john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Matthew 5 - The Saints as signs of contradiction

    Good Shepherd Communion (and in shortened form at St Mary's West Derby)
    All Saint's Day, 2/11/2008

    Matthew 5.1-12

    We don't celebrate All Saint's Day like we used to. If you're interested in the history of our festivals you may already know of Ronald Hutton's magisterial book Stations of the Sun, which describes in great detail the rituals of the people of these islands over the centuries. It is very rewarding reading anytime, but perhaps particularly at this most primal time of year. The trickery, the darkness, the setting-of-fires, the remembrance of the dead: it's deeply ingrained in us, still. Hutton writes,
    By the end of the Middle Ages, the Christian feast of the dead, known as Hallowtide, Hollontide, or Allantide, had developed into a spectacular affair, for which there are ample records in England. The book of ceremonial for the court of Henry VII specified that upon All Saints' Day the monarch would dress in purple and his attendants in black, the colour of mourning. For that evening ... many churches laid in extra supplies of candles and torches, to be carried in procession and to illuminate the building. ... St Mary Woolnoth in 1539 paid five maidens wearing garlands to play harps by lamplight. Each mayor of Bristol in the 1470s was expected to entertain the whole council and other prominent citizens and gentry, to 'fires and their drinkings with spiced cakebread and sundry wines', before they dispersed to their respective parish churches for evensong. There they presumably prepared for the most famous ritual of the night, the ringing of church bells to comfort the souls in purgatory after the congregation had offered prayers for them....In [these ways] the opening of the season of darkness and cold had been made into an opportunity to confront the greatest fear known to humans, that of death, and the greatest known to Christians, that of damnation. [1]
    Now as Hutton points out, the Protestant Reformation outlawed many of these activities, doing away with the notion of purgatory and the need to ask the saints to intercede for us. The new laws, of course, didn't stop these things happening. In the new liturgy of 1559 All Saints was retained, 'but as a day on which to commemorate saints as outstandingly godly human beings, not as semi-divine intercessors; the prayers for the dead were, of course, abolished once more.' Opposition to this was strong. Especially (writes Hutton) in the particularly-Catholic north of Lancashire. There, bonfires blazed on the hills along the Ribble Valley; in Whalley families would gather on the hills at midnight on the eve of All Saints', one holding a large bunch of burning straw at the end of a fork while the others, in a circle, prayed for their dead.

    In our more tolerant ecumenical times we can comfortably gather here today as a company of people who have embraced Protestantism but I suspect who also still have a feel and a respect for the value and the viability of some of the older rituals. Our history - and our own changing life experiences - help us to understand that rituals can and should alter as society constantly shifts. We can live with the contradictions, even embrace them and learn from them.

    Today most of us - in this church - would probably say that we don't regard the saints as semi-divine intercessors. Though we have respect for those who do. A question for us might be this: whether we still regard saints as outstandingly godly human beings.

    Some of us struggle with this idea. A friend of mine who has done a lot of soul-searching about his own life and faith, not long ago wrote: "I needed to recover words like 'saint', the 'righteous' and 'prophet' from the religious ghetto where they mean long dead people who weren't ordinary like me. They did magic things, and God spoke to them in magic ways and theologians had buried them under mountains of words. I decided that the real, breathing men had to be like us if they were to be of any use to us." [2]

    When we talk about saints we assume we're talking about the great people of faith. Those who put their lives on the line for their faith, those who made amazing sacrifices to witness for God.

    We must remember, though, that the saints were not perfect. That is something which our modern-day secular Halloween reminds us of: that all of us have a darker side. We are riddled with contradictions. The church at its best also recognises this. We mustn't forget that even the greatest saints were also sinners.

    I will resist the temptation here to reel off a list of the great saints and what was wrong with them as human beings. Sufficient to say that even Mother Teresa of Calcutta - who was fast-tracked to sainthood after her death ten years ago - has had questions asked of some aspects of her life, posthumously. About her motivations for her work and the way she conducted her charity. These questions have caused some Catholic writers to call Mother Teresa 'a sign of contradiction', which means a holy person whose holiness is nevertheless under dispute.

    Some of us, my friend included, might welcome this, because it affirms the notion that even the saints are human. And the reverse of that which can be beautifully true: that even us flawed contradictory humans - you and me - can be saints.

    Jesus himself was called 'a sign of contradiction', by Simeon in the temple. The old man held the child Jesus in his arms and praised God, calling Jesus 'a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.' But he also said that Jesus would be 'a sign that will be spoken against', a sign of contradiction.

    The early Christians were also regarded as signs of contradiction, questioned by many who stood outside them, a sect of people who others were wary of. In the current culture of questioning religion in our society we know how that feels.

    And the teachings of Jesus seemed to embrace contradiction too, not least the sermon which opened with the words 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven' - a statement which suggests that the least likely people are the sainted ones.
    Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
    Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth....
    The power of Jesus' words is that the unlikeliest people become the saints - the little ones, the struggling ones, the wounded ones, those who feel the injustices of the world so keenly that it upsets them deeply.

    The blessed ones contradict all expectations.

    How then, do we come to this question of what makes a saint?

    We might come feeling poor in spirit, but if we come then the kingdom of heaven is ours.
    We might come mourning, but if we do then God promises that we will be comforted.
    We might come meekly, nervously, with just a tiny bit of faith, but if we come in this condition Jesus tells us to expect to inherit the earth.
    We might come hungry and thirsty for righteousness, full of concerns about the world's suffering ones, aching to see wrongs righted. And if we do then God promises to fill us.

    The blessed ones contradict all expectations.

    How do we come to this question of what makes a saint?

    If we come as we are - that is, if we come to Jesus as we are - then, astonishingly, we find ourselves among the company of the saints. That is all there is to the kingdom of heaven.

    The saints are those who accept their membership of the kingdom, and despite being mocked, perhaps, or opposed, despite being called 'signs of contradiction', the saints are those who hold on to their membership of the kingdom and let it deeply affect the way that they live.

    'Because of the love of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold', Jesus told his disciples [Matt 24.12-13]. 'But anyone who endures to the end will be saved.'

    Now that is something worth lighting fires for; that is something worth ringing bells to celebrate. That is something to dispel our fears of death, and of damnation; that is something to enlighten us at this dark time of year.


    [1] Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun; A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, p.371
    [2] Jim Hart, quoted in my blog of July 28, 2004
    [3] The beatitudes section of this talk owes rather a lot to my earlier sermon Kingdom healing and the beautiful game, 30 Jan 2005