Saturday, November 03, 2007

All Saints' Day

Today we celebrate one of the church’s ‘big’ festivals, the feast of All Saints.  All through the year we have saint’s days, days dedicated to the memory of all the major saints and as many of the second drawer ones as we care to make a fuss of – why now another day dedicated to the whole lot?  I heard the theory once that it was just in case we forgot one along the way ...

Actually, All Saints is a lot more specific than we often give it credit for, a day for remembering the saints we don’t have names for but whose witness and sacrifice Christians in the early Church were all too aware of, a day set aside to remember and wonder at the meaning of the sacrifices made by thousands of women and men in the first dreadful couple of centuries as Christianity spread throughout the Roman world.  Most of these early martyrs were unknown, apart from the sometimes exaggerated stories we do have of the more important ones like Polycarp the bishop of Smyrna - at the age of 86 Polycarp was ordered to be burned alive after refusing the town magistrate’s pleas to deny his faith – inconveniently for the executioner once the wood was set alight the flames refused to harm the old saint, encircling his body without touching him – resorting to Plan B and running him through with a sword did the trick but released a fountain of blood that put out the fire altogether and called a halt to executions for the rest of the afternoon.  By the early seventh century, Christianity having become respectable and even compulsory throughout the Roman Empire, the Emperor Phocas turned over the site of much of the earlier mayhem, Nero’s Circus at the old Roman Pantheon, to Pope Boniface who promptly rebuilt it as a chapel for all the unsung heroes of the faith – ordinary folk, for the most part who not being bishops died less miraculously and more anonymously though just as cruelly.  And a century later another Roman Emperor decided on an annual date of remembrance – the first of November on the grounds that if we were going to have a horde of pilgrims every year it had better be after the harvest had been safely tucked away and we had enough bread to feed them all ...

So that’s the history of it – a day to remember the saints whose names never made it into the official lists.  We often take advantage of the anonymity of all this on All Saints Day by using it as an occasion for remembering the saints who have nurtured us or inspired us in our own faith and that’s a good practice because it reminds us that saints aren’t always super-heroes of holiness who met with sticky ends, in fact, in the New Testament the word isn’t associated with martyrdom at all, St Paul uses it as a name for all the people of God – the word ‘saint’ means one who is in the process of being sanctified, made holy by the death and resurrection of Christ.  In other words, being a saint isn’t a special honour reserved for super-Christians, it’s a job description for all of us.  But it’s a job description that comes with a sharp edge.  So I’m not so sure about taking All Saints as an occasion for singing the virtues of Saint Bob or Saint Ethel.  While it’s clearly a good thing to celebrate the virtues of a Christian life well-lived, and to give thanks for those who have inspired and nurtured us in our own lives, I think there might be a danger in that approach, if it means we make the saints of God sound a whole lot like us.

So what I thought I’d do this morning is to reflect on the gospel – always a good place to start, for a preacher!  And I think the first thing to notice is that the readings the church uses to remember the saints have never been ones that look backwards, for centuries they have been readings that look forwards, readings that show us how to become what God intends us to become, rather than just commemorating the holiness of somebody else that we couldn’t possibly hope to achieve.  And the second thing to notice is that, hey, these probably aren’t the Beatitudes I’ve learned off by heart, they sound a bit similar to the more famous version in Matthew’s gospel but these ones when we stop and think about them are blunter and a whole lot more disturbing.  How do you possibly live by this stuff?  What was Jesus thinking of?  Because essentially what we have here is an instruction to live in a way that is exactly the opposite of what we would ordinarily think of as being in our best interests.

I think the point is that these words point us forward to a way of life that, deep down, we do recognise because it resonates with our deepest, God-given identity.  When we let these confronting words of Jesus soak into us, and recognise the discontinuity between the selfhood that God gives us and the reality that we live by, then in a sense we encounter the future as God sees it, and we can start to allow our present to be formed and to begin to grow into the shape that God wants it. 

And so Jesus recommends to us the virtue of poverty.

No mincing words as Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes does – no metaphorical blessing of the poor in spirit but a simple and straightforward announcement – just, ‘blessed are you who are poor’ – and its mirror-image, ‘woe to you who are rich, because you’ve had your lot!’.  In the Jewish tradition, blessing was very common, blessing someone or celebrating the blessing of an action or lifestyle was a way of calling a profound spirituality into an everyday setting. ‘Blessed are you for caring for that widow in the village’ was not just a compliment but a way of suggesting that your generosity connects you with the goodness and the grace of God.  We need to remember that in Jesus’ four beatitudes, he’s talking to real people in the villages around Capernaum. Crops failed. Fishermen didn’t bring home a catch. Illness rampaged unchecked. Early deaths left widows and orphans. Hunger and tears were the daily consequence of having little control over the circumstances of life.  Jesus is not an outsider in this world.  He knows these things at first hand.  And he knows that God is closer to people in poverty than he is to those in abundance. ‘Blessed are you, because you know you have option but to rely utterly on the mercy and love of God.  The very urgency of your need connects you with the God whose character is to be compassionate.’  And this, I think, is the real point - you can’t pronounce a blessing like that from a position of privilege – the comfortably off can only bless those who are stricken by showing God’s mercy in practical action – so by pronouncing a blessing on those whose lives are defined by hunger and sorrow Jesus himself enters into the heart of suffering and challenges us to follow him.

But it doesn’t stop there, and the other side of the coin is even sharper for we who live in our comfortable corner of the world two millennia later - ‘Woe to you who eat your fill and laugh – it’s a real warning to make the compassion of God part of our own character, because to live our lives insulated from the need of others is to cut ourselves off from the God who is the creative source of wholeness and healing.  God’s blessings are designed to flow in a circle, which means to live our lives trying to keep God’s blessings for ourselves is, paradoxically, to lose touch with them altogether.

And then Jesus summons for us another paradox.  ‘Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.’  It’s a teaching we see him practice, himself, when he prays on the cross for his executioners.  Of course, how many of the martyrs of the early Church who practiced this particular virtue is harder to tell.  Historically, Christians and so-called Christian countries haven’t been particularly good at this one.   Mahatma Ghandi, one of the world’s greatest practitioners of non-violence, once commented, ‘Everybody knows Jesus taught non-violence – except Christians’.  It goes against the grain.

Jesus isn’t telling us to be doormats.  Quite the opposite – I think he’s actually telling us we can choose how we react to the violence and inhumanity of the world around us.  Loving our enemies doesn’t mean failing to oppose unfairness or oppression, for example.  Entering creatively into the poverty and the suffering of others may at times mean taking a very strong position that’s at odds with the status quo.  As some courageous Christians opposed to our country’s engagement in the war in Iraq demonstrated, by travelling to Baghdad and remaining there during the initial shock and awe bombing campaign.

Ultimately, I think that practising sanctity – rehearsing saintliness, if you like, means to take a consistent God’s eye view of the world we live in.  It means opting for poverty instead of affluence, in other words, for getting out of our comfort zone, finding ways to engage with the needs and suffering of others rather than living defensively and self-protectively.  I have to ask myself if I’m up to the job.