Sermon for Tuesday 1 November 2022
Sermon for All Saints’ Day preached by the Bishop of Fulham
Words spoken by Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde:
“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of + the Holy Spirit
Around the bedside of every newly delivered mother with new-born child, the comments will be similar: doesn’t she have Great Aunt Agatha’s nose, doesn’t he have Grandpa George’s chin. DNA will out – we can’t help looking like our relatives, for good or ill. At home in a drawer, I still have an album or scrapbook given to me by my mother. It is full of newspaper cuttings – announcements of births, marriages, and deaths in the local newspaper – and other family memorabilia. But the most interesting part is the photographs – of my grandparents, great-grandparents and great uncles and aunts and some going back even further to Victorian times, showing people I now struggle to identify but who are clearly remote ancestors of mine. Taking that album out of the drawer for a look through from time to time, I am struck by one thing: as I get older, I am looking more and more like the men from those distant generations. It’s quite a salutary thought.
This evening at this mass in honour of all the saints, we hear from the first letter of St John, and in a couple of short verses we hear some densely argued but beautiful and poetic theological reflection, which tells us straight away that the writer is one with the author of the Fourth Gospel. John writes, perhaps to his little flock in Ephesus and its environs, ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ We shall be like him. The evangelist is saying something remarkable here: that our destiny is not, in the end, to be more and more like our grandparents and great-grandparents, but to be like God: to be like the One who has made us and who has redeemed us and whose purpose it is to bring us back to Himself, to live with Him forever.
Now clearly, I have practised a bit of sleight of hand here. Our likeness to our ancestors, to those in our biological family who have gone before us, whose genes we carry and which we might hand on in our turn, these are matters of our natural, creaturely, material nature. What St John is talking about is our supernatural end: and therefore, it is about what really matters. Because we are called not, in the final resort, to bear the likeness of our earthly parents, but rather that of the New Adam, Christ our Lord. As St Gregory of Nyssa writes, surely with this verse form 1 John in mind: ‘A child born to anyone is entirely akin to his parent. If then you have received God, and have become the child of God, display in the purpose of your life the God that is in you, display in yourself the father who gave you birth.’
God created our first parents to be in His image: as the writer of Genesis puts it, ‘So God made man: in the image of God He made him, male and female He made them.’ By their turning away from God, by their failure to worship and their substitution of the image of self for the image of the divine, those first parents, Adam and Eve, caused the image of God in them to be obscured, though not entirely obliterated. And so it is that in the fullness of time God sends His Son, born of a women, born a subject of the law, to be the New Adam, to restore in fallen humanity the image of the Creator. Jesus Christ, in the notable image beloved by St Irenaeus, turns over afresh, walks again, recapitulates, the path which Adam walked: and in Christ, by virtue of His death and resurrection and our baptism (which is the sacrament of His Passover), the way is opened for us once again to regain the fullness of His Image and His likeness.
Yet Gregory of Nyssa also writes, ‘If the life after initiation [that is to say, baptism, anointing, and the reception of the Holy Eucharist] is of the same quality as the uninitiated life, then, though it be a bold thing to say, I will say it without flinching: in the case of such people the water is merely water, for the gift of the Holy Spirit in no way shows itself in what takes place.’ How then we do make a reality of the promise that, by baptism, the image of God in us is restored? How, to return to our second reading from 1 John, do we grasp hold of the promise that ‘we are God’s children now,’ so that, in truth and not only in figure, ‘when he appears we shall be like him?’
Christian tradition calls the vision of God face to face to which St John alludes the ‘beatific vision.’ Today and on every festival of all the saints, our Gospel reading is that part of Our Lord’s teaching, known as the Sermon on the Mount, which we usually call ‘the beatitudes.’ ‘Beatitude,’ ‘beatific, ‘blessing’ – these words are all closely related, and in the traditional translations, each component of the teaching of Jesus in this sermon begins with the word ‘Blessed;’ Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ ‘blessed are those who mourn,’ ‘blessed are the meek,’ and so on. They read like a curious set of blessings, of benedictions, but when we read them in the light of St John’s teaching about the beatific vision and St Gregory’s reflection on the same, they make sense. These qualities, these characteristics, these virtues, call them what you will, mark out our progress in the lifelong – more than lifelong – pilgrimage of grace. As our lives display the signs of beatitude as described by Our Lord himself, so we are made ready for the beatific vision; and as the journey of election, sanctification and glorification comes near to its final end, it is by that very same readiness to see God that we, in our turn, become truly like Him, seeing Him as He is.
In a series of interviews published in 2016 under the title Last Testament, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says:
God Himself is the place beyond all places. If you look into the world, you do not see heaven, but you see traces of God everywhere. In the structure of matter, in the rationality of reality. Even where you see human beings, you find traces of God. You see vices, but you also see goodness, love. These are the places where God is there.
‘You see goodness, you see love’ – you see lives shaped by the beatitudes. And on All Saints Day, we might slightly amend Pope Benedict’s words to say, ‘These are thepeoplewhere God is there.’ Those whom the Church proclaims to have lived lives so radiant with holiness – with beatitude – that they now enjoy the beatific vision, and are like God because they see him face to face – those are the men and women who are celebrated at our altars day by day, the Saints of our Christian cult and calendar, whose prayers we can seek with confidence, who we know cheer us on as we run the race here below. Butthisfeast tells us that there is a great multitude known to God alone which has reached that state of heavenly blessedness, whose lives here on earth were anonymous, hidden, obscure, frail, weak, brief perhaps; yet the blessings which Our Lord pronounced from high upon the mountain were theirs, and their prize the same. And this is the crowning joy of this day: that the company of the saints, known and unknown, is not about others, but about us. All of us who have had the image of God in us restored by baptism, have it within ourselves, by God’s grace, tosee Him as He is: to grow into the likeness not merely of our earthly fathers, or mothers, or grandparents, but of Him who made us, and calls us, and wills to live with Him in the place beyond all places, where He dwells everlastingly, even Heaven itself – of which this mass is promise and foretaste. Amen.