Year A, All Saints (transferred)
November 5, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Today we are celebrating the Feast of All Saints. It is a Principal Feast of the Church, the one on which we celebrate the Communion of Saints.
Now what is that, the Communion of Saints? Or before we get ahead of ourselves, what is a saint? The most popular notion is that a saint is a very holy person who has been recognized, canonized by the Church. They are heroic examples, they effect miracles and by praying to them, they can intercede for us to God. For example, people pray to St. Anthony for God’s help in finding lost things, and St. Anthony is a conduit or amplifier of that prayer. He intercedes. That’s a Roman Catholic understanding of sainthood. It is great. There is a rich and vital culture of the saints that draws from deep and ancient wells. But that is not exactly how we do it.
As Anglicans, we don’t pray to saints, we don’t ask them to intercede with God for us. Some of us use the Hail Mary (we ask her to “…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. AMEN”) I use it all the time, but more as a form, a contemplative object than a petition, so that’s OK. But canonization, heroic examples, intercessors… that’s one take on what a saint is. Here’s another, as defined in The Book of Common Prayer, the Communion of Saints is, “…the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise.” Another way to say that is that a saint is anyone who is or was, sanctified. Now there is a great church word: Sanctified. It just means to be holy (just!), so that means that the Communion of Saints is the entirety of the holy people of God.
That sounds like a pretty high bar, being sanctified, being holy. Sounds like that would be hard to be, that we’d maybe have to feed some lions, or perform some miracles. Well, maybe. We probably don’t have worry about the lions, the miracles, though; I guess that depends on how you define a miracle.
The short answer and technical answer as to who the saints are is you. Members of the Body of Christ. “The whole family of God, the living and the dead…” This explicitly happens when you are baptized. When you are baptized, you are sanctified. You are purposely and intentionally set apart, ordained into the priesthood of all believers, you are made holy. And that is renewed every time you come here to this table. And every time you pray. And every time you praise God in all the ways that we praise God, from serving the poor, to being humble in a world infected with hubris, to being kind to everyone you can kind to, even to your little sister when she does all those wicked things that little sisters do! All of that joins us to the Body of Christ, makes us members of the family of God, consecrates us as saints.
Sometimes, though, we need a little more. The world is hard, being Christian in this world, trying to live up to Jesus’ example, to take in the beatitudes is hard. “Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are the pure in heart…” Wheh. Hard. How do you learn to aspire to meekness? Sometimes we need examples. We need people to emulate, to be inspired by, to set our sights on things greater than we can ask or imagine of our selves in this world.
Think of Sts. Francis and Clare. He and his poverellos, she and her Order of the Poor Ladies, now known as the Poor Clares. Their faith was so strong that they gave everything they had to serve God and God’s people. They left 13th century high society for a community of lepers, they wandered the streets of Assisi in rags praying, blessing people and begging for food, singing, “For sister poverty, we give thanks!” Their spiritual descendants serve all over this world.
Think of St. Julian of Norwich. So dedicated was she to her life of prayer, that she became an anchoress, meaning that she was bricked up in a small cell attached to a church; she never left her room. And she prayed. And people came to gain her counsel. And she prayed some more, and some more and more until she had a series of visions of Jesus, bleeding and broken, and it gave insight into His suffering and His love for us. She wrote it all down as The Revelations of Divine Love, probably the first book to be written by a woman in English. And that book has changed and keeps changing lives, bringing people closer to God for 600 years.
What saints do is point us to God. Sometimes they give us a path, a clear practice to take up and follow. Sometimes they give us an example, an inspirational bar for us to strive for. Sometimes they give us reassurance and encouragement. What they all do is point us towards God.
You don’t need to be in Butler’s Lives of the Saints to do that. You don’t need to be in Holy Women and Holy Men, our book of saints to do that. You just need to be someone pointed towards God, who helps others on their way.
