When you’ve lived in the north-east of England, thinking about saints takes on a whole new meaning. St Aidan, St Cuthbert, St Bede, St Oswald, St Chad, St. Hild, and St Wilfrid. The same handful of saints names live on in countless churches, schools, colleges, roads, etc., throughout the region, but not elsewhere. Within the northeast they’re not just names, but people know something of who the people were, and their inspiration stories live on to some extent as many as fifteen centuries after their deaths.
It’s the same in celtic parts of Britain. The Cornish can tell you of St. Piran; the Welsh of St. Winifred and St. david; the Scots of St. Columba, St. Ninian, St. Margaret, and St. Andrew. But it just isn’t the same in the south east of England, where the sense of history and cultural identity and ethos is different. Not better or worse, but different.
Have you ever wondered how many saints there are? The Roman Catholic Church officially recognises certain people as saints. They have a highly codified system, which used to be contested rather like a judicial process with a prosecution and defence until the time of the previous Pope John Paul II, who simplified the procedure, and declared almost 500 Saints. It has sometimes been said that he canonised more people than all his predecessors put together, but this must be a mistake since there are over 10,000 people officially recognised by the Roman Catholic Church as saints, and many more by the eastern Orthodox Churches. Of course, one of the fundamental principles of the Reformation was doing away with saying some people were better than others. All Christian people are saints. Paul begins letters address them to “the saints in Phillippi, in Galatia, etc.” Our ancestors would talk about the body of people who were the church as “the saints” – the saints in Farnham, the saints in Elstead.
All Christian people are saints, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from those who have gone before, those whose story is remembered by the church, and told in order to inspire others. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews talks about us being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, meaning the saints who have gone before us.
Witnesses establish the truth by giving evidence. When we celebrate the Saints, we celebrate those who have given evidence, who have made God believable by how they have lived and how they have died. God does not respond to our doubts, our intellectual querying, our uncertainty, by delivering from Heaven a neatly annotated list of logical propositions with which we cannot disagree. God showed us this in Jesus, and God continues to show us lives and deaths that make him credible, that make Jesus tangible here and now.
We may feel it very difficult for us to live a Christ like life, perhaps it’s an intellectual challenge, or a practical challenge, or because of the stresses of suffering and evil. Yet, it isn’t argument that can answer and inspire us: it’s the example of lives lived in a Christ like way in just such circumstances. In the very early Church, local congregations would write eagerly to one another to describe the sufferings they’d been through and the martyrs who had glorified God in their midst. They were telling one another, ‘It is believable. We have seen and touched with our hands, the word of life. We have seen lives lived in desperate and reckless generosity to the point of death, and God has become credible afresh to us in those lives’. Wouldn’t church be different if our main currency of exchange was to let one another know how God had become credible to us?
But there’s another dimension of this which comes out very clearly in that rich passage from Hebrews. These great figures that the writer to the Hebrews has listed, ‘without us [says the writer] they will not be made perfect’. This is a truly extraordinary claim. We’ve heard about the heroes of the Old Testament, the Judges and the Prophets, those who have suffered atrociously for their faith, those who have performed stunning miracles, ‘And yet [the writer to the Hebrews says baldly] without us they will not be made perfect’. Without us, Francis of Assisi will not be made perfect; without us Mother Theresa will not be made perfect. Surely some mistake? As the editors say. But no, these great witnesses become perfect, when we respond, and the way in which they have made God credible comes alive in us. They’re not perfect as individuals who have scored exceptionally highly in the examination of Christian faith. They are parts of the body of Christ to which we too belong. Our life is bound up with theirs and amazingly and humblingly, their life is bound up with ours, they enter into their glory when we come with them.
Heaven help the Saints if they depend on us to get them to their final wholeness, you might be thinking, and yet that’s what the Bible puts before us as a reminder that no-one’s holiness is their property, and that the holiness of the Christian life is one given into the lives of others. That is where it becomes fully itself.
So, at All Saints’ tide we give thanks that God in Christ has made himself credible; credible in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus; credible in the lives of those in whom Jesus has come alive. And we thank God for that extraordinary promise: that the great Saints of the Communion of Christ’s body depend on us as we depend on them in growing together.
A great cloud of witnesses; lives and deaths which take responsibility for making God credible; lives and deaths belonging in a chain of events started off not only by the Cross of Calvary but by the eternal self-giving of God on which the whole world rests; lives and deaths telling us the truth by providing evidence, for that living truth in the whole Church we give thanks. And that truth we resolve to pass on with joy and hope to those without whom we shall not be made perfect.
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As if All Saint’s Day were not enough, it comes as part of a package. The following day, 2 November (today) is marked as All soul’s Day, sometimes called the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. A chance to remember those who have died. And this year it has come around again, once more, and also one less. One more because another year has added to the list of those we knew and loved, who have died, but also one less because it brings me ever nearer the day and the hour of my own death. What distinguishes us from the animals is that they are spared the knowledge that when the bell tolls, it tolls also for me.
In some churches, much is spoken of praying for the dead. I always want to think carefully what this might mean. In our reformed tradition, we certainly don’t believe in purgatory, and so there’s no point in praying that someone who’s died will go to heaven, because once they’ve died they will have got wherever they’re going.
The Westminster confession of Faith puts it this way: The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory.
The thirty-nine articles put it this way:
‘The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory … is a ‘fond’ thing … vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the word of God’.
All soul’s day still has a place in our tradition, not to pray that the dead may go to heaven, but to give thanks for their live, and to remember them. Remembering is not without its pain, but perhaps that pain is in some way eased by a sense of thanksgiving.
Whether we are remembering those who’ve recently departed this life, or those who died many years ago, whether we feel grief, despair, emptiness, hopelessness, lack of peace, maybe regrets about what could have been, these are what we find in our reading from the book of Lamentations. The situation is Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, and God’s people have been taken into exile in Babylon. Being taken away from their beloved homeland was a huge loss for them, and the writer here expresses his anguish as he witnesses the desolation of the great city of Jerusalem – “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’” The sense of despair is plain. Yet in the midst of all this, there is a real glimmer of hope as the writer recalls, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Through all the ups and downs of life, God is loving, merciful and faithful. Even though we might walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us – he cares for us and he comforts us.
And we live as people of hope. There is good news which is based not on wishful thinking, but founded upon historical reality. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead gives us a sure and living hope that death is not the end – that death does not have the final word.
To fix our hearts and hopes on the risen Christ is to place life and death in their proper perspective. It’s to awaken to the tasks of living and dying in as authentically human and Christian a way as is possible to us. To look death in the face, as we do on this day of resurrection is both to find comfort in our grieving, and renewal for ourselves to go on living and blessing God for the gift of being alive.
Let us dare to hope that we may be remembered with thankfulness, that that in our faltering way we were faithful unto death, that we touched the lives of a few others, that we were blessed to know love and to give it; and that our goodbyes were bathed in the light of Easter faith, with some choir, human or angelic, to sing for us to welcome us to our eternal home.
We light a tender candle
as fragile as a friend,
A flame against the darkness,
a love without an end;
And pray his resurrection
unquenchable will blaze,
Sustaining human frailty
in Love’s eternal gaze.