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Who are these, robed in white… and where have they come from? (Rev 7:13)
There is a room inside a building about 80 miles from here where the uniforms of the fallen are prepared for bodies before burial. The fit and the name and the rank must all be correct, of course, but so must the ribbons of the decorations that are pinned to uniforms, high on the left breast. And the soldier-morticians who prepare these uniforms snap a photo of the arrangement of ribbons to send to superiors far away, to make sure they are absolutely correct.
I’ve been a little haunted by a photo last year in the New York Times that showed one such mortician-soldier, dressed in his fatigues, bent over a table on which lay the dress blues of an Army captain, adorned not only with his name and rank, but also with the insignia of an aviator, and the ribbons for a Purple Heart, Overseas Service Badge, and Bronze Star, among others. The uniform is laid out just as the body will be: white gloves emerging from blue sleeves, black socks peeking out from hemmed trousers.
From the details of this uniform alone, the Staff Sergeant could tell us a thing or two about who the man is whose body it will soon clothe. And the military is very good about this part of death: about saying who this soldier is. The flip side of this concern is that careful attention the military pays even to the remains of those whom we cannot name, when we cannot say who it is. Somehow an extra measure of care, along with an extra measure of grief is found for those whose names we cannot know.
In the photo in the Times, seven other uniforms hang behind the hunching figure of the mortician-soldier – other branches and genders represented there – making it clear that this is not an isolated moment, but part of a bigger process of death, and the way we must mark it for those we honor, and whose memory we are compelled to cling to one way or another.
What is happening in that room in the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base seems to have something to say about the way the slain soldier lived, and something about the way he died. What is happening in that room has something important and powerful to say to those who may peer into the casket of their beloved child, husband, brother, father. We are trying hard to affix every bit of value and honor that we can to a life taken too soon in the planned tragedy of war. But whatever is being said by what is happening in that room comes to a full stop with the plaintive punctuation of Taps, and with a folded flag, and with the inadequate condolences of a grateful nation.
Maybe you have been to a military cemetery, with the neat rows of crosses or tombstones silently parading across the green grass. Maybe you have visited the grave of one of the 5,281 men and women who have been killed in combat serving this nation in Iraq and Afghanistan, or one of the 53,402 US servicemen and women killed in the Great War that began a hundred years ago, or one of the 47,424 who perished in Vietnam – not to mention the non-combat deaths in each of those conflicts, and many others.
I look out over that vast sea of war dead, and I hear the question: “Who are these, who have come out of the great ordeal?”
I imagine that there is another room, although it may be further away. And unlike the room in Dover this one is not reserved for military use. And here, too, perhaps the dead are laid out. And perhaps there is an attendant who looks lovingly at the ruined bodies of the dead, and strokes fingers through their hair, and fiercely grasps their hands in his or hers – if there is a hand to grasp. And the attendant takes the measure of the departed ones with only a trained eye, and places a hand over the closed eyes, and prays.
And perhaps through some sophisticated circuitry the attendant can see the whole story of a life played out – military or civilian, it hardly matters. But there are no shelves behind the attendant, lined with ribbons for decorations; and there are no uniforms hanging there. There is no rank to bother with, and no nametag to worry about. There is only the attendant and this prayer, with hands placed softly over closed eyelids. The attending fingertips assist the somewhat stiffened eyelids as they retract again to let light in.
And the room is much larger than I imagined it was at first. There are attendants as far as they eye can see bending slightly over the bodies of the dead, shielding their eyes from the returning light. And at some stations the attendants have nothing more to work with than a pile of ashes, but this does not impede them in their work. And without moving their lips, I can hear the attendants asking as I watch them: “Who are these? Who are these?”
And by some process that I cannot account for the bodies arise from their repose, or from their ashes, and as they do, not only are they restored, but they are clothed in white. Or at least this is the closest I can come to describing what is actually indescribable, for the light is not like any light I have ever seen before, and the bodies, once ruined, decayed, or reduced to ash, are now identifiable, yet somehow different from what I thought a body should look like. And if I say they are clothed in white, then you will imagine diaphanous dalmatics that might fasten in the back, or button at the neck, and that could tear, or be tripped on, or get caught on the decoration of a pearly gate – but this is all far too literal, too earth-bound a way of imagining what I imagine I see in this room where the dead are attended to as they are ushered into new life. And it also misses the point, which is that it is no longer about the clothes or the body – since both have been transformed into some new state; no longer about name, or rank, or status, or station. But now it is only about the question that is coming from nowhere and from everywhere at the same time: “Who are these? Who are these? Who are these?”
