All Saints' Day – 1st November 2009

Holy Communion – Address

Preached by Lay Chaplain, David Fuller

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Collect for All Saints' Day
ALMIGHTY God, whose people are knit together in one holy Church, the mystical Body of your Son:
grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment,
and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Old Testament lesson: Isaiah 56, Vv 3 - 8
Epistle: Hebrews 12, Vv 18 - 24
Holy Gospel: St Matthew 5, Vv 1 - 12

Today, as I have already mentioned, is All Saint’s Day. It has long been the tradition of the church since the earliest times to give particularly holy individuals a special place in the thoughts and prayers of the faithful. Regrettably in the medieval period much abuse surrounded the veneration of the saints and the Protestant Reformation saw some churches largely disassociate themselves from this practice. In the resulting Presbyterian denominations devotion to and reverence for the saints ceased and, in my humble opinion, much was lost from the glory of their worship. The Anglican Churches, as ever, steered a middle course and maintained the calendar of saints in their service orders, in the Book of Common Prayer and the Scottish Prayer Book. If we examine our current 1929 Prayer Book and turn to the Calendar, we shall see that there is someone or something to celebrate or commemorate nearly every day of the year. As well as this general list the Prayer Book offers us Propers, designated scriptural readings, principally for Eucharistic use, on over twenty of those days. This small, select list includes feasts dedicated to each of the apostolic band, The Conversion of Saint Paul, The Nativity, Annunciation and Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Mary Magdalene. As well as Saint Andrew, Patron Saint of Scotland there are also a number of other Scottish Saints, such as Saints Columba, Kentigern, Ninian and Margaret of Scotland.

   Just by referring to the Propers we should be able to pay due homage to a saint, on average, once a fortnight. What about the others in the calendar? This list includes, for example: Saint David of Scotland, perhaps as important in the history of the church in Scotland in the 11th and 12th centuries as his mother, Queen and Saint Margaret. You will find: Saint Wulfstan, 11th century Bishop of Worcester; Saint Finan, 7th century Bishop of Lindisfarne; Saint David, 6th century Archbishop of Wales; Saint Alban, the first English Christian martyr who died in AD304. Then there is Saint Adamnan, 7th century bishop of Iona and biographer of Saint Columba; Saint Hugh, 13th century Bishop of Lincoln and Saint Edmund, after whom my home town is named, who died a martyr’s death in AD870. And, of course, we find other saints, who were important in the early history of the Christian Church, such as: Saint John Chrysostom, one of whose prayers is included in the church’s choir offices of Morning and Evening Prayer; Saint Thomas Aquinas; Saint Ignatius and Saint Benedict and Saint Francis of Assisi, founders of two of the largest monastic orders.

   But is that all? No, that’s just the list in the Prayer Book. In fact it’s the list in our Prayer Book. If you study other Prayer Books and Missals you will find other lists, perhaps more dedicated to the country of origin, perhaps more in keeping with local church tradition. And these lists are not static things, additions are made and names are removed. If you follow the happenings in the Vatican you will know that the Bishop of Rome, the Holy Father, the Pope, call him what you will, will regularly add new names to the list of Saints. There is currently much talk about the expected Canonisation of John Henry Cardinal Newman by Pope Benedict XVI if he visits the United Kingdom next year.

   Is the Roman Catholic Church the only one to add new names to its calendar? No: the Anglican Communion does this too. Thus we commemorate Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, martyred in 1977; Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, martyred in 1980 and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, murdered by the Nazis in 1945, to name but a few.

   With all this saintly activity so well established within the church why do we have All Saints’ Day? Well, we haven’t always had All Saints’ Day. It began as an idea in the mind of Ephrem Syrus, a 4th century Syrian Doctor of the Church and an important Biblical and ecclesiastical writer. The idea was taken up by John Chrysostom, who I have already mentioned. He defined as a specific date for the feast the first Sunday after Pentecost. The Eastern Church still celebrates All Saints’ on this day, but it is a date that the Western Church keeps as Trinity Sunday. In the west a formal date did not become established until the early seventh century when Pope Boniface dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to Christian use, on the 13th day of May. Observance on first day of November started with Pope Gregory IVth in the ninth century. I must state my personal regard for this feast day as the first church I attended in my youth was dedicated to All Saints. It was there that I was confirmed and later introduced to my lifelong love of being an altar server.

   So much for the history lesson. What is this special day for and how should we keep it? Today we remember that great phalanx of saints who, down the ages of the last two millennia have tried to do the will of God and lead holy, sinless lives. They form what is often referred to as a ‘cloud of witnesses’, a cloud that surrounds us and inspires us with the truth of God. This cloud of witnesses comprises more than just those persons whose names are written in our various church calendars. There is a wonderful scriptural passage in the inter-testamental, or apocryphal book called Ecclesiasticus, a passage that I used to hear as a schoolboy, after being marched to the local cathedral for our annual Founder’s Day Service. It begins, ‘Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.’ After naming some of the famous and reciting the great deeds that they did, deeds that were known to many people, it continues, ‘And some there be which have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been, and are become as though they had never been born’. The passage concludes, ‘Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name liveth for evermore.’ They are what All Saints’ Day is really about. All Saints’ Day is the time for us to remember those women and men who went before us in the faith but whose names are forgotten to the world. We celebrate the lives of these people to remember that, as Christians, we are not abandoned to this moment in time, or tied to the whims of our present age. We are not alone. We are not left adrift in a hostile and alien world with only the present; with no past and with no future. We are all connected to one another across the ages, the living and the dead, through being grafted on to the vine that is Christ. This has a practical implication for all of us. It means that we don’t have to invent things for ourselves. We don’t have to recreate our faith and our traditions in each generation. We don’t have to make it up as we go along. That great cloud of witnesses shows us the ways to God that the church has always espoused. Among their number are saints that you alone know about, special people who steered and guided you on your way to being a Christian; who set you out along your Christian pilgrimage; who, perhaps even now, act as your spiritual guides and mentors.

   This is the day when we remember those people and pray for them. Actually, it is more accurate to say that this is the day to pray with them. For, as we affirm in our creeds, we believe in the Communion of Saints. That means that all of us who try to follow Christ as Lord and depend on him as Saviour pray together, now and for all of eternity. Look up at the stained glass windows in our many churches. See the saints and apostles, the patriarchs and evangelists of yesteryear. Today, in parallel, see with them the people who represent us in our age: farmers and doctors, teachers and children. All are gathered around Christ throughout all ages and all are surrounded by the hosts of Angels and Archangels and the whole company of heaven. We are all in this together. That is what we believe, that death is no final separation. We have been taught that we can expect to have eternal life with those we love. But even more than that, we believe that, in the Communion of Saints, we are still linked together with those who have died, whenever we pray and offer our praises to God. We hear this said explicitly almost every Sunday in the words in that part of the Eucharistic Prayer called the Preface, ‘Therefore, with Angels and Archangels, and the whole company of heaven…’ We are saying that we praise God with Angels and Archangels and with that cloud of witnesses, all the company of heaven!

   Let us take some time today and every other day, to think about that cloud of witnesses, that great Communion of Saints. Give thanks to God for them, and then pray to God with them.

Copyright © David Fuller 2009

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