Will the Circle be Unbroken?

All Saints Day (Transferred), Year C.

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Ephesians 1:11-23

The end is nigh and now upon us. Heaven and earth tremble as the end of days swiftly approaches. The sun is passing into darkness, budgets are due, travel plans are being made, and the passing of all hallows eve marks the waking of the great beast rising once again out of the earth. Once awoken and the shelves changed, all now are compelled to buy and sell by its name [Revelation 13:17]. I looked, and saw the eighth seal breaking, and I heard from on high the sound of bells; ringing and clamoring everywhere above my head. The bells proclaim the great ordeal that is coming, and I heard a great cry from the servers and retail workers asking for deliverance, but there was none. They are forced to hear the terrible clamor thrice an hour. I looked upon the scroll with the broken seal and saw the names and titles, ever changing in order and temperament, but one name and title that had been made low was now rising. And I saw the name leap up, clutching and climbing back to top 100 of the list. And I know now that the days are surely upon us where it has returned, Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You has once again returned to the top music charts.

Once again as of November 1st, All I Want for Christmas is You entered the top 200 on all the charts. When I first beheld the vision and looked upon the scroll with the broken seal and heard the clamoring of bells everywhere above my head it had already leapt to 53. I was surprised to learn that whether we wanted it or not, All I Want for Christmas is You re-entering the charts has been our All Saints’ Day gift for years. And as much as preachers like myself love to shake our fists and tear our clothes wailing over the capitalist takeover of Christmas and point to this completely inoffensive and agnostic hymn to ironic consumerism as its harbinger, it is in fact a gift to us. Or at least we can make it so.

The fact that it returns to the charts and our collective consciousness on All Saints’ Day is a gift because it is yet another example of how Jesus bears all our trials and tribulations. Because the moment the beast of consumerism and commercialization turns its gaze toward Christmas, we and All Saints’ have been spared. At least in North America, All Saints’ is one of the few principal feasts of the Church that has not been overtaken by some form of commercialization. You will not see All Saints’ cards, sales, or billboard hits, but hymn sings, baptisms, and memorials of life. There is no pressure, no awkward office parties, no gifts to wrap, or enormous meals to plan and prepare. For us, All Saints’ is still very much a family holiday; so much so that it is the only principal feast day of the church that we can transfer to the following Sunday, because it is our time to celebrate our family here together in Church.

We celebrate on this All Saints’ Sunday all the saints: the saints that are to come, us, the saints present here, and those who rejoice with us, but on upon another shore and in a greater light. It is a day where we remember those who have gone before us, and what it means to be a saint.

Most of us are keenly aware of the greats, those heroes of our tradition that we all so admire and have become the stuff of legend. The great names who by their virtue and faithfulness seem almost unreal to us, so holy that they were always stories and sermons rather than people we could know. Because of this we think of saints as somehow other, like the angels in heaven too perfect and unblemished to be relatable. But the marker of sainthood is not moral perfection or heroic deeds, for there are many counted among the saints who were cowards, liars, and shared all the flaws of fallen humanity. The marker of sainthood is belonging to God; something not earned through mighty deeds and or wondrous acts, but freely given to all who believe that the world is being made new.

All of us here are counted among the saints not in spite of our flaws, nor by our own merit. We are counted as saints by our promise. Our promise made to God and neighbor in baptism, and the promise that God sees in each of us. We are counted among the saints as we carry on the work of the saints before us, and make way the path for the saints who will follow. In that work and in that promise, we are given the freedom to see all directions of time. We are comforted knowing that for all our trials and tribulations, we carry this mission not only on our shoulders, but together with the whole communion of saints in all times and in all places. And in that solidarity, we believe that all things are being made new. Because we no longer live as isolated individuals, but as the family of God, we have the courage to believe in humanity and the coming kingdom. Even if our work does not come to fruition in our lifetime, we know that we are laying the foundation for the New Jerusalem, justice and righteousness, brick by brick.

