I must confess that this is one of my favourite feasts. The Monastic Divine Office for it is one of the most beautiful, in its texts and music. At Vespers especially, in the dark of a November, Pluscarden evening, it’s supernaturally luminous.
This feast has us too standing before the Throne, amazed at the expansive creativity of God, how his white Trinitarian light refracts in the many colours of the Saints, with tale upon tale of tears wiped away, wounds now shining, evil turned to good. The Aberdeen philosopher, David Braine, who often worshipped in this Cathedral, used to say that this life is like the orchestra tuning up before the concert begins. Today perhaps we catch a strain of the heavenly symphony. However humanly obscure they were, everyone who has said Yes to God, and become all Yes, is a music-maker now. “All I could never be / all man ignored in me / this I [am] worth to God”, says a poem (Robert Browning).
Surely, says St John Henry Newman, “not even the world itself could contain the records of his love, the history of those many saints, that ‘cloud of witnesses’, whom we today celebrate, His purchased possession in every age! We crowd these all up in one day; we mingle together… all the choicest deeds, the holiest lives, the noblest labours, the most precious sufferings, which the sun ever saw” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, II, 12) In Eastern Christianity, this feast – kept on the Sunday after Pentecost – commemorates, I quote, “all the saints, all the righteous, the prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, pastors, teachers and holy monks and nuns, men and women alike, known and unknown, [all] who have been added to the choirs of the saints and shall be added, from the time of Adam until the end of the world, [all] who have been perfected in piety and have glorified God by their holy lives.” The comfort is that this cloud of witnesses, as Pope Francis says, “may include our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones. Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” “The saints next door”. (Gaudete et Exsultate, 3, 6). There’s a half-amusing tale of a Byzantine Emperor who had a great respect for the holiness of his wife. When she died before him, he wanted a church dedicated to her. He was told that her holiness had not been recognised. So he changed the dedication to All Saints, and so he could honour her freely. If you don’t have a saint’s name, today is your Name Day.
There is a sense of amplitude today. The Collect asks for abundance of reconciliation. Come to me, says the Lord, all you who labour and are overburdened – think of them through history. Think of the lives abbreviated by sudden violence, think of miscarriages, of lives taken in the womb or lost in childbirth. All Saints gives us hope these are not forgotten. Think of the poor in spirit, the gentle, the mourning, those hungering for what is right, the persecuted. Even we know they’re not few. The Preface speaks of “the great array of our brothers and sisters”, all children of the heavenly Jerusalem our mother. Today is God’s harvest festival.
We know from the New Testament and other early Christian records what a strong sense the first Christians had of being connected to, surrounded, accompanied, befriended, helped and awaited by believers who had gone before and “rest in the sleep of peace.”. Over time this blossomed into the veneration of the saints that we know, devotional, liturgical and so on. This is part of our inheritance. We share it with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. It seems to be growing again among our Protestant friends. It’s a great treasure. It’s one of our Catholic assets. It enriches our Christian life no end. “By their way of life you offer us an example, by communion with them you give us companionship, by their intercession sure support”, says one prayer. Who knows the unseen help we earthlings receive from our heavenly brothers and sisters? One theologian has written this: “Those who have died in Christ are invoked by the Church to exert their powers of intercession on behalf of the living. Centuries after their death, saints are believed to retain an actively beneficent relationship with the human race and its historical struggles. Like the risen Christ, they may well achieve more on behalf of the human family after their deaths than before them; like the risen Christ, their lives may have been judged as failures by purely human standards”(Triumph through Failure, John J. Navone, sj). But now they are, as it were, “full on”.
Let me take one step further. In his Paradiso, Dante ends by invoking “the love that moves the suns and the other stars.” T. S. Eliot spoke of “the drawing of this love and the voice of this calling”. There is this divine fire of love at the heart of creation. The saints are those who feel it most. They are at rest, certainly, held in the everlasting arms. But they are also intensely alive. The Force is with them to the highest degree. They are dynamised and energised; moved and drawn. As another Christian poet has it, the saints are “the gathered glories of his wounded love” (Malcolm Guite), And because they are “moved” and drawn and called and gathered, they too move and draw, call and gather – the whole created universe. That’s what’s happening even when they answer our prayers. Each of us, each of the saints, is one and individual, one leaf on the tree, but the tree is the tree of all creation. Each of us connects to everything and everyone, chemically, biologically, historically. Each of us carries within us at least the times and the places and the people we have lived with. And Christ, standing before the Father, carries the saints and us in himself, and in him we hold and carry each other and all else. In the Holy Spirit he draws us, presents us to the Father, takes us into the heart of the fire, connects us to the overflowing life of God, and so brings creation to its goal: the Kingdom of heaven. Our own lives are snakes and ladders, circles and reverses, stops and starts, but underneath, and despite the counter-currents of history, there is this other gravity, another energy, taking us not back into nothingness, but into God. “I am entering into life”, said St Therese.
Glory to God. Amen.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)