Sermon for All Saints Day High Mass Friday 1 November 2013
There is a real necessity to multi-task on any All Saints Day.
You and I are to keep at least three ideas gyrating – perhaps dancing would be a better metaphor – in our brains and souls as we celebrate this Christian gala night, when you and I in our place in time and space are connected to those of every age, for the past one hundred years here in All Saints Margaret Street, but for twenty Christian centuries in all, and in every place.
We are connected to all those who followed Jesus Christ faithfully and steadfastly through their earthly lives. Some are famous, some are names no longer remembered on this earth, some are what we call household names, some are those remembered by us as individual people we knew who, as they walked with us on our individual path of Christian discipleship, helped and guided us on that pathway.
We believe that we gather together in their fellowship here tonight at this patronal High Mass. And we are bound together in strange ways. It was recently that I learnt that the extremely fine Archbishop’s throne which adorns Armagh Cathedral (and which I now adorn from time to time) is a memorial to none other than Alexander Beresford Hope who was very much a founding father for the building of this church.
But All Saints is a celebration of so many different things. AsI have said, it is a multi-tasking celebration of the known and the unknown saints of every generation. But also a loving thanksgiving to God for those we have known and have loved who have passed from our presence, but we know are now in a greater Light and its glory is round them.
But then there is also that constant almost nagging reminder that you and I are called to be saints. All Saints’ Day is a recalling to the vocation of every Christian, every one of us here tonight to be part of that fellowship of the saints of God.
The Christian Church does not consist, and has never consisted, of the saints and the also-rans (the first team and then the others – the second, third and fourth teams). No, the Christian Church really consists of those who mean business in their Christian life and those who don’t. It would of course make life much easier for us if we had “the saints”, the special people – the first team – and then the other teams. We could all relax and turn out for the 3Bs, making sure the leisure pursuit of Christianity didn’t demand too much training, take too much of our time, or take too much out of us at all. But Christianity does not allow this kind of approach.
C S Lewis (as we commemorate fifty years since his death in November 1963) wrote that there are three logical responses to Christ. We can feel hatred, terror or adoration, but there is no logical place for mild approval. So the call to be part of the fellowship of the saints of God is not one for a few special other people, while the rest of us coast along behind them. Saints are to be ordinary people like you and me.
Think of St Paul writing to the Corinthians. He first describes them as those called to be saints, and then blasts them for every kind of failing and sin. We need therefore to be clear that sainthood is not perfection. It never has been. Think of the New Testament saints for a few seconds and that should be obvious.
- St Paul could be very unforgiving, and very conscious of his own suffering for the Gospel
- St Peter could be indecisive and at times downright cowardly, even after the resurrection
- St Matthew the tax collector and St Simon the zealot were political opposites. Matthew was a collaborator, Simon was a resistance fighter.
The saints of history are more than varied.
Saints have not yet won their final victory over sin. There were some very obvious faults in the best of saints, as they would no doubt have been the first to admit. But, if it is not perfection, what does make a saint of ordinary men and women? A word not normally used – but still perhaps rather useful – is surely the idea of focus. Being focussed in our daily living, however imperfectly, on the life, death, resurrection and constant presence in our lives of Christ.
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz tells us of how a faith that is focussed in the victory of love will inevitably change the way you and I look at everyone and everything in life –
“If God incarnated himself in Man, died and rose from the dead
All human endeavours deserve attention
Only to the degree that they depend on this.
That is, acquire meaning thanks to this event.”
We are called to have lives that are meaningful in the light of the Incarnation rather than self-indulgently meaningless in the miasma of what sociologists can seriously call a “post-truth” age. The constant focus on Christ would not make us perfect, we would still make mistakes, we would still do things we were ashamed or should be ashamed of, but nevertheless we would strive to be spiritually focussed human persons.
All Saints for many of us is surely one of the most telling of all Christian festivals. It brings with it equal portions of joy and challenge.
There is joy that through the Christian centuries, countless men and women who have served God and who are unremembered by name on earth are now rewarded by the God they served faithfully. The truth is that the most important thing in this world is not to be famous or rich or successful or even respected or admired, but faithful – that is all that finally matters.
And there is the challenge of All Saints’ Day – that every one of us is made by God in his image and likeness to be among the fellowship of the saints. Not by being brilliant or perfect (although we must strive for that perfection if not for the brilliance), but by being focussed and directed away from our little selves and solely towards one cause and towards one person, the Person to whom we were given in our baptism, Jesus Christ our Lord. And so it follows that a Christian community such as this – any Christian community – is also to be a crucial place of bearing witness to a presence beyond its own presence, beyond itself, the presence of the divine.
The Irish novelist John McGahern in his autobiography published towards the end of his life, tells of a gradual loss of religious faith, from what seemed – in his childhood – as a certain vocation to the priesthood – on to a gradual but far from angry disillusionment. And then to a fairly benign indifference as adulthood approached. But late on in his memoir, as he returns to live in the Leitrim of his childhood, he reflects on what he sees as the two dividing movements within the church – the fortress churches, as he calls them, with their edicts, threats and punishments; and then what he calls “the churches of the spires and brilliant windows that go towards love and light”.
It is to the second vocation that this and every catholic community is called, to be a place that goes towards love and light. A place where those who have either mislaid, or lost, or have never known the call of God to love and light may find humanity, beauty and holy space in which to respond to the gently summoning call of that love.
The love that is the call of every Eucharist, the love that is the call to every saint.