Though we have faith and know that we do the work of God with the whole communion of saints, there is a touch of sadness on All Saints. While we know that the saints who have come before us are still with us, we still love them and miss their earthly presence as part of our family.

This is All Saints, that we rejoice in our freedom and solidarity with all of God’s people, and at the same time, we mourn those who have gone ahead of us. Yet this joy and sadness reminds us that in Christ, all things are redeemed and made new. Following Christ, we can transform our pain and our sorrow into joy and song.

So instead of letting the song of commercialized Christmas be our hymn on All Saints’ Day, let us choose a new song. Rather, let us make one new. Let me suggest a hymn that celebrates the uniquely Christian conflation of joy and sadness that we share this day: Will the Circle be Unbroken?

I first encountered Will the Circle be Unbroken? when visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. It is written in magnificent metal letters over the bronze images of stars and legends, many passed on to the heavenly shore. It is impressive and mysterious. After my visit I sought out the hymn, and found what has become the most well-known version, written by the Carter Family. The Carter version is moving, as it describes the all-too real experience of burying a loved one, but I was left with questions. I felt that there was still some mystery that I had failed to grasp. The phrase “Will the circle be unbroken?” seemed separate, almost cosmic in scale compared to the rest of the song. I wondered: “What is the circle that they are referring to?”, “What does it mean?”

It never made sense to me until I learned that Will the Circle be Unbroken?’s lyrics were not originally written by the Carter Family, but by an English Baptist and Old Testament Scholar, Ada R. Habershon in 1907. She was commissioned to write hymns for a Revival tour in America. While she wrote over 200 hymns for the tour, Will the Circle be Unbroken? became the most popular. The inspiration for the hymn came from the memoir and sermons of Ada’s friend and colleague, Charles Spurgeon, known in his day in Baptist circles as “the Prince of Preachers”. In his autobiography, he recalled a trip he took through the Alps, where he witnessed a complete rainbow,

“… [We were] surprised to see a rainbow making an entire circle…It was a fair vision to gaze upon, and reminded us of the mystic rainbow which the seer [John] of Patmos beheld, which was ‘round about the throne’ [Revelation 4:3], for it strikes us that it was seen by John as a complete circle, of which we perceive but the half on earth. The upper arc of manifest glory we rejoice to behold; but the lower arch of the eternal purpose, upon which the visible display of grace is founded, is reserved for our contemplation in another world.”

Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon 1856-1878

The image of the rainbow, and its ties to the Revelation to John, served as the inspiration for the hymn. Will the Circle be Unbroken? expresses joy, sorrow, and hope all together through the sign God gave to Noah, the rainbow [Genesis 9]; the first covenant that no matter what, God will make all things new and save humanity. The Circle is the faithfulness of God, the connection between heaven and earth, the Communion of Saints, and the joy that one day, the circle will be complete.

1 There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss,
When you close your earthly story
Will you join them in their bliss?

Will the circle be unbroken
by and by, yes, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
in the sky, in the sky?

2 In the joyous days of childhood,
Oft they told of wondrous love,
Pointed to the dying Savior,
Now they dwell with Him above. [Refrain]

3 You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice? [Refrain]

4 You can picture happy gath’rings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings,
When they left you here below. [Refrain]

5 One by one their seats were empty,
One by one they went away,
Now the family is parted,
Will it be complete one day? [Refrain] 

One thought on “Will the Circle be Unbroken?

  1. Joseph, I was home alone on this rainy evening. Bob had gone to a meeting. I sang the whole five or six verses of “Will the Circle…” I imagined a big group of my family sitting here around our combined sitting- and sunroom. Even though the words of this hymn are so simple, just sitting around together and singing them, lifting our hearts and thoughts to the place of light, together, would be an uncommon joy! In a way, the simpler the words, the better the singing. It is the love, the joy, the glory, the communion that results from the singing that makes it such a worshipful and glorious experience. Wish we could do this at our home every Friday night! Who knows…?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s