Last year for All Saints I put together a pretty great listicle, riffing off the one that Jesus puts together for his lovely Sermon on the Mount. I had been thinking lots about the word “blessing” or rather, hashtag blessed, and thought it was so funny of Jesus to do up a list full of human impossibilities—like humility and selflessness.
This year, the thing that strikes me across the soul is the vision in Revelation. Look at this strange picture that none of us are allowed to even contemplate or Anthony Fauci will come crying across the interwebs in a panic:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
First of all, the loud voice bit is bewildering. No one should cry out altogether with a loud voice. If you have to talk, it is better behind Plexiglas and muffled by a mask. Second of all, you can’t crowd together like that, especially inside, especially groups of people who haven’t been quarantining in tandem or whatever it is, so that they can meet with each other in cautiously limited ways, without endangering anyone.
The interesting thing about this for me is that, had it not been for covid, I would not have felt the intense and grateful longing that I do now for this forthcoming experience. I have always looked forward to it, of course. There are a lot of people I want to be with and can’t. The people I love are spread out all over the world, and some of them are gone altogether, enjoying the consolations of the bosom of Abraham until we can catch up whenever I get there. That is what this image has chiefly said to me, as I have had to say goodbye over and over and over—it’s ok, we’ll all be together again one day, all around the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in something decent, finally, singing.
But this new kind of isolation makes the image even more immediate. I do think, in some spiritual way, it is always a little bit dangerous when people get together in big groups, even for very good reasons. There is nothing wrong with big concerts, loud sportsing events, or even political rallies. And there are probably some very good reasons to protest. And, of course, the best gathering—church—is not a dangerous activity, per se. But the kind of unity that we endure here on earth is always full of problems. If we sing, some of us are not in key. If we protest, some of us are doing it with wicked hearts. If we settle in for a concert, some of us fall asleep. Moreover, the deep, soul-level cacophony of so many sinners trying to do the same thing all at the same time usually increases the sense of isolation, especially when you make your solitary way home whenever it is all over.
Add in covid, and the anxiety of crowds getting together to breathe on each other eclipses that already familiar misfortune. Setting aside whether the injunctions not to gather are of any use, or if covid is real or not real, or if we are being controlled by our political betters, I appreciate the distressing and new (for me) discovery that we—especially in groups—are “problematical,” that we have the capacity to do real damage one unto another. Imagine, if you will, all the people, living for today, oo-ooo-ooo, and you can see how potentially ghastly it is.
But this vision of heaven isn’t like that. The danger is all gone. There isn’t any more anxiety about illness or injustice or stupidity or ruin. Everyone, from every language and group, is altogether getting along for real, unified in body and in spirit, wondering at the beauty and glory of the Lamb. The thing that they cry out—and no one will stop them because the thing is true, and their breath is not dangerous—“Salvation belongs to our God,” is exquisite even now, though we whisper it to each other, though there is yet no great throng to apprehend its full meaning.
We want salvation to belong to us, each in our own way. Save yourself, suggests Rachel Hollis, by paying 1000 dollars for my marriage conference just a few months before I myself get divorced. Save others, cries Black Lives Matter, by coming to our rally and lighting some things on fire. Save the country, cry the Proud Boys, by doing down Antifa. Save the world, cries Greta Thunberg, by enacting some governmental policies that are not very well sorted out. Save your 401K, cries Mr. Trump at every rally, by voting for me. Save your pride, cries Mr. Biden, by voting at all and wearing a mask. Of course it’s not fair to distill down all these various brands of salvation into such simplistic sloganeering. There are lots of ways to make things better for each other and ourselves, and not all of them are bad.
But they do all belong to us. They are the things we do by ourselves and in groups, and no matter what they are, because they are ours, for every inch of life that they make better, there are another two inches that turn out to be much worse. Whereas when God gathers us and brings about a salvation that belongs to him, by the blood of the Lamb, there isn’t anything wrong with it. No part of it is a little bit off or a little bit weird or a lot bit questionable. You can grab hold without reservation. You don’t need to make that long list of “well, I don’t agree with everything he says, but this one thing was ok” that is inevitably required by all our mortal associations.
More also, because this salvation belongs to him, we can’t wreck it once we get a hold of it. Good ideas in the hands of tired and foolish people never turn out the way they were first imagined. But God isn’t tired and isn’t foolish. He isn’t going to let us have this salvation in such a way that we can destroy it. He keeps it, it belongs to him. He gives it to us by gathering us into a great throng and removing all the dumb, petty, useless troubles that we accumulate in the course of trying to save ourselves and the world.
“Sing a new song,” suggests the Psalmist. Someday perhaps. Probably not this Sunday. If you do get to sing, it will be something you know, muffled, quiet, replete with caution, and grief. And that’s ok, because God has already written the new one, and when it is time for us to sing together, we will.
Happy All Saints Day.