Curiously, in the vision of his Revelation, when St. John is shown the great multitude of saints, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, singing in harmony, the question, “Who are these?” is not posed by St. John, it is posed to him by one of the twenty-four elders, seated on thrones before the Lamb, as if he should know. Of course, the elder knows the answer to the question, and if the expectation is that St. John also knows it, then I suppose that the question is asked really for our benefit, so that we may know too: Who are these?
Who are these? Who are these? This is the question of All Saints, as we allow our memories to be carried into holy realms: Who are these? – as if we should know!
We resist, today, the urge to compile lists – we don’t even sing a litany of the saints. We tell ourselves (whether we know it or not) that we both know and don’t know who these are. But we do know who they are. We know they are the saints, washed in the blood of the Lamb. But we also realize that we cannot possibly know who they all are – since they are a “great multitude that no one could count.” It is precisely part of the ancient teaching of the church that we cannot keep track of all the saints because they are too numerous to count and to name; and if we tried, we would surely omit more than we knew.
I am assuming that some of the saints arrived in dress blues with their names, and their rank, and their ribbons all just so. But no matter the circumstances whence they came, the honor and the dignity they may have received in life or in death is nothing compared to the glory revealed to them in the heavenly realms.
Who are these? The irony of the question is that even though we know who they are, we cannot possibly know, cannot possibly account for them all. And yet the question insists upon itself, perhaps for that very reason: Who are these?
When fear and uncertainty are at hand, and we wonder whether the church can continue to do her work, whether dreadful decline and failure may be our lot, as the world around us seems to think it can do perfectly well without us, the question imposes itself in our midst: Who are these?
When we stare into the abyss of death, especially of those we love, and we wonder if we have the faith we need, the strength to survive, the question rings in our ears: Who are these?
When we stumble in our work, and we feel inadequate to the task that God has given us, and that we didn’t ask for in the first place, the question echoes somewhere nearby: Who are these?
Who are these? We are meant to see them clothed in white, but we are also meant to remember that once they wore another set of clothes, once they struggled, and fought, and doubted, and failed just as we do, and none of that obstructed the triumph that God planned for them.
Who are these? – as if we know! This is not a test to see who of us can name the most saints. Rather it is a reminder that it is not only the particularity of the individual saints that matters to us, but also the numberless plenitude of the saints. For it is in this countlessness that we discover our own call to saintliness, that we see that there is room for someone as difficult as me, as unlikely as you to join their ranks, if we will. And in times when so much else seems in short supply in the church, when both the harvest and the laborers seem scant, we are given a vision of the expanse of God’s power in the multitude of the personhood of his saints.
Who are these? The question is not a rhetorical one – not in St. John’s Revelation, and not for us, either. The answer matters, and it is specific, once the elder provides it; and it has nothing to do with the identities of the saints, per se: These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. No greater honor awaits them, than to have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. No more dignity can be shown them than to have been baptized into the death of their Lord. No other life is worth living than the life lived in Christ’s service.
I don’t know, of course, if there is any such room among the anterooms of heaven, where attendants tend to the remains of the dead to prepare them for the life to come, and to dress them in white, and to hand out the palms, and to teach them the songs of Zion that fill the courts of heaven. I don’t know if there is any correlating counterpart to the sad and dignified work that takes place in the military mortuary not too far from here.
But thanks in large measure to the saints – too countless to know by name – I do know a thing or two.
I know there is a Lamb who sits upon the throne, and I know who that Lamb is.
I know he died for me and for you, and for one and for all, that this broken world might be made whole somehow, and that we might find again the power of love.
I know his blood still flows in chalices wherever his promises are remembered, and wherever his one commandment is proclaimed that we should love one another.
I know that he has called you and me by name to be washed in the river of his blood.
And I know that when we do, we follow in the footsteps of a numberless throng, who now wear garments I hope to wear some day; who now hold palms as I hope to some day; who now sing songs I hope to sing some day.
Who are these, and where have they come from? Who are these? Who are these? My friends, you know who they are. They are the saints of God: more numerous than the stars, washed in the blood of the Lamb, singing the songs of Zion, and leading us on through our own pilgrimage through tumult, confusion, warfare, failure, terror, and shame, so that we may become blessed with them.
Who are these, indeed?!? These are they who turn us again and again toward the throne of the Lamb, who teach us to walk in their footsteps – fearsome though it may be.
These are they who know the power of the risen Christ.
These are they who have learned to love one another as Jesus loves them.
These are they who have been washed in his blood; who know that worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might for ever and ever!
“For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Who are these, and where have they come from? My friends, you are the ones that know! Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of All Saints 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia