Hope, Riches, Power: redrawing the All Saints map

 

Thoughts for a homily at All Saints 2016

Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31

In the first of the readings selected for All Saints’ Day, the prophet Daniel alludes to ‘the holy ones of the Most High’ who remain faithful in the face of competing conquerors, thus coming to  ‘receive and possess God’s kingdom for ever’ (Daniel 7.18). It should come as no surprise to anyone following in the way of Jesus Christ that our own discipleship has the same sole purpose of learning fidelity and holiness: we are hoping to become saints, numbered with all the Saints whom the Church venerates on or around 1 November (one of several acts of remembering in which we engage at this time each year).[1]

Working against us in this project are what St Bernard calls ‘two chief evils which war against the soul: an empty love of the world and too much self-love’[2].

These are indeed significant obstacles on the road to holiness, each of them a variety of self-absorption which suffocates the awakening spirit and immobilises a pilgrim’s first steps on the road of obedience. The first is the failure to rise above our animal identity, so that we remain mired in the demands and consequences of mere appetite[3]. But if you’re preening at this point, quietly congratulating yourself on your modest intake of wines and spirits, fats and sugars, know that the appetite for self-satisfaction and self-glorification —though it does not harden the arteries— does harden heart and mind, making them quite impenetrable to the guidance of the wise and the redeeming grace of Almighty God. The Christian disciple, avoiding such things, should instead be learning how ‘to set our hope on Christ’ and to live life for the praise of his rather than our own glory (Ephesians 1.12).

Hope in this context means more than the sort of mildly optimistic desire with which we are familiar: ‘I hope the rain holds off till I get the washing in. I hope the car starts in the morning.’ Hope as we meet it here is the sole source of our life’s motivation and the means of our daily navigation of the way ahead: it helps us select where we’re heading, and enables us to get there.

As for glory, we surely need no reminder that Christ’s glory is not the glory of a king reclining in sumptuous clothing (his ‘silken girls bringing sherbet’)[4]; neither is it the renown of a commander of victorious armies. It is rather the glory of One made flesh so that he might pitch his tent among us; the glory of One who emptied himself out in loving service, becoming a slave and washing the feet even of his betrayer. This One was stretched out for his pains on the agonising rack of the cross. Having then been vindicated and raised from death by the Father to an eternal and cosmic pre-eminence, he is the ascended and glorious One whom the author to the Ephesians prays again that we will know as our hope, recognise as ‘the riches of our inheritance’, and experience as ‘the immeasurable greatness’ of God’s power. It is another way of praying that we will be filled with God’s grace, that constantly-multiplying capacity for the imitation of Christ, without which our efforts are no more than a flawed and fruitless human striving.

Hope. Riches. Power. There can’t be much more to receive. But before we start any premature counting of chickens, we should turn to the gospel passage and read again its stark topsy-turvy presentation of hope and dread, riches and poverty, power and weakness. If Jesus calls poverty a blessing, and happiness a curse, we have some clear thinking to do and a significant recalibration of the scales we thought we were living by. This gospel is a reversal of what we had taken to be the natural order of things: it flies in the face of how, in perfect decency, we live our own lives, maximising income and belongings, seeking contentment and enjoying honour.

If learning to be holy means giving up all this, we might conclude that holiness isn’t desirable after all, and opt instead for the car and the cash.

It is certainly startling to be told that the blessed ones are not those with the BMW parked on the immaculate drive, but rather those refugees being forcibly dispersed from the Calais Jungle or arriving in Croydon without possessions, in search of a new life. The blessed are those who live without the consolation and buffer of any luxury items or creature comforts. Talking to an audience already at the mercy of occupying armies and the vagaries of the harvest, Jesus sees the blessed as those suffering absolute penury rather than slight financial embarrassment. And unlike Matthew, Luke doesn’t spiritualise the categories of blessing and curse: Luke’s Jesus isn’t talking about the ‘poor in spirit’ or those who hunger ‘after righteousness’ (Matthew 5.3, 6): these people are straightforwardly poor and hungry.

Note too that the system of rewards and penalties is far from uniform. Some of them are timetabled for an unspecified future: ‘you will be filled… you will mourn’. Others are reserved for a specifically celestial compensation: if you suffer like a prophet now, you get a heavenly reward in the end. (This will presumably be denied if you’re favoured and fêted now, as were the false prophets of old.)

So what’s the message? Best get your suffering over with, and look forward to better days on earth —or perhaps in heaven? And would we be happy with that if it were? Hardly: ‘pie in the sky when you die’ has never been an attractive or satisfactory account of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

There is something more subtle and robust going on, concerning the process of knowing and receiving, with all the saints, the abiding presence of Christ as hope, riches and power. This is truly realised in those whose poverty and hunger deliver them from the brutal first of St Bernard’s ‘chief evils’ (an ‘empty love of the world’), and whose tears of mourning, frustration and sorrow save them from the vainglorious second (‘too much self-love’). In the same way, those doing woefully well in the world are so occupied in reaping their harvest of good things that the reception of Christ as God becomes all the harder. The blessing is not that we might be poor, but that we might thereby know God as our riches and reality. The woe is not that we are happy, but that (like Job’s family struck down in the midst of celebration) our laughter will rob us of receiving God in repentance (cf Job 1.18f; Ecclesiastes 7.6).

For repentance is at the heart of any serious reception of grace (Hope. Riches. Power.). A regular touching of the tiller and resetting of the compass towards a newly-clarified horizon is crucial if we are to be available to God for a life of holiness. It is thus fortunate that Luke includes prophets alongside the poor, hungry and heartbroken. Their voices will be instrumental in the rousing of repentance and a consequent renewal of the lives of the dispossessed. This can take place only because a bold and tireless breed of men and women insist and proclaim in the name of God that the kingdoms of this earth must order their business according to the principles of the kingdom of heaven. This calls not for violence or bloodshed, but rather a revolution rooted in the overwhelming and relentless power of love. This is the love seen later in that same gospel passage; the love of those who bless in response to a curse, who give away their goods with foolish abandon, and who hope resolutely that God will teach others to live the rich and powerful life of a learned generosity.

This agenda of grace and goodness is not simply a doing of good things to the poor. It is, rather, a radical redrawing of the moral and practical map of human living, in which the poor are active change-makers rather than crushed recipients of charity[5]. It is this process to which we are called as Saints, following as his Body the Church our Lord as Head. He has gone before us in life, death and resurrection, taking us even now into the forecourts of the heaven whose ways we are to model and minister on earth, so that all may know the fullness which is Christ’s gift.

May all the Saints pray for us in our joyful work. And may Christ our Hope and Riches and Power grant us to be numbered with the blessed now and in all eternity.

[1] The fact that All Souls’, the Commemoration of the Departed, follows on 2 November is an immediate reminder that our life’s work takes place within a context of no little urgency.

[2] Sermon 1 on the Song of Songs. Cf I Peter 2.11.

[3] Cf Colossians 3.2

[4] TS Eliot: Journey of the Magi.

[5] This process is described beautifully by Jean Vanier in the L’Arche context as part of a broader discussion offered by David F Ford in ‘The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit’ (Canterbury Press, 2014), 71-75.

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