All Saints, 1st Nov 2020
St John ends his gospel, with the following, tantalising sentence: ‘there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written’.
The evangelist reminds us just how thin is our written record of Jesus’ life. Jesus who is our saviour, Jesus, as the Nicene Creed relates, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. Through him, it goes on, all things were made, and yet the Church’s record of his life runs to 4 slim volumes. Compared to the ink and hours that humanity has wasted upon the biographies of kings, the histories of wars and empires, these four gospels, these 89 short chapters - a mere 7% of the Bible - seem unduly small. But St John’s conclusion is no idle lament, he’s not being lazy or suffering from writer’s block. He is making a deliberate point about who Jesus Christ is and how his Church is to relate to him.
For Jesus not some past leader, he’s not a book, or some old event upon which the dust has settled, history recorded and forgotten in mildewed libraries, or at best argued over by nitpicking scholars. John invites us into a story that is not finished, nor exhausted, a story which cannot be contained even in the grandest of libraries. A story that continues today - here, amongst us at St Mary’s and the Good Shepherd, and there, last week, in Nice.
The Saints we celebrate today are they are women and men who have excelled in the way that they have responded to that wonderful and dangerous invitation into a living story. Jesus’ story continues in the lives of those who respond to his love. A story that has been live-streamed for two thousand years. They are those who have taken up God’s generous offer of wholeness, of holiness, of relationship - the sort of relationship God wants to have with each one of us.
I lost count this morning at 50 when I tried to tot up the Saints we have pictured here at St Mary’s - in their white robes and golden halos reflecting the heavenly light of their Father. I challenge you to see if you can count more. They’re a remarkable band of people through whom Jesus Christ has entered into every possible human situation. And there are some wonderful stories to rejoice in - of bearded ladies and beaver bishops - of St Columba’s conversation with the Loch Ness monster and St Anthony’s sermon to the fish. There is a saint for everyone, for everything from toothache to beauty pageants, and in all seriousness I encourage you all to immerse yourselves in their lives, to ask for their prayers and to see Jesus’ story at work through them in every possible context. Let their examples inspire and instruct and comfort you. Be encouraged and stirred by their bravery, challenged by their discipline, amused and delighted by their eccentricity, loved by their understanding and compassion.
We mustn’t allow ourselves however to see them as the cast of a sort of heavenly Hello! magazine, a separate celestial class of heroes whose business is being holy so that we don’t have to. We might be intimidated by the remarkably pious and short lives of some holy men and women, but how can we forget that for many - from St Peter to the present - saintliness was a process of trial and error, of falling down and getting back up. It’s a messy process that God wants all of us to be involved in - not easy - but by uniting ourselves to Christ, possible.
We must never doubt the intensity of God’s loving desire that we take up his invitation. How astonishingly often we find that words like ‘Holy’ and ‘Blessed’ are shared by God, through his Son, with his Church. How moving it is that in the Confiteor - the I confess that we all make at the beginning of Mass, we are invited to present ourselves before God and his Saints but also before our brothers and sisters, some of whom are sitting next to us. And St Paul’s use of sainthood embraces all those who are followers of Jesus Christ. How wonderful that tomorrow, back to back with this great feast of All Saints, those extraordinary holy men and women - popes, queens, mystics and poets - is the feast of All Souls, at which our own ordinary families and forbears are remembered, at which we pray for their souls, journeying on to the heaven in which God wants us all to share.
We must always hold together the otherness of Almighty God with the reality, the tenderness, of his personal love for us as we are now, and as the Saints he wants us to become.
Our Gospel today gives us some ideas about what that saintliness might look like. Jesus speaks of qualities that are difficult, and against the human grain. Speaking from the mount, surely a deliberate echo of Exodus and the Psalm’s mountain of the Lord and its treacherous ascent, he praises both humility, and courage in the face of fear. He encourages mercy and magnanimity, and praises lives that look beyond the concerns of the self towards a universal righteousness; habits of gentleness that seek not self promotion, nor respond to our fellow man with anger or abrasiveness or judgement, but to look always upon our neighbour with compassion. And peacemaking - notoriously difficult from the domestic to the international stage. A heady and challenging set of qualities that God wants and expects from his saints.
Notice however, that this doesn’t read as a checklist of blessedness. Whilst very few people can claim to have all of these virtues sewn up I think that all of us exhibit, at least in part, at least at times, at least one of these qualities - and blessed, the Lord says, are we to the extent that we do. Those instances are where we grow from.
And let’s finish off that list. ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’; remarkably, ‘blessed are those who mourn’, and ‘blessed are those who are persecuted’. These are rather different. They seem to be conditions that we suffer, rather than virtues that we’re being encouraged to hone. They’re more where we are, than where we ought to be.
I don’t think that in that paradoxical line ‘blessed are those who mourn’ Jesus is encouraging any sort of cultivation of sadness. This is isn’t a licence to be miserable. But it does meet us very much where we often are as people, and even in those difficult states, he calls us blessed. Which of us haven’t experienced loss, haven’t mourned, haven’t been broken in some sense by the world? Which of us hasn’t experienced, or hasn’t known someone who has experienced hopelessness, desperation, depression, the quiet dimming of the spirit? Funny things to label ‘blessed’. Funny things to include alongside this list of heroic saintly virtues. Conditions we’d probably rather do without.
But for us, here and now, perhaps those Beatitudes are even more important than the shining peaks of saintliness that today’s great feast celebrates. First, it reminds us that each of us, however unsaintly and ill-equipped we feel are - from right here and right now - invited on the journey into saintly relationship with God - alongside our exalted sisters and brothers who have already won their halos.
Second, these conditions equip us better to understand and love others. If we suffer faithfully along side our suffering saviour we allow these experiences to be transformed into pools of wisdom and compassion on which we can draw in the service of others. Faithfully borne, they also lend us the strength and inspiration to be the kind of people who don’t judge, who can be magnanimous, who show gentleness, and humility, and courage and mercy. If we accept those experiences as ‘blessed’, as part of the lives of God’s saints, we might too find that the pride and defensiveness that get in the way of peacemaking weaken, at the same time as our conviction in what is right grows stronger.
“Dites a mes enfants que je les aime”. Those were the final words of Simone Barreto Silva last Thursday morning, after she’d been attacked whilst saying her prayers in the Basilica of Our Lady in Nice. ‘Tell my children that I love them’. Not words of anger or bitterness or fear or self-preservation, words neither of vengeance nor of self pity. Words in the most desperate human tragedy imaginable - and words of love. Tell my children that I love them. It’s in the most terrible of situations - of persecution and of grief and of loss and abandonment where we find ourselves closest to what matters most, closest the God who gave himself for us - his children. I don’t know enough about Simone Barreto Silva to known how saintly a person she was. But I do know that her response of love under such brutal persecution gives all Christians an example - and further evidence that in our deepest difficulties we come closest to beginning to grasp the blessedness, the saintliness, that Our Lord Jesus Christ so desperately wants for us. The gospels may be short, but His story of love, that continues in his saints, is the longest and most beautiful in history. Let’s help one another to live it.