Sometimes, Christ was alone, as when he went up the mountain to pray. Usually though, we think of him with others: at Christmas with Mary and Joseph, with the shepherds and the magi; during his public life with the disciples and the crowds; at his crucifixion likewise and after the resurrection with his disciples again. Today, however, he somewhere else altogether. In the imagery the Bible offers, he is the glorified lamb seated at the right hand, surrounded by the mysterious creatures the Apocalypse speak of, and an uncountable crowd from every nation and people and tribe and language. He is with all the Saints, all the redeemed, all those who have made it home. He’s not in the midst of arguments with scribes and pharisees; he’s not being shouted at by demoniacs; he’s not being jeered at while dying by passers-by. He’s “in the midst of the throne”, that is, at peace with the Father, and surrounded by alleluias, by the gratitude of those he has rescued from sin and death and brought to eternal life.
All Saints is a feast of Christ. It’s his Beatitudes heard and lived, become flesh and blood in the poor of spirit. It’s the power of Easter worked through in others. It’s Christ’s victory over sin and death transferred. The last book of the Bible is the Apocalypse, Revelation. It’s the book fullest of “heaven”. And it’s also the book that is strongest on the divinity and power of the risen Christ. It is also the only New Testament book where we find the word so associated with Easter: Alleluia, Praise the Lord. Towards the end of Handel’s Messiah comes the famous Hallelujah chorus. Today’s feast is like that, a Hallelujah chorus, to the liturgical year.
When we were at school we learned about Isaac Newton’s apple. An apple fell from a tree. Why did it go straight, not sideways or in a curve? And so he was led to his theory of gravitation. I thought of this with yesterday’s weather. The rain was falling. The leaves were falling. Darkness “fell” an hour earlier. We are “fallen” creatures. Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth, says Jesus. There’s a downward movement everywhere, literal, metaphorical. We are pulled down by circumstances, by our own weaknesses, by the process of ageing. We “fall” ill. Cities and empires fall. The still sad music of humanity is a “music dying with a dying fall”. But though Christ fell like a grain of wheat into the ground and died, Christ and Christianity are about “rising”. Resurrection. Something stronger than mortality. This feast shows us where we are called to go, what happens when we respond to the draw of God’s grace. It’s the answer to gravity. St. Paul speaks of “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”. And so, in this feast we’re given another view of who we are. Today’s prayers evoke it. We are God’s people on pilgrimage, going up to the heavenly Jerusalem. We lift our eyes to the heavenly mountains, whence comes our help. With the power of the Holy Spirit within us, we can defy the downward pull of sin and death. Faith, hope and love lift us up after every fall. There is something in us that rises up against our weariness. The order of the books of the Hebrew Old Testament is different in part from what we find in our own Bibles. The last book in the Jewish Bible is 2 Chronicles, and in its last verses the Persian King Cyrus tells the Jewish exiles, living in the low river valleys of Mesopotamia, to go up to Jerusalem. “Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up” (2 Chr 36:22). It’s the call of God. “Lift up your hearts.” “We lift them up to the Lord.” And we are a synodal people – journeying together up to the heavenly city, rising as we go above everything that wants to pull us down and degrade us.
Lastly, this feast reminds us that we’re not alone. The Lord is with us and the Saints are too. We have friends and companions. As, according to Tradition, we are each given a guardian angel, so we are given particular guardian saints too. We are given them in our baptismal and confirmation names or we discover them or they make themselves known in our lives by the inspiration they bring. We feel the power of their prayers. Devotion to the saints is a beautiful thing, a part of our heritage. Once I was invited to a dinner-party by some devout Anglicans, and each of us had to talk about a particular saint who had touched their lives. It was a moving experience, listening to people’s stories. Perhaps if you are sitting round the table after Mass this evening, it might be a beautiful thing to do.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 1st November 2021