On the Feast of All Saints

Sermon Title:  On the Feast of All Saints

Date: 2 November 2014

Preacher:  Andrew Ham

Church Calendar Date: Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost 2014

Lectionary Reading:  Joshua 3.7-17, Ps 107.1-7, 33-37, 1Thessalonians 3.5-13, Matthew 23.1-12

At a recent meeting of the liturgy committee, Susanne asked me to “pick a Saint” and speak today as part of a tag team.  Well the tag team hasn’t quite worked out as expected, and I am the last person standing, so I look forward to collecting my halo at the end.  Just to further raise your expectations, I would like to begin with a disclaimer, which is that none or almost none of what follows is original, so if you hear some kernel of truth that speaks to you in what I have to say today, please assume that it spoke to me too in the course of my research, and so I pinched it.  As for an original material in what follows, may I beg your forgiveness in advance for any heresies I am about to commit in ignorance.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord.

As we all know, the Feast of All Saints was celebrated yesterday, on 1 November.  The Feast is also known as All Hallows, which makes sense of the sugar and pumpkin fuelled festival our children celebrate on All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en (when the dead rise, and walk).  But why do we celebrate “all saints”?  In essence, the Feast is in honour of ‘all saints both known and unknown’.  But what is a saint, I hear you ask?  What, or who, are they?  The answer seems to depend on who you are.  Roman Catholics would say the day commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven.  We, as Anglicans may side with the Romans, or as protestants are more likely to say that all true Christian believers are saints (because whatever their personal virtue and sanctity as people, they are holy through their baptism in Christ).  We would also say that All Saints Day is to remember all Christians: those on earth, in heaven, and indeed in purgatory (the communion of saints, as we say in the Creed). What both views have in common is that the Saints are numberless and not necessarily known to us.  You don’t have to be Mary McKillop, canonised by a Pope, to count.

The Feast of All Saints in 1 November is followed (today) by that of All Souls which commemorates the departed faithful who have not yet been purified and reached heaven (strictly, they are in Purgatory).  It is a day when traditionally prayers may be said for all those that have died in the past year.  Thus All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are about the prayerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the “Church triumphant“), and the living (the “Church militant“).

So, what about the Capital S Saints?  What is a Saint?

The cult of the veneration of saints began very early, based on the veneration of martyrs tombs in the belief that a martyr who had shed his or her blood for Christ was certainly in heaven and able to pray for those who invoked him or her.  (“Martyr” means witness.)  The earliest account seems to relate to the martyrdom of Polycarp, circa 156 AD, when the faithful of Smyrna gathered his bones “more precious than jewels of great price” and buried them in a safe place with the express wish of finding them there when they gathered to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom (no doubt by offering the Eucharist).  More about Polycarp later.

In time the cult of martyrdom was extended to “selected confessors and virgins” (as the Oxford Dictionary of Saints puts it).  At face value “confessors and virgins” seems an odd juxtaposition, but as persecution ended and it became safer to be a Christian, the ascetic life became a substitute for martyrdom and Saints were recognized by local Christian communities that would venerate the tomb of a person not only who died through persecution but also who lived a life of such holiness that his destiny was not in doubt.  They did, and continue to remember the saints not to set up a substitute or alternative “God” but as an additional (and favoured) voice to support them in their own prayers to God, just as we also ask for the prayers of the (living) faithful in times of need.

Over the centuries this informal process was formalized, focusing on the life and miracles of the candidate, with the decision to canonize reserved to the Pope.  All Saints Day was a way to remember the numbers of saints and martyrs now so numerous it was impossible to assign them all a feast day of their own.

The Church of England solved the population problem during the Reformation by ossifying the (Capital S) Saints in the prayer book.  Those not allocated a day in the Book of Common Prayer failed to make the cut.  Further, the door was closed to the recognition of any more within the Anglican Church.  In the Roman Church, the population continued to expand and despite several spring cleans over the centuries (most recently in 1969), the number of Saints is now so great that an edition of the (non-exhaustive) Roman dictionary of Saints, Bibliotheca Sanctorum published over 40 years ago, runs to 12 volumes.  There is no definitive list across all the churches.

