Celebrating All Saints’
Faith is God’s call to see his trace in the face of the Other.
— Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Not in God’s Name, 25.
All Saints is a wonderful Festival and, like all Christian festivals, it reminds us who God is and who we are. By giving us the opportunity to give thanks to the Father for all the Saints who from their labours rest, it reminds us that by baptism we have risen way beyond the confines of our biology or genealogy and have become members of the body of Christ, together with all those whose names and feats of sanctity we know, and those we do not. This process is played out little by little day by day as through the liturgical calendar we encounter one or two at a time those who are known to have excited holiness in the church, whose example we are encouraged to follow.
So far so good. There are however one or two pitfalls associated with this feast, to which I would like to draw brief attention.
The first is the cult of the hero. It’s quite common to teach children and others who are new to the faith that we should think of the Communion of Saints as the heroes of Christianity. And while in a sense this is true, there are some unhelpful consequences to speaking of heroism. The Saint is one who (as Tristram SSF once reprimanded me by explaining) excites holiness: that is to say, the Saint is one who assists all the other brothers and sisters in their task of growing in holiness and following Christ. A hero is by no means able to instil in his or her devotees any of the skills or dispositions which elicit the admiration of the fanatic. It is indeed likely to be the admirer’s very great distance from the hero that sustains their admiration. One might well have enormous respect for a sportsperson or a musician or a poet, a public figure or one of the readily available celebrities which our culture constantly spawns. But these people will not enable me to become more like them. I admired Ian Botham, because I could never bat or bowl like him and I looked on in awe when, at the height of his powers, he demonstrated his talent. Similarly, as I listen to the playing of violinist Janine Jansen, I am aware of the profound effects the sound of her music is able to create within me, but I know that this relationship will always be one way: there is no version of the universe available to me, in which I will achieve anything that approaches her virtuosic skill.
In sportsperson and artist, innate skill is brought to fruition only through a regime of practice and self-discipline which may indeed be called heroic. As children, such people have glimpsed a vision of what their lives could achieve. And, no doubt inspired by family and supporters, they devote their lives to realising what they have seen only in part. This is why we reserve such heights of admiration and honour for the lonely Olympic hero.
The Christian life, however, has no place for such an understanding of heroism. Christians are not in the business of fashioning themselves as their own work of art: there is certainly askesis, but this is the process by which Christians are formed through baptism, sustained by Word and Sacrament, and transformed by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit, worship, and the common life of the body of Christ. Of course I see that I also am called to sanctity (in a way that I’m not called to be a virtuoso violinist) and that I will never live a life of holiness by my own unaided desire and discipline: anything that is achieved in me will be achieved by the grace of God alone.
This means that the Saints are exemplars not principally of their own achievements, but of the power of the grace of God to transform lives. And what ramshackle lives they have very often been!
From the obvious failings of the Lord’s first followers to the oddnesses of his holy ones throughout the ages, there has always been plenty of work for grace to do. Peter’s impulsive behaviour and bitter denials of Christ; the interesting financial background of Levi; the medical history of those from whom various Devils had been cast; the appalling ambition of James and John, spurred on by their mother; the alleged theological thuggery of men like Athanasius and Wilfrid; the highly-strung nature of Francis, ditto the Spanish mystics; the propensity for self-absorption that many monastic saints will have abundantly displayed; the ease with which Ignatius of Loyola would give himself and his attention to an impressive story wherein he might shine as the hero; there will have been plenty of saints who had been boozers and lechers, spendthrifts and misers, cowards and curmudgeons; there will have been those who were over-fond of the limelight, and those too bashful for words. But by their daily encounter with Jesus, they were converted into newness of life, created afresh by their first creator.
I too am called to holiness
And if all of these with their failings can be tamed and refashioned by the Jesus whom we worship, then so can I! My besetting sins can be burned away by the fire of Christ’s love. But I must be clear that it is with Jesus himself that my business must be done. If I attempt to place around either him or me any sort of cordon sanitaire, I will not be dealing with the living God, but with my own simulacrum; and I will not be offering myself for service, but just a version of myself, an ecclesiasticised caricature, someone who lives and prays in inverted commas. The Communion of Saints needs me to become not an improbable alabaster version of myself; but, finally, to become the real me.
The net is very wide
And if I acknowledge that I can become the real me, then I must see that God draws sanctity from all sorts and conditions of women and men, including many who will surprise me. Of these, the most surprising will be those whose differences from me are the most striking. We are prepared for this on those days of the year when we celebrate a group of saints whose dissimilitude leaps out from the calendar. For example, on 26 May we keep Saint Augustine of Canterbury; together with John Calvin, whom the calendar describes simply as Reformer, 1564; and Saint Philip Neri, a hero of the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Nevertheless, they are all in it together, and I cannot simply take the ones I want, leaving the others like discarded fish. If I cannot see God at work in all of them, then I will never see God at work in me.
This was well illustrated today when, in response to a twitter posting that the Church of England keeps Martin Luther on this day, one high churchman replied, Oh no, we don’t! It is a Saturday and we shall celebrate a mass of our Lady. What place this person supposes narrow tribalism to have in the celebration of the Christian sacraments is best not to explore here. But at All Saints we do remember and celebrate that God requires a vast diversity among God’s faithful servants. It is a diversity of such breadth that it even includes you and me, and will, if we pay heed to it, be an apt illustration of the words of a great Jewish saint, Jonathan Sacks, who has said that Faith is God’s call to see his trace in the face of the Other.