Blessing: that is what our Gospel reading is all about, and we might say that that is what our central focus is today in this liturgy, as we give thanks for those holy ones, those blessed ones, our saintly brothers and sister who – having shown God’s light in their lives – now live in his presence worshipping him and interceding for his Church. Just as we give thanks for the life and witness of Saint Peter, the Patron Saint of this Church, at our Patronal Festival, so today on this Feast of All of God’s Saints, we give thanks and honour the multitude of holy men and women who by God’s blessing now live perpetually in his presence.
My favourite Saint is Saint Birinus, a Roman Bishop who lived many hundreds of years ago. He was one of the early missionaries to the people who lived in what is now England, in fact to be more specific, to the people who lived in the area that is now Oxfordshire, where I lived before Luisa and I moved to Australia.
He was made famous because of a miraculous event that took place as he was leaving Italy to come to England. He said Mass on the quay-side, got on the boat, and only after it had been sailing for some time, realised that he had left his treasured chalice and paten (the cup and the plate for communion) behind on the shore. So he swam back to the quay, collected those precious things and swam all the way back to his ship, which had, in the meantime, continued to sail on its journey; and when he got out of the water, his priestly vestments that he had been wearing whilst he was swimming, were completely dry: a miracle indeed I hear you say.
But much more than that Saint Birinus one of the figures who brought God’s Word to the Britons. I have had a sense that I have been travelling with Saint Birinus for many years now (or rather that he has been travelling with me) and that he prays with me in much the same way that I might ask Will or Elizabeth to pray with me if I was in particular need.
I don’t know how many of you have a favourite saint, or a favourite story from the lives of the Saints. It would be fair to say that sometimes the lives of the Saints can seem to be so very different from our own lives, and some of their stories come from a miraculous world which is so different to what we expect to experience, that they might appear to be nothing more than characters in fairy stories.
We do well to remember that for several hundreds of years the basic minimum criteria for being recognised as a Saint, was the qualification of remaining faithful to Jesus whilst being killed for him. It was only in the Fourth Century, when the normal expectation of martyrdom as the passage to, and sign of being blessed by God began to recede that other marks of God’s work of blessing in the life of an individual – such as charity, holiness, poverty, generosity, purity and spirituality – became signs of the saintly life.
It would be easy for us to fall into the trap of modelling the Saints of God on the kind of celebrities and heroes that our society creates. But God’s Saints have been through the same difficulties and doubts that many of us have been through, and in many cases much worse. And so the most important difference between our modern day celebrities and the Church’s Saints, is that celebrities basically point to themselves; but the Saints of the Church point through themselves to God, and to God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. The definition of God’s blessing in their lives is certainly different from any criteria that we might see for hero status around us.
Blessing. Anyone hearing our Gospel reading today, whether the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ was familiar to them (as it is for most of us), or whether they had walked into this beautiful Church and were hearing it for the first time – anyone hearing it would not be able to avoid the reality that the signs of what God is blessing seem to bear no resemblance at all to the markers that we use in our world to measure success and accomplishment.
Jesus (in our Gospel reading) is speaking in the style of the great wisdom tradition of the Old Testament prophets. The single focus of the entire line of those prophets of wisdom is God’s call to his people to live: to live fully, consistently, in a joined up way, not simply surviving, but to live in the knowledge of the blessing of God.
It is important to hear that in our Gospel reading, Jesus is not determining who will be blessed at some point in the future, he is naming those who already have God’s blessing now, and who will have a further sign of the fulfilment of that blessing in times to come. Jesus is pointing to the reality of how God sees the world, and not how we see the world: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted. No matter what it looks like, no matter what alternative values our society may champion. It is these people that God has already blessed and made his own.
The Hebrew word for “blessing,” barak, means at its core the awesome power of life itself. A fundamental claim of Christianity in regard to creation is that there is enough, in fact an abundance, of creation, and therefore of blessing, to go around. Whatever may have happened later, God created a world that was good, and that was blessed by the integral love of his presence. The signs of that blessing, according to the groups of people that Jesus identifies are not wealth, popularity, power, celebrity status or all that we can gather for ourselves. On this great Feast Day we remember that the definition of God’s blessing is not the kind of definition that we might write ourselves. Living life to the full is about sharing life with others. So who are the saints that we celebrate today?
The Church has a kind of two tier system for all those who have gone before us and who are held within the life of Christ, and this weekend more than any other as we observe both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day is a reminder of this for us. There is the group who have been recognised by the Church as Saints, the ones we celebrate at this Mass, and then there are all those other people who have departed this life – and for whom we hope for salvation and eternal rest in Christ. That distinction manifests itself most clearly in our Christian thinking, not only in this separation between All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but in the different attitudes which we have to prayer in relation to all of those who have died.
We are conscious that the Saints join us in the one great prayer of the Church to God – we might for example have a sense that we pray with them, because we believe that they are alive and in the presence of God right now, offering worship and praying with us. We do not pray to them, but we somehow gain strength from praying with them.
On the other hand, and in contrast, we ourselves remember in our prayers all those who have died, who the Church has not yet come to recognise as Saints. That may mean that we remember in our prayers quite specifically people who we have known and loved who have died – regularly or on the anniversary of their deaths. This is a normal and proper part of our way of life, and an expression of our love for those who are no longer with us, and it is what we will be doing on Sunday evening at our service of thanksgiving and remembrance, and again on Monday evening at our Requiem Eucharist.
We do not pray for the Saints, because the Church teaches that they do not need our prayers – they are already in the eternal presence of God. That’s why we pray with Saint Peter, for example, in our intercessions, and not for him;
but we do continue to pray for all those souls who we have loved, and who we long also will be in God’s presence as well.
On this great Feast Day we are reminded that we are surrounded by the Saints of God. Because they are in God’s presence now we do not think of them as being in the past, because they are alive with us in the present. In a very real way God’s saints are our contemporaries. They are with us as we worship, because they have received the blessing of living now in the presence of God.
We give thanks that we are not the first people to muddle through what it means to live lives that point to Jesus, and we will not be the last, and we draw strength and inspiration from all those who have gone before us. We pray for God’s blessing. Most importantly we remember that we have not been left alone. God’s Spirit is with us, and his saints surround us as we seek to serve him for his glory, and like his saints, to be faithful to Christ.