Sermon for Eve of All Saints – Solemn Evensong, Litany in Procession & Solemn Benediction Thursday 31 October 2013
Sermon preached by Fr Robert Mackley, Little St Mary’s, Cambridge
Lections: Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15, Revelation 19:6-10
Having been involved with Cambridge colleges in one way or another for a good number of years now, that first reading we had tonight from Ecclesiasticus is more or less ingrained in my soul. ‘Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us’ is read out at almost every college’s commemoration of benefactors service. If you’ve never been to such an event I’m not quite sure whether you’re missing out or lucky! The music is usually wonderful and the chapels are full of the college’s silverware and all manner of historic items of interest. At Emmanuel, where I was Assistant Chaplain, we had Archbishop Sancroft’s original annotated 1662 Book of Common Prayer together with his chalice and paten and with these the chapel altar was duly laden. So far so lovely.
But the bit that I think you’d be lucky to miss is the more than slight sense of smugness at some of these occasions. ‘Let us now praise famous men’ can very easily become ‘let us now praise ourselves and have a lovely event (followed by a feast) where we enjoy the fact that we’re marvellous’.
Now I may be being unkind, and to be fair often there really is a sense of astonishment, not to mention gratitude, for the countless men and women down the centuries whose generosity made the college as it stands today possible. The person who gave Emmanuel College Threadneedle Street, for example, is a particular focus of the bursar’s devotion! Less so the person who then sold it…
Nonetheless, these festivities, largely attended it must be said by a non-Christian academic fellowship do tend to become rather inward-looking. And in good part this is because even if a lively sense of gratitude is evoked, it’s got nowhere to go. In a university (and in fact country) where so many people are practical, if not theoretical, atheists, gratitude is a rather difficult business. It’s easy to be grateful to your friends for instance, but rather more difficult to be grateful to the dead, because they’re well, you know, dead.
And that’s the first point where you at All Saints and we Christians generally have a different view. Because the feast we begin celebrating tonight is so much more than a thanksgiving for people who are long gone, dead and buried. When we say in the creed as we did tonight ‘I believe in the Communion of Saints’ we are stating the very opposite: we believe in communication with the saints, we believe in fellowship, in a relationship with the saints. Far from our praise and thanksgiving for our spiritual benefactors being cut off because they’re dead, our unity with them in the body of Christ means they are still alive to and with us. Indeed, given that they are no longer restricted in time and place as we are, and no longer disfigured by sin as we are, they are in fact more alive now than they were on earth, and so more alive than us.
Our praise and thanksgiving for those who have laid the foundations on which we build as the Christians of this generation is not smug or merely earthbound, but by our communion with the saints rises heavenward like the incense.
At which point a pious critic might leap up, as pious critics are wont to do, and object that our praise should not be directed at the saints but at God. ‘Surely,’ he might say, ‘you complain that these secular benefactors’ events are smug and self-referential, and yet so are your saints’ celebrations.’
All of which ought to make us point to our second lesson tonight, for in the Revelation to S. John, the saints, that great multitude to which S. John refers at the beginning, are crying out, not self-referentially, not in praise of themselves, but, as they say: ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory’. And our two readings go so well together because it is one of the glories of the many glories of God and his grace that in praising the saints they, being saints, lead us to praise God. ‘Let us now praise famous men’ is how we began in our first lesson; ‘Let us rejoice and exult and give God the glory’ is how we end in our second.
And this is an incredibly important point, for a ceaseless and rather wearying criticism that catholic-minded Christians like us have to suffer is from critics who think that any praise or honour you give to a human being is praise and honour denied to, taken away from God.
Yet the entire thrust of our readings tonight shows us that that simply isn’t the case, while the idea that a place like this is simply lost in mere human worship and has no sense of almighty God and his transcendent glory is laughable; you can practically feel it in the air in churches like yours.
But more profoundly what sort of world would we live in if that accusation was true? Well, certainly one where no one ever fell in love or got married, as that is love and honour that someone else is getting instead of God. No one would ever write poetry in praise of anything or sing any songs, would they? For if what the scriptures mean by God’s ‘jealousy’ is that any time spent not consciously and directly contemplating him is time spent contrary to his will, in idolatry, then he’s created a pretty weird and unpleasant universe and our lives would be pretty one-dimensional and very individualistic, because there’s no time for anyone else, just God.
Yet of course this could not be further from the truth. Yes of course we worship God alone, but the nature and grace of God is such that we also worship him when we love and honour his creation and celebrate his glory in other people. That’s why marriage is a sacrament, for example: far from being something that distracts from God, the human love and procreation at the heart of it are in fact gifts of God and places where he is especially present.
And even more than that, the God who invites us to praise famous women and men does that not only because he knows that in our fallen state we find it easier to love him in a fleshly human being than attempting to do so directly or ‘unmediatedly’, but also because he has no intention of saving us on our own. Whether through constituting a new Israel by choosing the twelve apostles, or the fact that every expression of prayer and praise in the vision of heaven that is the Book of Revelation, that every such expression is corporate – like that great multitude we heard of tonight – God shows us again and again that no one will get to heaven on their own.
The Communion of Saints whom we honour and celebrate tonight and tomorrow is a wonderful gift to us because of this, not only as a standing witness to our getting there together or not at all, but also because it’s a reminder that there is no need for each of us to be perfect; because for each one of us who struggles to be generous, there is another to whom generosity comes much more easily, for each one of us who struggles to love our neighbour, there is another who for whom fellow-feeling is natural, for each of us who struggles to pray, there is another who, like Moses, speaks to God as to a best friend.
Tonight then let us begin our season of thanksgiving not smug that we have such astonishing spiritual benefactors whom God has given us to honour and celebrate and through them to adore and worship him, but simply thankful that we are knit together in one communion and fellowship, and with their assistance, that where they have gone, Jesus in his mercy will bring us too; to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, now and for ever. Amen.