The Feast of All Saints
The Church reflects the turning of the year in this new season of remembrance. As the daylight wanes, we reflect on those who gave their lives for our security and peace. On All Souls’ Day we will call to mind and pray for all those we have loved and whose lives have come to an end, that they may rest in peace.
But this season does not dwell simply on loss and decline . Tis feast of All the Saints moves us on to the vision of a new creation, fulfilment and restoration. The faith assures us that beyond what may look like the finality of death, and the collapse of societies and cultures, the reign of God has begun, bringing glimpses with it already of change and re-ordering, and the promise of resurrection and eternal life. We are members of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, where we find forgiveness for our sins, and are promised a share in the resurrection victory of Christ. We are part of that re-ordering of the world; part of the bringing in of the kingdom of God. St Paul tells us that we are “called to be saints”- a word that is not primarily about our moral status in the eyes of God. The word ‘saints- holy ones’ describes the fact that we are “set apart.” We are marked women and men, chosen by God to be his covenant people, doing his work and will.
This festival reminds us that already we see signs of that opening out of life and hope in the lives of some of those who follow him; women, children and men, either known or unknown, who work for the kingdom, and shed the beams of God’s love on a world that can often seem to be wrapped in darkness. One hymn sums it up beautifully, speaking of the slow, but inexorable growth of the reign of God.
- But the slow watches of the night Not less to God belong,
and for the everlasting right The silent stars are strong.
- And lo! already on the hillsThe flags of dawn appear;
Gird up your loins, ye prophet souls Proclaim the day is near:
- The day in whose clear-shining light All wrong shall stand revealed,
When justice shall be clothed in might, And every hurt be healed:
We are to be those ‘Prophet souls’ proclaiming the day of the Lord. C.S.Lewis in his Narnia tales reminds us that each one of us is called to this work of restoration.
God constantly raises up these gifted ‘saints’, particularly in times that seem hopeless. I have just started to read again one of the great mystical works on prayer ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. In the preface to this text, the editor reminds us how dark the times were when it was written, by an anonymous English priest or monk to encourage a young believer. In the 14th C Western Europe was in the grips of the Hundred Years War; the Black Death pandemic was sweeping across the world; Societies were falling apart; there was the Peasant’s revolt in this country, and the Pope was exiled from Rome. The unsettling stirrings of reformation were creating uncertainty and division, And yet it was in this tumultuous period that God raised up people of prayer like Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Thomas a ‘Kempis, giving us timeless jewels of spiritual truth, and encouragement. Clifton Wolters, who translated ‘The Cloud’ into modern English, sees this as the moment when the Spirit of God blew through Europe and ‘quickened’ it. He writes, “ It was in this restless, unsettled age that mysticism revived, and people turned from the rage and the storm to consider the calm depths that lay beneath.”
Once again we have arrived at a time of storm and rage, but God calls us and asks us to consider what is required of us as Christ’s disciples. We who are ‘called to be saints,’
In the Gospel today Luke describes the scene as Jesus comes down onto level ground to speak to an anxious and dispirited crowd. He is realistic that to follow him, and answer his call will make demands on them. They may even be face rejection, poverty and danger, but they are assured of God’s presence, consolation and strength in this life, and everlasting joy in the next.
The Beatitudes, far from being conditions laid down on his followers, are more of an invitation to open out their lives to love and mercy, and to follow Jesus in the bringing in of the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of righteousness and peace. Yes this discipleship will have its demands, but it will also have its rich blessings, direction and fulfilment, peace of mind, Luke shows his care and concern for his disciples, and their needs. And the shape of Luke’s version of the beatitudes picks up again the theme we hear from the first moments of the Gospel. God is reversing the fortunes of the lowly and oppressed, a turning upside down of values first declared in Mary’s revolutionary song Magnificat, and later echoed in that unique parable in Luke’s Gospel of the rich man in Hades, while the beggar Lazarus rests in the bosom of Abraham. Luke is clear that Christian discipleship makes demands, even financial demands on those who have in his words “left everything to follow him.” There are financial implications for those who wish to bring the kingdom of God to reality, perhaps especially in hard times. Our Gift day and our need to increase our giving are part and parcel of this discipleship and calling, as the early church’s example reminds us.
I said that God sends out his Spirit to renew and revive in the times of hardship, If we look at just a couple of very different holy ones from the 14th century, with all its challenges, we will see that each one of us has a distinct gift to offer to the work of God, as we do. Catherine of Siena, was a young girl who already felt God’s call to live a life of austerity, and social and political activity. She was told to smarten up so that she was a good prospective bride by her mother. Immediatel she shaved off her hair as nuns did, and that stroppy, rebellious nature God took and used to great effect. What others may see as defects in us are often used by God to his advantage. Catherine began to write confrontational letters to Popes and Bishops, while at the same time organising relief for the sick and the poor locally. Political figures began to ask for her services as a mediator and advisor. Finally she persuaded the Pope who was living in exile in Avignon, to return to Rome. She is often seen as a proto feminist for her remarkable witness and action- a prophet soul.
At much the same time in England a 30 year old woman recovering from a near death experience. As she hung between life and death she received a series of ‘revelations of divine love,’ as she called them. Brought back to health she made the decision to become an anchorite, dedicating her life to meditate on what she had learnt of God’s love, and to pray for a distracted world. She was given permission to live for the rest of her days in a small cell attached to the church of St Julian in Norwich, and for the rest of her life she reflected on those visions, acted as a spiritual guide to anyone who came to the window of her cell, writing down and revising her memories of those visions, in what we think is the first book written in the vernacular by a woman in this country. Her theological insight is remarkably and radically inclusive and encouraging, way ahead of her times in speaking of mercy rather than judgment. Her witness was much less public, but no less significant. Her work was re- discovered once again in the early years of the 20th C, and she is now an inspiration world-wide. We may not see the immediate results of our faithfulness, but in Gods good time our witness will have its results .
Take some time this season to look at one or another of the saints, and see what they achieved. Every one of us will be drawn to one saint or another, in their incredible diversity, the patrons of everything from lawyers to shoe makers, to pawn brokers. Every one of us is called to be a saint, and to hear those words of our Lord and Master. “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I chose you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that shall last.”