Today is the Feast of All Saints, a celebration which dates back to the early years of the Church. It is a celebration of those saints and martyrs we know to be in heaven. It is also a remembrance of all those saints and martyrs whose names are lost to history but have also carried the flame of faith forward for us.
One of the best parts of this liturgical celebration is the music, with hymns ranging from solemn tributes to joyful paeans. One of my favorites has always been “When the Saints Go Marching In,” in part because of its extra joyful, foot-tapping invitation to get up and dance.
This hymn has a rich and varied history, beginning in the 19th century. It is most commonly associated with New Orleans funeral processions, where it was played as a dirge on the way to the cemetery, and in the more familiar upbeat manner on the way back. It is also a huge favorite as a jazz number and is the unofficial anthem of New Orleans. The lyrics of this hymn show as much variation and nuance as the city of New Orleans itself, as there are many non-traditional variations of this hymn that are popularly sung.
The lyrics we are most familiar with are based on the Book of Revelations and describe the entry of the saints into heaven on the Last Day. Many of the verses refer to apocalyptic events, such as the trumpet blast and the stars falling from the sky.
But the main focus of the song is an expression of our deep longing for our true home and life in heaven. We long to be in that number because we know that we belong to Christ and that heaven is our true home. We long to be in that number because it means that we have completed the trail of earthly life and we are redeemed by Christ, free to worship and praise Him in peace for all eternity.
Even many of the nontraditional lyrics express the hope and joy in final redemption. Perhaps that is why it is so popular — it is as rich and varied a hymn as the people who love and sing it. I know that we all want to be part of that number, too.
As we gather today to remember and honor all the saints, both known and unknown, let us thank God for their example and ask them to intercede for us before the throne of God. And one day with God’s help, we will indeed join in that number. What a party it will be!