Fr. Joe Britton
All Saints Day
6 November 2016
St. Michael’s Church
Rise up, ye saints of God!
“I hope that God may give you … what are the riches of the
glorious inheritance of the saints.” (Ephesians 1)
We are accustomed, on All Saints Day, to thinking about all the big names in Christian history: in fact, some churches will offer a “Litany of the Saints” on this day that’s a kind of Who’s Who of holiness. Mary, Joseph, Matthew Mark Luke and John, Francis, Mother Teresa …
When we come across the word “saint” in the New Testament, however (as we do in today’s epistle lesson), the writer does not usually have in mind these recognized pillars of the faith. Rather, the “saints” are simply those people who are members of the body of Christ—the baptized, you and me. When Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus, for instance, that “I have heard of your love toward all the saints,” he does not mean that the Ephesians have a particular fondness for very holy people: what he is commending them for, is their love toward one another.
The Greek word which is here translated as “saint” is ‘agios, which really means something more like “holy” than “saintly” (as we understand the term). And behind that meaning, lies a root meaning which is to be different, to be set apart. So holiness is not created by being particularly good or pious, but by being among the group of people who have set themselves apart by becoming identified with Jesus—in other words, the church. The saints are the body of Christ.
So to celebrate All Saints Day is not just to call to mind certain important or heroic figures from the Christian past: it is also to celebrate who we are as a community of “saints” in this very church. Right here, right now. All Saints is all of us. We are not just family: we are holy family.
And this observation, I think, has a lot to do with why the gospel lesson appointed for All Saints Day is always Jesus’ Beatitudes. One of the characteristics of saints, is that they are never content—not that we are unhappy, but because as people of God we see clearly the gap between what God created us to be, and the lesser reality of who we are, we are not content for things to be, as they are. Complacency is not compatible with saintliness. As the poor in spirit, we want to grow in wisdom and faith. As people who are hungry for righteousness, we want to become better human beings. As peacemakers, we want to live in communities of reconciliation and justice.
Do you by any chance know the word, apophatic? It’s one of my favorite words, both because it’s a bit of a show-stopper, and because what it refers to is the theological idea that everything we say about God, we must also deny. In short, it describes a way of negation, the via negativa: God is simply too much greater in love and mercy and beauty than any way we have of trying to put that into words, so we can at best offer approximations which are always as untrue as they are true. That becomes a great engine for discovery and expanding commitment, for we are always being pushed to deeper insight and more faithful expression, of who God is.
So behind the restlessness of the saints of God, lies this underlying realization that God will always be beyond our grasp—as Graham Greene put it in Brighton Rock, “You cannot conceive—nor can I—of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Yet it is that wonder and mystery that calls us into building God’s kingdom—we’ll never be done, but neither will we ever give up.
Just yesterday, this church was filled with church people from all across New Mexico—Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians—who gathered for an advocacy conference focused on how to make this state a more just, more equitable, and more prosperous place to live. Projected onto that very wall, next to the window of Christ crucified, were tables of statistics about poverty, mass incarceration, educational inequality, and on and on. There was a great spirit of “we can do better than that,” and a great sense of possibility and determination. The saints had gathered, and frankly, they were speaking and acting a lot like saints.
How different the mood of that gathering was, from what is on the editorial pages of the Sunday papers this weekend. Talking about the presidential campaign, writer after writer uses words like “bizarre, ugly and dispiriting” (Maureen Dowd), “tides of disgust” (Frank Bruni), “surreal, miserable … exposing a lot of rot in our democracy” (NY Times editors). Against all that despair, All Saints Day holds out a desperately needed reminder that the foundations upon which this democracy was built ultimately hearken back to Jesus’ core teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, which we just heard: do to others, as you would have them do to you. All of our beloved rights, freedoms, and aspirations flow from that simple yet fundamental principle of human equality—an equality that embraces everyone. Full stop.
Earlier this week, as the Discernment Guild met in contemplative silence,
their own meditation led them to call us all to prayer for this nation as we enter this election week—proposing the litany printed on the back of today’s bulletin. Not content with nothing, they have asked us to do something—to weave a web of Spirit-filled relationship around this election that at least opens the possibility of regaining our sense of mutual respect and responsibility. Because saints like us are restless by nature, and always yearn for something better. So this week pray, vote, and as these prayers encourage us, be ready to be an instrument of healing, looking to the One who makes us fearless and grateful.
I know that All Saints Day can sometimes feel a bit triumphalist, seeming to focus on all those victories of those past heroes and heroines of the faith in the struggles of their own day, glossing over the harder work of real living in our day. Just listen to the hymns.
But underneath the surface there is a different spirit—the spirit to which Jesus gave voice in the Beatitudes—a spirit of an endless, restless yearning among saints like ourselves for both a deeper spiritual awareness and a greater social justice. So against the bleak pessimism that jumps off of today’s editorial pages, I would posit instead the words of that old hymn, where we sing:
Rise up, ye saints of God! Have done with lesser things,
give heart and soul and mind and strength to serve the King of kings.
Rise up, ye saints of God! His kingdom tarries long:
Lord, bring the day of truth and love and end the night of wrong.
Lift high the cross of Christ! Tread where his feet have trod;
And quickened by the Spirit’s power, rise up, ye saints of God!
(1982 Hymnal, #551)
© Joseph Britton, 2016