Saints of course range from the Apostles (household names you might say) to the obscure.  You have to feel for Benignus of Dijon (a 2nd Century Roman Martyr), Cadfan (5th Century founder of a monastery at Bardsey Island), Dingad, Gwythian and Vigor, who all share their feast day with the Feast of All Saints itself.

But let me pick three.

Let’s begin at beginning, with Polycarp.  A disciple of the Apostle John, he became Bishop of Smyrna, and was an important defender of orthodox belief against the Gnostic heresies that included the ideas (I think!) that the material world is inherently bad and that therefore Jesus as the Son of God could not have been both truly human and truly divine.  It was he that met with the Bishop of Rome, Anicetus, to discuss a uniform date for the celebration of Easter.  As neither could accept the system of the other they agreed to disagree.  Soon after, back in Symrna, he was arrested.  The story is that he invited his captors to eat a meal with him and prayed alone for an hour.  He was taken and interrogated but remained constant.  When ordered to curse Christ, he said “For 86 years I have been his servant and he has never done me wrong.  How can I blaspheme My King who saved me?”.  He was killed with a sword and his body burnt in the ampitheatre at a games.

On a different note, Saint Cecilia, a 3rd century martyr, has been the patron saint of music since the 16thC, but, inconveniently, very little of her is known for certain.  Her fame is due to a much more interesting 5th century legend.  According to this legend, as a young Christian she was to marry a pagan called Valerian (a name now better known as a herb, and a sleeping pill – figure that one out!).  However, as she had already vowed her virginity to God, she refused to consummate the marriage.  She told Valerian she would tell him a secret if he swore not to reveal it to anyone.  When he swore, she told him about an angel who would ward off any who would touch her. He asked, not unreasonably, to see this angel, which she said could only be if he would believe in one God, and be baptized.  This took place, and when he returned from his baptism he saw Cecilia praying in her chamber, and an angel by her with flaming wings, holding two crowns of roses and lilies, which he placed on their heads, before vanishing.  Valerian’s brother was converted on hearing of these crowns.  The brothers were arrested when caught burying martyrs executed by the Roman Prefect, and were themselves executed.  Cecelia was interrogated but refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, and was sentenced to be suffocated in the baths (by turning up the heat).  This plan failed (she didn’t even break a sweat) and a soldier was sent to behead her.  Three blows, however, failed to kill her, and she survived for three days.  Her link with music arises because it was said that at her wedding feast, as the music played, she sang in her heart to the Lord saying “May my heart remain unsullied, that I may not be confounded.”

My third choice is a group.  The Desert Fathers, (and Mothers) were Third Century hermit monks who lived in the Egyptian Desert.  In about 270 AD St Anthony of Egypt heard preaching that perfection could be achieved by selling all of one’s possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Christ. He took the advice – also moving deep into the desert to seek complete solitude.

This was a time when formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was ending.  At one level, the Desert fathers, living alone or in small groups, formed an alternative Christian society. The life of extreme asceticism, renouncing anything that made them comfortable, was an alternative to martyrdom, which was no longer such a reality, and a way to focus one’s attention on refining and purifying the spirit.  Their gatherings became the model for Christian monasticism.

And so there are Saints, and there are saints.  Untold thousands and millions of the living and the dead.  They are intercessors for us with Christ, and models for our own lives.  They may be known or unknown.  They may be St Francis with a halo preaching to the birds in an oil painting, a hostage in the Middle East, or a mate who just has the right words when there is a black dog sitting on your chest that won’t go away. They may be gone from this earth and communing with the angels, or communing with you at dinner.  They’re All Saints, and it’s their day.

In the words of the hymn:

I sing a song of the Saints of God, faithful and brave and true.
Who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast
but there’s not any reason, no not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.