St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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All Saints Day, 2008

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Rev 7: 2 – 4, 9 - 12

Matt 5 : 1 – 12

All around us there are celebrities. In so many different areas of our common life there are those who are looked upon as celebrities. They might be sports people, musicians, actors; why there is even celebrity Master chef! More often than not these people are given, or claim, celebrity status because of something they have done. They are preoccupied with their own achievements.

Can you perhaps think of that story we know so well from the Scriptures: two people went to the temple to pray. One person prayed: “I give you thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of people—grasping, crooked, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.”

Celebrities are more often than not very aware of their standing in comparison to others. Who is better, who is worse, who is first, who is washed up? And those who do not measure up to their standard of success are deemed unworthy. It was to such people, “who believed in their own self-righteousness, while holding everyone else in contempt,” that Jesus so often spoke.

The Church does not celebrate celebrities. It celebrates saints. The distinction is an important one. The lives of celebrities, as we know only too well, are public exhibitions. The idea of a hidden celebrity is a nonsense.

We may know a lot about some saints, but about most we know little or nothing. And none of that great company would have it otherwise. We honour them for their very hiddenness. In the letter to the Hebrews we are told, “… since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”

This cloud of witnesses is made up of those whom we understand to be saints. There I am using a lower case ‘s’ referring to all those people of faith, both those known to us, and those whom we have never met. When I think of the cloud of witnesses in my own life I like to imagine they are a vast crowd filling an enormous stadium. Those of us here on earth are, as it were, participating in an immense tournament, and they are cheering us on. As we sneak a look around that vast  crowd we recognise a person here or there – there is my standard one Sunday school teacher, there is Fr Roy who prepared me for Confirmation. And so it goes.

As we look back on their lives we find that we are encouraged. These lives we look back on were not necessarily reported in books, radio or television; they were not filled with great and wonderful acts of bravery or heroism; they were ordinary lives in which ordinary people lived out their faith day by day. They had failures, they had their little “oops” moments, but still they pressed on with perseverance in the race that was set before them.

In the early church there was a real sense that those who believed and had died were present with those who were still alive – don’t we say in our liturgies, “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven…” The early believers often asked those who had gone before to pray for them, just as we would ask a friend here on earth to pray for us about some problem or other.

It is true that asking Christians in heaven for their prayers is something that can be abused. It can readily degenerate into the notion that getting what you want from God is a matter of knowing what channels to go through, what strings to pull. One ends up thinking of heaven as a place like the seat of a corrupt government, where favours are traded and deals are made by those who are the peddlers of influence. But the fact that something can be abused does not mean that we ought to give up its proper use. And surely one of the most valuable truths of the Christian faith is that God's love for us moves us to love in return, not only God but also one another, so that every Christian is a mirror in which the light of Christ is reflected to every other Christian. When we ask a Christian brother or sister to pray for us, we are asking them to shine a little of that light our way for a time.

For some people one of the problems with the notion of the communion of saints is that there is not really any historical evidence that they exist.
In the absence of historical evidence, speculation and superstition flourish. Neither, incidentally, is to be despised. Without speculation our faith would be a very arid thing. Aversion to speculation can merely be atrophied imagination; and the piety, however naïve, that begs St Jude to heal “my cat Etheldreda” is truer to the spirit of Christian prayer than the scepticism that can voice only devout generalities and call it prayer. There is something very faith-building when the urgently voiced, “Hail Mary full of Grace, help me find a parking space”, while driving round the parking caves under our shopping malls, is responded to with an empty parking bay.

As we celebrate today our annual remembering of All Saints and then tomorrow bring to the altar the names of those who are dear to our memories on All Souls the concept of “hiddenness” is one we could meditate upon. We all are aware of people who have lived quiet, faithful lives in which they have got on with the things God has placed before them to the best of their ability. There are also those countless believers who are known only to God, but who have lived heroic lives of faith. It is for these hidden saints who have gone before that we give thanks at All Saints, just as we should give thanks for those saints around us who are, like us, still on the journey. And hopefully we, like them, are shining with that light of Christ.

For them, and us, maybe we should give ourselves into the hands of Jesus, and join with St Jude, whom I mentioned a little while ago, in proclaiming that wonderful statement of faith:
“Now unto Jesus who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before God’s glorious presence without fault and with great joy— 25to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.”

May God bless you as you walk out onto the playing field in that vast stadium which is life, and may you be encouraged as you hear the cheering of the great cloud of witnesses who surround you.

Amen.

 

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