I John 3.1-3;
ALL SAINTS' DAY sends us back to scripture, sacred and secular. Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory belongs to the canon of secular scripture, those writings - not in the Bible - that help us walk the way of Christ.
It is the story of a worldly "whisky priest", who is being hunted down in an anti-clerical purge in Mexico in the 1930s. This pathetic figure is "too human for heroism, too humble for martyrdom", yet, in the end, Christ's Calvary and his are one. As he wakes at dawn on the day he is to be shot, he is possessed by one conviction. "He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that mattered - to be a saint."
Nothing else matters but to be a saint.
Who are the saints? There are, of course, the saints whom the Church has officially recognised. My favourite is the founder of the Salesians, St Don Bosco, the patron saint of conjurors, who taught by love and magic. After mass in his village church, Don Bosco would gather the children of the poor around him, and tell them Bible stories, illustrating them by juggling and sleight of hand.
St Don Bosco is important because he shows that, while the quest for sanctity is a serious business, it can still be fun. He amply meets the familiar description of a saint as "someone who makes goodness attractive".
Don Bosco was a Roman Catholic and was canonised by a Pope. In other Christian traditions, we do not formally honour the memory of exceptionally holy people in this way, nor do we claim - though we do not disclaim the possibility - that their prayers can be invoked on our behalf.
For example, this week - at one of what our Church of England derisively calls "the lesser festivals" - we have remembered James Hannington, who gave his name to a lake and his life for the gospel.
We praise God - and in most churches this Sunday, rather noisily - as we sing William How's great hymn, "For all the saints who from their labours rest". Some of the saints who rest from their labours, even if we know precious little about them, are famous. Our own dear St George comes to mind. But the vast majority of the saints who await their glorious resurrection remain unsung.
In a society that fawns on celebrities, in which merely to be known is much more important than to be known for anything in particular, it is important that we deliberately give thanks for those hidden and forgotten saints. Every parish priest knows that the life of the Church is sustained not by those who sit on its synods and councils (although some saints, surprisingly, end up on them), but by those - back to the end of Middlemarch - whose tombs will rarely be visited.
All Saints' Day sends us back to the sacred scripture. The account in our first reading of John's vision of the saints around the throne contains an interesting exchange. One of the celestial sidesmen asks John who these white-robed figures are. John's response - "Sir, you know" - amounts to an admission of his ignorance of the nature and the source of sanctity.
Nor do we know. We talk about "the problem of evil". Sheer goodness is equally perplexing. At its simplest, it is the baffling question: "Why is she so nice and why am I so nasty?"
When this Sunday we give thanks to God for the saints, we shall be praising one mysterious figure for countless others who are equally inexplicable. The latter's indisputable reality is some assurance of the existence of the former.
In our second reading, another John writes of the promised Beatific Vision. The Christian hope is affirmed neither as consolation nor as compensation. It is, rather, a moral imperative. Those who hope to see God "purify themselves". They disencumber themselves of whatever impedes their quest.
In many ways, that quest is easier for monks and nuns than for those "in the world". The latters' "tribulation" (to borrow Revelation's apocalyptic language) is the stress and strain of home and work. The saints - again to return to Revelation - are those who "come through" it. Sometimes one glimpses one of them on the 8.27 from Surbiton.
And so to the Beatitudes: Pier Giorgio Frassati was a wealthy young man from Turin who was dedicated to social action on behalf of the poor and marginalised. He was often heard to say: "Charity is not enough: we need social reform." He died of polio at the age of 24.
The story of his life and death influenced the young Karol Wojtyla, who, as Pope John Paul II, described Frassati as "a man of the eight beatitudes". Pope John Paul beatified him in May 1920.
"A man of the Beatitudes", "a woman of the Beatitudes", "a child of the Beatitudes" - the saints are the best exposition of the Gospel.
Text of readings
9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, 12singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ 14I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
I John 3.1-3
1See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”