All three readings today are from the New Testament. There is nothing from the Old. This is a sign that we are, in some way, in Eastertide. In Eastertide only the New Testament is read. So, tonight we are celebrating the Resurrection of Christ. We are celebrating the victory of Christ over the power of sin and death. We are celebrating this not simply in Christ’s own person, in his glorified body and soul, but in the whole ‘body’ of redeemed mankind, in the spirits and souls of the just who are with him in heaven. All Saints is like a detonation. It’s salutary fall-out. It’s the gracious shrapnel of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection. It’s Pentecost unfolded. A single firework climbs the sky, then bursts and there is a scattering of multi-coloured lights. ‘After that, I [John] saw a great crowd, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language.’
We are thoroughly in the New Covenant and this is a feast of the risen Christ in the form of the Church triumphant.
The same message comes from the when of this feast. In some Eastern liturgies, All Martyrs are commemorated on the Friday after Easter Sunday. In others, on the Sunday after Pentecost. The same connection – to the Resurrection, to Pentecost. In our liturgy, All Saints comes towards the close of the liturgical year. After the coming of the Holy Spirit, after many Saints’ days, after the solemnity of Mary’s Assumption, body and soul, into heaven, comes this festival of all those now with God. And it comes just before the feast of Christ the King and the anticipation of his return in glory at the beginning of Advent. So even its placement is a lesson. Heaven is opened to us by the death and resurrection of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is its outcome.
One spring day in Galilee, Jesus, the Son of God, saw a ‘crowd’ – fishermen and farmers, women and children. He went up a hill and sat there, with good earth as his throne. And he gave them the beatitudes: the way to heaven. He has given them to us as well. He has sown them in the soil of history. Now, he is seated in the glory of his Father, and he sees this other greater, expanded ‘crowd’. He sees the harvest. He sees the poor in spirit, the gentle, those who mourned, who hungered and thirsted for the right. He sees the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. He sees all in whom his words have come true, have taken flesh and formed lives and hearts. And he, still the Mediator, takes up their praise and their joy and offers it to his Father: ‘Amen. Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and strength to our God for ever and ever. Amen.’
Tonight, light falls on us from the hill of the Beatitudes. It falls on us from the heavenly Jerusalem. And what does it show? What does it say? Surely it answers our age-old question: why is there anything? Why this material world? Why animals? Why us humans? Why’s life the way it is? Why so many contradictions? So there may be saints. So we may be saints. Holiness is the goal of it all. Holiness is why, out of the world’s complexity, a being was born – the human being. Here we are: capable of understanding and choosing, capable of making a gift of ourselves, created in the image and likeness of God. Not in the image of his omnipotence or omniscience, but in the image of his wisdom and goodness and freedom, in the image of his merciful love. Here we are: called to be saints on behalf of the whole creation. Often our notions of holiness are poor. We see it as something tinselly or unreal. But to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and love our neighbour with something of the love of Christ, that’s not unreal. Ss. Peter and Paul weren’t unreal. Ss. John Paul and Teresa of Calcutta weren’t unreal. To be in poor in spirit, gentle, merciful, peacemakers and the rest – this is not unreal. Nor is it as far away from us as we sometimes think. And everything, everything that happens – good, bad or indifferent – can be grist to this mill, can bring us closer to God.
Tonight reminds us why we are here.
At the beginning of today’s 1st reading, there’s a surprising moment. ‘Wait!’ cries a voice to the devastating angels. ‘Wait, before you do any damage on land or at sea or to the trees.’ Wait, till God’s servants are sealed on the forehead. What a comforting thing, this Wait! Aren’t we always under the threat of devastation? Have we not the power to wreak utter devastation on ourselves and the land, sea and trees? And even short of that, how often we are devastating places and people! Think of Aleppo! Think how often lives are inwardly and outwardly devastated by violence or abuse or neglect or personal sin. But a voice cries ‘Wait!’ There’s a restraining power. There’s a mercy limiting evil, holding back the flood. Opening up a time and space: a space for repentance, a time for holiness. A time to receive the seal of the living God. We are given our life. We don’t know for how long, but we’re given it. We’re given a little freedom. And grace is abroad to turn everything to good. Generation after generation, God’s children are born from the womb of this merciful ‘Wait!’ The patience of God. The mercy of God. This divine waiting. The hidden power of the risen Christ. The leaven of grace. Waiting till we give our whole lives, till our hearts are pure.
‘Come to me, says Jesus, and I will give you rest.’
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 1 November 2016)