The Church’s year is drawing to a close. As usual, we get there by a different timetable to the secular world – the liturgical year that begins on the first Sunday of Advent, sweeps through the celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany before settling us down into the quiet Lenten weeks of productive spiritual self-maintenance and the heart of the Christian year in the great three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day. From there it sometimes seems to be all downhill as we make our ways through the weeks leading up to Pentecost and the long season of so-called Ordinary Sundays. I think it’s not by accident though, that these last few weeks of the Church’s year in which we turn our mind to the end of all things and in particular our own true end, stand pretty much diametrically opposite the drama of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in the great circle of the Christian year.
We might even call them the Other Great Three Days of the Christian year – this last week’s celebration of life and death that began with the secular feast of Hallowe’en on the last day of October, followed by the feast of All Saints on the first of November and All Souls on the 2nd. Each of them in their own way are intended to put things in perspective by reminding us of the thinness of the veil that separates life from death and we ourselves from those who have gone before us.
Hallowe’en of course is an excuse for a bit of fun, looked down on by many of us as a recent import from our cultural cousins in the United States but actually a much older and richer tradition from the Celtic peoples of Ireland and Britain. You might imagine in earlier times a genuine scary thrill from cavorting with ghoulies and ghosties that even though you know are only your next door neighbours dressed in bedsheets nevertheless send a shiver up and down your spine because you just know that tonight of all nights the unseen spiritual realities are all around you and the boundary between this world and the next is gossamer thin. It’s a bit like the wild celebrations of Mardis Gras – literally Fat Tuesday – before we get down to the serious business of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
By contrast, All Souls is the day for quiet reflection, for remembering those whom we have loved who are now growing into perfect communion with God. All Souls is a day for remembering departed loved ones and for honouring the One who loved them into life and completes them in death. On this day, it seems to me, we affirm that the business of prayer works both ways – that the visible Church on earth is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses with whom our prayers are joined. We remember in prayer those whom we have loved, and we are reminded that in passing from our sight into what we can only understand as a deeper and more substantial communion of prayer – that those whom we have loved may sustain us, just as we do them in our own prayers.
All Saints is a day for both gratitude and inspiration. We are reminded that we are all called to be saints in the making. We don't need to be canonized to be faithful to God or to make a difference in God's scheme of things. We can be faithful to God, aligned with God's own vision of creation and human life - and we affirm that we continue to grow in grace beyond the grave. At their best, the stories of the oddball collection of saints that litter the Christian year serve to remind us that we don’t have to be incandescent with holiness or even particularly mad to be a saint – we just have to be prepared to follow Jesus’ way of love and forgiveness in our own small corner of the world – to give our assent to the Holy Spirit working through us and transforming us as it makes a difference to those around us. In fact – it seems to me a good working definition of what it means to be a saint is to agree to a sort of partnership with the Holy Spirit that takes seriously Jesus’ commandment to love and serve others, but at the same time realistically acknowledges that the strength and vision for that can only really come from God.
Well, in this hyperactive age all this needs to be compressed into our worship this morning, on the Sunday which falls into what we call the octave of the feasts of All Souls and All Saints. And I just want to point to a couple of things that our readings this morning suggest about the life beyond this, that these antipodean feasts of our own mortality and immortality might be encouraging us to reflect on. Who better, of course, to give us a glimpse of the life of heaven than John of Patmos (almost certainly a different John to the writer of John’s Gospel), writing perhaps early in the second century to Christian communities facing persecution and struggling to remain faithful in a materialist and secular world much like our own. And John – whose strange and wonderful vision seems to obscure as much as it enlightens – points out in today’s reading three wonderful certainties about the hereafter which – even though we affirm it as our own true destiny we must remain largely ignorant.
And the first certainty is this. That it’s crowded, and that it’s surprisingly inclusive. John tries to pick a big number by squaring the number of tribes of Israel and then adding three zeroes – 144,000 representing the people of the covenant that God made with Moses – and then casually mentions – oh, an uncountable multitude of extras from every tribe and nation and language and culture, and one today might add, religion – all the people you’d least expect, including us. Actually – I’m not sure if it’s some sort of technical heresy so don’t tell the Archbishop – but I have to admit to being a secret universalist about heaven, whatever that is. I don’t actually think death ends the human adventure or God’s journey for any of us, I don’t actually believe there’s an entrance exam. And I don’t think we wake up the next morning fully perfected and illumined, but that God continues to heal and transform creation, and that we ourselves continue to grow toward God’s original intention for us. I don’t know any of this. But I believe that the God who created every one of us in love, continues to entice and love each one of us towards our own true selves. For some of us, the journey maybe takes longer and is more tortuous than for others. Who knows? But John of Patmos points us toward a vision of the next life that unites us with all whom we have loved, with friends and with former enemies as well.
But inclusivity is not the only surprise in John’s vision. There’s also a bit of a surprise about how we are going to occupy our time up there. You know how in the popular imagination, in films and so on, it’s like a never-ending holiday on your own personal cloud? Not so for John – he imagines a very busy place indeed in which the primary activity is worship. Well at first it maybe looks like a perpetual church service, and even if the singing is in tune you might secretly be thinking that doesn’t sound like a very exciting way to spend eternity. But the Greek scholars remind us that the word John uses (proskuneo) that our Bible translates as worship means more literally to do homage and to serve - and so just as easily includes the notion of ‘work’ – the sort of stuff you do to earn your daily bread. So the sort of worship that happens in heaven is not just the sort that begins and ends in church but the sort of active worship that extends into those streets, as the saints of heaven also serve one another as God in Christ has served them. The connection between loving God and loving and serving others that Jesus emphasises as characteristic of God’s kingdom does not just apply in the here and now, it seems, but in all times and all places of our existence.
And the last observation I want to make about the vision of John of Patmos – of which we are also reminded by our reading from the beatitudes of St Matthew’s Gospel – is that the reality of the life beyond this is the transformation of healing and forgiveness. I am often saddened by the burden of shame and unforgiveness that so many holy women and men carry right to the end of their lives, and I wish I could simply say in words that can be heard in the heart - that God’s knowledge of us never condemns but always heals and restores. That – as St Paul more eloquently puts it – nothing in heaven or on earth can ever separate us from the love of God that we see enacted in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. And so John of Patmos in his vision of the next life imagines a scene in which tears are dried and the water of forgiveness refreshes and restores, where all the injustices of this world are finally made right, the lowly lifted up and the mighty humbled—the prophetic vision of Mary of Nazareth - and where God's vision of a community of justice and peace and equality is finally made present.
As modern Christians, we rightfully I think emphasise the this-worldly aspect of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom – the kingdom ushered in by service and compassion and justice. This is right, because it makes the connection between God’s love for creation and how we live, what the priorities of our lives reveal. Today however we proclaim eternity, the promise of restoration and wholeness and peace, as the true context of all love and service and justice. We know what is important, because we know where we are headed.