All Saints 2015
My first experience of serendipity was my baptism on this day a very long time ago. Serendipity because I don’t think my parents realised the significance when the date was arranged at Holy Trinity, Stroud Green in north London, so I have not one patron but millions upon millions and need them all! O happy chance!
The Salvation Army does not put on a long face and speak of “rest eternal” when someone dies but, rather, “gone to glory”, which makes the whole death business rather more interesting than an eternal sleep but both, of course, are true. Both are attempts to say something in the fewest possible words about what happens when we die. Lazarus said nothing. Jesus, quite rightly, was more interested in the life here and now but gives us a wonderful description of the life of God which is eternal but left specific details to numberless authors who in words or paint or sculpture sought to demonstrate the future in ways which would frighten the wicked and encourage the good. The huge west wall mural in the cathedral in Torcello in the Venetian lagoon picks this out in great detail. Sadly, for the visitor, the activities of the damned look rather more exciting than the rewards for the good but so it is in every Doom.
It is glory that is underlined for the good. Moses asked to see the face of God and all he got for his pains with a vision of a backside in a thunderstorm! The glory cannot be summoned, the forces of evil don’t need calling: they are all around and what we need to do is to recognise them before it is too late. Sidney Smith described heaven as eating “pâté de foie gras to the music of trumpets”. For him and other sybarites this would be OK but let us now consider the “rest eternal” the reward of the saints. It is not a big sleep. Gregory the Great had huge responsibilities and was never really fit; rest eternal for him is release from all responsibilities, no decisions and concentration on the glory of God without any distractions and he would be a part of it. So this is what Faure must have been trying to pray in his setting of the Requiem with the soaring soprano singing “Dona eis requiem”, that is a rest above all other, resting not with but in the Lord.
I have found myself preaching on this day quite often and usually it has been collection of stories about unlikely people who were saints, for this rather more refined group, to try and define what it is that makes somebody a saint and it wasn’t until I read CS Lewis’ “Great Divorce” again yesterday that I appreciated how much of what he says there has coloured my thinking in the 50 plus years since I first heard Jonathan Graham reading it! It purports to be a dream and he travels from a most unattractive place, which we learn is hell, into a bright world that is always new and we eavesdrop into conversations with other visitors from hell. The travellers are all ghosts, see through people, with their sad reasons why they cannot go on further and receive a body again; selfishness, pride, over possessiveness of children, jealousy; we can all quite easily look into ourselves and know at first hand the sort of mindsets and opinions that they will voice. One beautiful woman has no attendant ghost but is followed by a crowd of young and old, laughing and singing. The Visitor, Lewis, assumes her to be a very famous saint renowned for holiness, only to be told that she was Ruth something from, of all places, Golders Green, who really did love people, not just her family but all with whom she had to do; the butcher, baker and candlestick maker, her children and their friends. For this to happen she must have radiated glory all the time. There are indeed such people but while they don’t grow on trees there are more of them about than sometimes we think.
The final taster from what I think of as a very tasty and hopeful banquet is of a tortured man with a lizard on his shoulder murmuring the whiles into his ear while an angel says to him “just let me kill it”. The red lizard is, of course, lust, which seems to have made a wreck of the man. So the lizard chatters on to the man who is shrinking and fading. “Let me kill it!” - the chattering reaches a crescendo. “All right he cries and be damned to it”. The angel stretches out his hand, grasps and breaks the lizard which disappears in black smoke, out of the smoke comes a new creation, a young man in full manhood with a smile on his face and the wretched lizard is now a beautiful stallion which the young man mounts and rides off up and onwards, literally trailing clouds of glory.
If that is what lies ahead for those consumed by lust, what lies ahead for child abusers? Sin is always sin and penitence involves more than just saying sorry; it means trying to be aware of the glory when our remembrance of the glory seems to be far away and long ago…
The message of the saints is that we also must long to be taken up into glory and for me - and I speak for nobody else - that will involve pain...but not the pain of the lash, the axe, or the ill managed rifle but a pain that I can freely choose and, supported and enthused, go onwards and ever upwards. Onwards and ever upwards indeed but the wretched blight of sin will be banished and we shall have a presence, with the top brass of angels and archangels, at every Mass with our friends, both on earth and beyond as with the whole company of heaven we join in the Sanctus.
Sanctity is not a reward; it is a state and, for the holy, death is as significant as it is for all mortals, for we leave a world that is beautiful and ugly and full of men, women and children who are also beautiful and ugly. Some holy people we might well consider to be saints already, they would remind us that all saints are forgiven sinners. The resurrection body cannot sin, there is too much glory about. So today, as we rejoice in the “noble army of men and boys/the matron and the maid” as we do our Eucharist, our thanksgiving is in the glorious presence of God, who took upon himself the burden of our flesh and in his death and Resurrection enables us to encounter the Glory and be shaped and formed by it. The saints don’t know they are saints; they do know that they are forgiven sinners.