When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Sermon on Sunday, All Saints
As part of our Collect for today, we prayed
“you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord”
Who are these elect, that fellowship? I think they are the people who have faith and live out that faith in their ownmost being. They have no doubt that their lives have been knit together in a communion that is impenetrable by the dictates of everyday concerns, a fellowship which cannot be dissolved by “the world, the flesh and the devil” about whom the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church warns us. They have become the mystical body of the subject of our faith, Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Christ becomes the head of these saints and the saints become the diverse parts of Christ’s body. They become the localised incarnations of this mystical body. – So began my meditation for these thoughts on All Saints Day, celebrating the Hallows of last evening.
Who do you think the saints of blessed memory are? For me they are the collection of good and beautiful people remembered by their local communities, congregations gathered of everyone in the parish who recall the best of themselves. However, parishes include in their number some who are hard to take, as well as those who are all sweetness and light. I began to think the saints are just like all of us, some gentle, some spikey. And so I was reminded of St Augustine of Hippo and St Ignatius of Antioch because of their recent feast days. I have to say that they are just two of the more difficult people I know who have been canonised and remembered by the Church who have been celebrated from long ago. – Years ago my local priest preached on precisely this point, and he made me realise that not every saint is just goodness and light. He made me look at Ignatius anew, so that I could see that Ignatius was a very difficult fellow. Obsessed with martyrdom, he forced himself on the secular powers that were persecuting the Church in such a way that they could not ignore his bating them to kill him as he wanted to be killed – for the sake of his faith. He wanted to be a martyr to a faith that opposed the order of the world, opposition even unto death.
Ignatius is only one of the saints obsessed with just a single aspect of the expression of the faith. We can easily find many more.
With these thoughts about the irascible who are among the numbers of the cloud of witnesses and among our own number, I began to wonder whether we should re-evaluate “the blessed saints” but we might begin to doubt “all [their] virtuous and godly living” – just as we have begun the revisionist historiography of all our secular “heroes”. After all we are now toppling their statues from places of exaltation in our civic lives, just as the statues of Stalin and the Shah were shattered when those revolutions occurred. Now our own statues are being dumped off their plinths, even in Bristol. However, this revision of history is not new – didn’t George Orwell tell us all about it? – Haven’t we seen it throughout our own lives as our leaders are lionised in one decade and vilified in the next? Perhaps this even happens from week to week.
We have celebrated saints from the beginning of human history, haven’t we? Saints are not just a christian preserve. There are heros in non-christian cultures who stand in places of honour and as examples for them just as our saints do for us. Those heroes are sacred and secular, for we have our own heroes today – those men and women we hold in awe – they could be our political leaders, they could be the very good person who lives just down the lane. They could be people no one else notices, but each of us sees their value – a worth for each of us alone, as examples of living well and moving toward an exalted goal.
Today we are more self-critical and conscious of what is right, aren’t we? No longer do we tell stories about what the philosophers call “classes” – for instance, those jokes about “blondes”. We are politically correct nowadays because fundamentally we want to treat everyone well, just as we remember all the saints with joy and reverence. We actually want to celebrate every other person as a saint, don’t we? This is redaction of another for the right reason – to remember them for the good we can recall of them, that they might act as a guide to heaven, where they hopefully go ahead before us.
Every culture has its own revisions to make, don’t they? We must continue to, as that collect from last Sunday says, “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the lives of the saints, not with an uncritical eye, but with an eye ever open to what is right and good – two things to which the everyday world is very often blind. This is proper revision, an investigation of reality to reveal the essential character of life, what lies beneath the changes and chances which beset us, those slings and arrows of Shakespearean tragedy which beset us.
The revisionist mission is the task each one of us as we become the hagiographer of our contemporaries – we become the person who recalls the life of a particular saint for their own community. We must all participate in that work, for we must all tell the stories of the people in our community, remembering them with fondness (as we do tomorrow on All Souls Day). We can recall the prophetic figures among us, telling our friends about the message they have lived out. Perhaps we have in mind a contemporary Ignatius, someone who was so difficult that we did not appreciate them as they lived among us, but now that they are gone before us we recall their lives with more compassion and love than we shared with them while they were with us. We must love our neighbours as we love ourselves after all.
I want this revision, this recollection of people around us to happen now, while we have the chance to tell those around us about the virtues we see in their lives. I want us to strip away the evil in life to expose the holy as it is lived around us. That is the way we will find the saints among us. Perhaps someone will find in each one of us some good to be preserved in a collective memory so as to guide the community into the future. This revision is what we do daily when we recall the day just past and adjust our intentions for the day to come. Naturally, my meditation for today finally returns to the petition of the Collect as we look forward to remembering All Souls tomorrow.
“grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.”