On Sunday we celebrated All Saints’ Day. The actual date of All Saints’ Day is 1st November but it can be moved to the next Sunday, as we did in the Cathedral. The question arises: Who are the saints whose day this is? I gave two answers, in line with the two aspects of Anglican identity – catholic and reformed.
The readings were Psalm 24:1-6, Revelation 21:1-6a and John 11:32-44. My reflection follows:
The Anglican Church is quite confusing to be part of as Anglicans seldom make up their minds! In any given situation we are more likely to opt for ‘both this and that’ rather than ‘either this or that’. I suppose we could be accused of being indecisive. The alternative view is that we want to benefit from the best of all that Church can offer. In practice this means that we are a broad church which can accommodate many different views.
Today can be celebrated as All Saints’ Day, and that is what I’ve chosen to do. The actual All Saints’ Day is on 1st November but the celebration may be moved to the next Sunday. It is a Principal Feast and so should be celebrated. Anglicans claim to be ‘catholic’ (that is, part of the universal church and also particularly part of the Western church) and to be ‘reformed’ (that is coming out of the Reformation which changed many aspects of church life). In looking at All Saints’, these two aspects of Anglicanism allow us to see the saints in two ways.
In the Roman Catholic tradition people are recognized by the Church as saints. In the past the system was very carefully structured; now it’s a bit simpler. Nevertheless saints are still those men, women and children who have lived a holy life and are upheld by the Church as a good example to the rest of us. As you can imagine, over the 2000 years of Christianity, many people have been given the title of Saint. In the Roman Catholic Church alone there are more than 10,000 saints and the Orthodox Churches recognize even more. Some are recognized in many churches and some just in one.
Historically, before there was a system for recognizing those whom we would call saints, people became saints in the eyes of those who lived where they had lived. It might be that a local person had been particularly strong in the faith, or had died for their faith, and the local community remembered them with affection and admiration after their death. On the anniversary of their death there would be particular attention paid to remembering that person. Often there would be a gathering at their tomb which might act as an altar for a Eucharist service. Some saints would only be remembered in a small area; others, particularly if they were associated with miracles happening after their death, would become known in a larger area.
I have often told the story of particular saints on their feast day here in the Cathedral. Their lives can be really inspiring. For some we have no idea how their fame spread but for others we know that a pope has declared that person a saint after they were venerated in a place associated with their life. Once that happened, each saint gained a special date for their feast day, often the anniversary of their death, and they were remembered across the whole Church.
When the Church of England became separate from the Roman Catholic Church gradually new prayer books were written. In the process of doing this, many of the saints’ days were taken out of the book. People who had been remembered for many centuries were no longer remembered in the Church of England. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer became the standard for use in the Church of England. It included more saints, though not as many as in the past. The Roman Catholic Church has continued to recognize new people as saints throughout that period up to the present day. The Anglican Church had no process for doing that until new prayer books were written to replace the Book of Common Prayer. At that time Anglican Churches took the opportunity to expand the number of saints they remember in the calendar. Anglican Churches in different parts of the world remember different people, in very much the same way as happened in the past. Those of you who join in Morning or Evening Prayer in the chapel, where we use the Common Worship services provided by the Church of England, will know that we celebrate the lives of a wide variety of saints now. Some are the famous names like Francis or Luke; some are less well known or more recent, such as Peter Chanel or Janani Luwum. Although remembered in England, the selection of saints is by no means all English.
I remember once receiving a calendar as a gift from a friend in France. I was amazed to see that every date had several names of saints listed. However, it would be impossible to allocate a day to every person who could rightly be thought of as holy and a good example to us. All Saints’ Day allows us to remember those not listed, those whose names we might not know, but who were important to Christians at some time in some place. I have no doubt that some people living now will one day be commemorated as saints.
I don’t think that anyone sets out in life to become a saint. Some choose to turn to God very early in life and are known for their piety even when children. Agnes was martyred when only 12 or 13 years old. Others have led lives which are far from what we might call saintly. Augustine of Hippo led a very worldly life, enjoying all its pleasures, before later turning to Christianity and becoming a huge influence on generations of Christians.
I think we can draw encouragement from the fact that saints set out in life as ordinary people. According to the way Paul addresses his letters, all the believers are saints. The word is simply referring to the fact that they are believers, members of the Church. The Anglican Church can draw on this tradition – the one adhered to by the reformed churches – when considering All Saint’ Day.
We are each walking a similar journey to that which those who are officially called saints, walked. They represent all conditions of people: monks, merchants; rich, poor; urban or rural dwellers; old, young; male, female; intellectual, simple. They provide us with encouragement that we too can be transformed into the image of Christ as they were. As Psalm 24 tells us, it is those who have not chosen to worship idols, but have cultivated a pure heart, and who have clean hands who can approach God’s holy hill. These are the people who are seeking God, the true God, and these are the people who will be rewarded at the end of their lives on earth.
Today’s passage from Revelation paints for us a wonderful picture of the time when this broken and groaning world will finally be transformed into a new earth. The picture is of God being no longer beyond sight but coming to dwell with his people in a new Jerusalem. Then all the troubles of this world will pass away – death, sadness, pain, crying. All will be swept away on that great day. Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, will be seated on his throne to rule with justice. There will be celebration, a great feast, the heavenly banquet. Seated at that banquet will be the great and the good – saints like Peter, Paul, Maximilian Kolbe, Julian of Norwich. There will also be saints there whose names we don’t know but who also served God faithfully in their lifetimes. And those of us here who serve God faithfully in life, though our names may only be known to our family and a few people locally, will sit down as equals in that company.
Jesus knows the distress that we experience in life, particularly when a loved one dies. We cry out against the injustice of death as Jesus too cried when he saw that Lazarus had died. When he met Martha, who was grieving over her brother’s death, he told her that if she believed she would see the glory of God. That is true for us also; if we believe and live in the light of that belief, we will see the glory of God.
Lazarus was raised from death, though natural processes should have meant he was a stinking corpse. When he emerged he was still trapped by the wrappings of death but Jesus said, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ We too, who follow the example of the saints, will find ourselves freed from the bindings of death. We will be released from all that constrains us on earth now.
Jesus demonstrated his power over death by raising some people to life while he went about his three year ministry on earth – the widow of Nain’s son, Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus. He demonstrated this power supremely by rising from death himself and thus opening the gate of glory for all believers, all the saints, and that means you and me.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor