the lives of Christ’s witnesses require for the church to remember them. That’s an example of a local commemoration. There are many ways to remember “up close” saints like that, including a yearly remembrance on their birthday or day of death. Many congregations remember the departed at All Saints (John Wesley’s favorite festival). Others might write their names, year by year, in a Book of Remembrance and place it on the altar during the month of November. Their stories need to be told and placed in the wider fellowship of Charles Wesley’s poetic thousand thousand. This, in fact, is how the calendar of saints originated among early Christians, who remembered local martyrs on the day of their martyrdom, telling their stories in a way that caught on and eventually had the universal church remembering them, too. 

Hopefully the next generation of worship resources for United Methodists will include a calendar of saints to help remind us that we are not alone. We walk with a great cloud of witnesses. “Saint” is not a sentimental moniker for a gaggle of meek and mild folk. Rather, it names the very outcome of the work of grace without which there is no church. Saints are those without whom God would not have us live. 

As Charles Wesley has us sing:

One family we dwell in him,
one church above, beneath,
though now divided by the stream,
the narrow stream of death;
one army of the living God,
to his command we bow;
part of his host have crossed the flood,
and part are crossing now.[2]

[1] UMH No. 718, v. 1

[2] UMH No. 709 v. 2. 

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