All Saints Day


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(November 1) 

O almighty God, who hast knit together Thine elect…
For the Epistle
Revelation 7:2-12
Matthew 5:1-12

Saints are profoundly the same and profoundly different from each other. However different saints may be on earth, the picture of them consolidated, so to speak, in heaven, is the image that tends to stick, testimony yet again to the immense power of the imagery in Revelation (cf Saint Michael and All Angels). This somewhat undifferentiated picture is helpful in the first instance because it emphasises that sainthood is not a Christian monopoly. The heaven of John the Divine is peopled with witnesses from the sacred history of Israel, twelve thousand for each tribe and so the heaven of the New Testament is not, at the very least, monopoly Christian territory. There is an interesting theological quirk in this image because the tribes of Israel are worshipping The Lamb, John’s symbol for Jesus; had this mystery of timelessness been better understood we might have escaped from the terrible blight of Christian anti Semitism (cf Matthew The Apostle). Even if in some obscure way the Chosen People were somehow responsible for the suffering and death of Jesus this was, according to Revelation, an aberration; one of the key themes of the book as a whole is the ‘war’ between Israel and Babylon which pre-figured the war between Christian spirituality and Roman secular power.

Paul uses the endearing term “The Saints” to describe those who are living lives faithful to Christ. They are, in other words, living among us and it is that sense of the presence of The Kingdom on Earth that we need to nurture if we ourselves are to aspire to sainthood. We must be aware of the danger of confusing the ultimate bliss of sanctity with its earthly prelude; when we say that a person is “A saint” we are generally thinking of those who live in a state of serenity, indifferent to circumstance; but that is not the way of saints on earth. Perhaps the quality that strikes us most when we read accurate (as opposed to Panegyric) accounts of the Christian saints is how stubborn, or even bloody-minded, they were in the face of authoritarian or peer pressure. Such accounts also underline, as they should, that saints are not necessarily any better behaved than the rest of us. The story of Saint Augustine’s early waywardness and repentance is tirelessly quoted but this is to miss the point. Augustine may have gone through a grand transformation but it did not stop him being a sinner. A saint is not a person who has had the good luck to make a deathbed repentance. In this respect the Christian saints are much more in the direct line of the Old Testament prophets than priests.

The lives of many saints should be a warning to us all to be much more open to and respectful of non-conformity. The people who agree with everything that everyone says and does and who meekly sit while the poor are oppressed are not likely to be saints in the classical sense. While the saints of the generations before the mass media only had their rough edges knocked off by sculptors and glaziers, the saints of the 20th Century have been much more real to us in all their complexity. Within Christian circles those we most often think of are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela (though still alive) and Mother Theresa; but you only have to go to a media archive to see how morally complex all their lives were and how they were not always equal to the challenges that faced them. What marks them out, however, is fierce non conformity, the refusal to accept oppression and exploitation, the need to stand up, at the risk of death, for the cause of freedom and justice. None of them died for the established Christian church as such, although Bonhoeffer’s stand in the 1930s against the established Lutheran Church was a key component in his oppositional witness.

Such thoughts might lead us to examine the list of virtues which begins the Sermon on the Mount which is chosen presumably to represent the virtues most often found in saints. To understand the connection we need to rid the key concepts of their contemporary overtones; poor in spirit, meek, righteousness, merciful and pure in heart are all terms which need an understanding of their meaning for the Evangelists and early modern translators. Perhaps the ideas we relate to most easily are peace makers and those who are persecuted as these are qualities that pertain to life and death. Yet Jesus is speaking to his new and humble Disciples. They all merited Sainthood in the last resort but nobody living with them could have known how things would turn out. Perhaps the people who least look like saints are the most likely candidates.

On this day which sums up our view of sanctity, it would be as well to clear up a 16th Century controversy which separated the Reformers from Catholics and which still persists in the Church of England. If we believe that there are Saints in a special relationship with God (or “in Heaven”) then they are fit intermediaries or intercessors between us and God but this initial form of the meaning of “pray”, to ask, must be distinguished from the narrower idea of “praying to” as a form of worship. Perhaps it is not inappropriate in this last commentary to note that this is yet one more example of a not very major controversy which has unnecessarily divided Anglicans from other Christians and from each other. The saints were not noted negotiators.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Discuss the importance of the Book of Revelation as an animator of the Christian vision
  2. What is a saint and who qualifies for the designation?
  3. Discuss ideas of morality and sanctity
  4. Who is your favourite saint and why?
  5. Re-write the Beatitudes for today’s church.

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