Who in your life points you towards God? They might be alive. They might be dead. You may know or have known them, or you may have read about them in a book, or read their book. Who points you to God?
So I want to tell you all about a church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels down in Los Angeles. I talked about this a few years ago, but there are a lot of new folks and I want the children to hear about it. In any case, I think it is worth hearing again.
So this cathedral, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, was finished in 2002, and it is amazing. Right off the bat, a primary design feature is that the building and its major systems and furnishings are supposed to last for 500 years. I thought it was cool that Bell Labs built the old rotary phones to last for 40; think 500 years. We don’t do anything with an eye on 500 years out. Now that’s some faith laid out in very concrete terms; literally concrete terms. It is made of poured concrete, and the overall form and color of the building is reminiscent of the old Spanish missions that have been built in the LA area since 1771. The building is just awesome, right down to the cathedral, the Archbishop’s throne that is made of wood from all six continents where trees grow, representing communities represented in the Archdiocese.
The most stunning part of the building for me hangs along the walls of the sanctuary. They are the giant tapestries by the California artist John Nava, called “The Communion of Saints.” It is a series of 25 tapestries, averaging 18 feet tall and picturing 135 saints and “blessed” from around the world. The saints are all labeled, and intermixed are children of various ages, anonymous saints. Each figure is pictured in the dress they may actually have worn, and where they knew what the saints looked like, from photos or art work, they found models with similar appearances. Even the background, it is fresco-like, and was made from scans of archeological digs on the actual Via Dolarosa in Jerusalem. It is awesome.
The whole project was a cross of modernity and antiquity. The images were of real people. He took digital pictures of the models. Then Nava talked to friends about how they prayed, what posture they used. Folded hands. Kneeling. Hands out stretched. Just standing there. And these elements were all combined digitally, and emailed from his California studio to very special computerized looms in Brugges, Belgium, that then took two months to weave. It is all woven in cotton, which lasts. We have textiles from the time of the pharaohs, because that 500-year thing, that includes the tapestries.
That is all super-cool and very interesting, but what matters is what the art does to you. And sitting there in that massive concrete cathedral, you are surrounded by the communion of saints. You are part of the communion of saints. They are all around you, they are with you, you are with them, and if you follow their eyes, all 135 pairs of them, they all lead directly to the great cross-shaped window directly above the altar where Eucharist is celebrated. They point directly to that place where so many encounter God week after week after week. The Communion of Saints point us to God.
Who points you to God? Who are the saints in your lives that point you to God? Sometimes we are pointed to God in churchy ways. We are led to this beautiful building, to this loving congregation, to the sacred mystery of Christ’ Body and Blood, to the communion of saints of which we here are but a tiny fragment. And that is very good.
But saints lead us to God in other ways, too. Because what is it to be pointed to God but to be pointed towards the most important thing? Isn’t that what God’s face looks? The most important thing in any given instant? That how one of the great theologians of the last century defined God, “ultimate concern.” The most important thing. Who shows you what is most important? Minute to minute, God, that which is most important, shape-shifts. God manifests in startling ways, and we encounter, engage, praise God in all sorts of ways. We do it in being kind to everyone we can be kind to. We do it in being patient and graceful with everyone we can be patient and graceful with. When we are generous, merciful, pure. When we are peacemakers. When we are righteously humble and meek in the face of opposition. When we are those things, we are doing the most important thing for the most important One, for God. In each of those moments, and the myriad of other moments in each of our days, God is completely present, and we honor God, we praise God, we meet God face to face in all of God’s Glory every time we rise to meet Her or Him, we lack the proper pronoun, maybe Thou. That is being a good Christian. That is being a saint in this blessed communion.
Who points you to God? Someone did. None of us got here on our own. And that’s kind of a miracle, being pointed to God. Who do you point to God? We all can. Most all of us do, in some way when we try to live up to Jesus’ expectation of us. The communion of saints. We here are part of it, we the living and our dead, and we celebrate that today. God bless us, everyone. AMEN