Sermon for Evensong & Benediction, All Saints Day, 2018 Wednesday 31 October 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Walker,
Vicar of St Mary’s Bourne Street
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 44.1-15; Revelation 19.6-10
One of the challenges of the Book of Revelation (and there are many!), and particularly of the chapter from which our second reading is taken, is the notion of a differentiated Resurrection. On a literal reading, we hear of the beheaded martyrs raised to reign with Christ – martyrs being of course at the vanguard of all the saints for the persecuted Church of the day. The rest of the dead following once the thousand year reign of Christ came to an end. Some of these then raised are raised for judgement, others to find themselves in the book of life. There is however here an analogy perhaps with Paul’s thought elsewhere of an anticipated resurrection as well as a bodily one: All the baptised whose current life is based on the event of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – and whose bodies will be raised in the future – are already, in a sense, raised with the Messiah, living the resurrected life in the here and now. And our resurrection life, both anticipated and actualized, finds its confirmation each day of course in the regular celebration of the Mass at the altar.
Once the cult of the martyrs gave way to a more general cult of saints – and once the receding persecution of Christians allowed for a more public celebration and acknowledgement of Christian holiness – so the burial sites of those judged by the community to be of especial holiness became a place for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. What was different here though from pagan belief was the understanding that the Christian saint did not leave the earth for heaven; rather, the grave site, the loca sanctorum, became a cultic place where the power of Jesus Christ through the saint was made manifest in the here and now by the power of the resurrection. The saint, in other words, was not on a journey from earth to heaven, rather the saint was the further means of bringing heaven to earth even after death.
Holiness is therefore (if this is not too much of a jump) an extension of Christ’s incarnation. The Divine Word made flesh – Christ’s incarnation and ascension – brought about the reunion of heaven and earth, of spirit and matter, of human and divine. This now eternal verity lies at the heart of the resurrected life: firstly the actual bodily resurrection that lies in the future for those of us yet alive; secondly, the actual resurrection that is already true and has already taken place for those who have gone before us to that place beyond and out of time; and thirdly the anticipated resurrection we in the church are called to live out, yesterday, today and tomorrow, a life fully rooted in and modelled on the person of Jesus Christ.
Those early burial places of the saints, with their altars raised above, were adorned with vigil lights; but again there was a difference of understanding for the Church from contemporary pagan usage. For the pagan, these lights represented the stepping stones from this life to the next, from earth to heaven. For the Church, these lights spoke of glory, like the halos which entered Christian iconography about the same time: the glory of God shining in and through the graced individual – not as a reward for a well-lived life in gospel terms but as a sign that the well-lived life is as a channel, a mediator, by which this grace can be communicated to others and to the world around. Glory and light are, therefore, parts of our new responsibility within the new creation; signs of the whole renewed cosmos.
Now I mentioned earlier the role of the community, lay and ordained, in identifying saints for the early Church. By the end of the 6th century this role was reserved to the local bishop – and it will come as no surprise that it was only a matter of some hundreds of years before the papacy removed all power of formal sanctification and reserved it to the See of Rome in the 12th century. As a result, and I hope it’s not too controversial to point out, there is in the Calendar still a notable preponderance of white, male, European, celibate saints of aristocratic or at least good family, and funnily who achieved ecclesial rank. We could however add that the Holy Spirit, much more democratically, has asked that we all, everyone here this night, and every Christian, live a resurrection life – one modelled on the person of Jesus, informed by the pattern of his incarnation, death and resurrection – that the power of God’s love may be made manifest in and through us to our world and society today, that we may shine like lights in the darkness, pledges of the glory that has been and will be revealed. This solemnity, this feast, this festival honours all who have gone before and commits us again to what we must become, God’s holy people, men and women of the gospel, of the good news of Jesus Christ who lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.