Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Patrons and Companions: An All Saints' Sermon for Seminarians

St. Nicholas was the church that I attended when I first came to Christianity in 2004, and it attracted a lot of wounded people.  We seemed to be a beacon for people dying of cancer, recovering alcoholics, gays and lesbians, and especially, disaffected Roman Catholics, who made up the majority of the congregation.  In many ways, our spirituality was very traditional and very Catholic for an Episcopal Church, including a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary and veneration of the saints.  This latter devotion was so profound that the walls of the church were filled, absolutely crammed, with icons of the holy ones who had gone before us.  Among them were familiar faces: the 4 evangelists, the 12 apostles, Mary Magdalene, Benedict, Francis, and Dominic.  But they also depicted more contemporary luminaries, such as Harvey Milk, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi.  Over the course of my years at St. Nick, we gradually developed a vision of saintliness that took on a less rarified quality and assumed dimensions that were far earthier.
Yet the Feast of All Saints, which occurs today (November 1st), still invokes for many people images of distant, mystical figures etched in stained glass that walked stoically toward gruesome martyrdom, or practiced extreme asceticism, or founded monasteries.  Some saints undoubtedly did these things, but this traditional characterization is a bit of a stereotype, and I would like to suggest a more expansive understanding of what makes a person saintly, and hence, worthy of veneration and emulation by future generations of the faithful.  It was this understanding that led us on one All Saints' Day to intersperse pictures of every member of the congregation among the icons of the saints to indicate the fellowship of ordinary people in the work of making the world holy.  Now, I realize that most of you belong to denominations that do not have a history of intensive devotion to the saints.  So, in my reflections this morning, I would like to do three things: first of all, to explain a little bit about the history of this feast, then unpack some of the key themes in the Scripture readings appointed for this day, and finally conclude with some thoughts about the role I think the saints can play in shaping our understanding of our vocation as seminarians, and ultimately, as ministers of the Church, whether as ordained or lay leaders. 

The Pantheon, Rome
A feast to commemorate all the saints began in the eastern Church in the 4th century, and was originally restricted to martyrs, to those who had suffered death for the sake of the faith.  In the first few centuries, the date for the feast moved around considerably and varied by geography.  The Feast of All Martyrs initially occurred on the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western Church and Greece; but in Syria, it was held on the Friday after Easter.  In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV moved it again when he transformed the pagan temple of the Pantheon in Rome into a church, and according to a contemporary account, filled it with relics of the martyrs that supposedly filled 28 wagons.  Since the dedication of the building as a church occurred on May 13, 610, that day was fixed for its perpetual observance.  It is suggested, however, that the difficulty of obtaining food in the spring for the floods of pilgrims who descended en masse into the city for the feast caused Pope Gregory IV to transfer the feast once again to its current date of November 1st, when the fall harvest would have made food more plentiful in the city.  It was only at this point in the 9th century that the pope extended the observance to all of the saints.  Now, I offer you this brief historical note not just to provide you with some background information, but also to underscore the widespread and enduring popularity of the feast with the Christian faithful over the centuries and down to our own day.  There is something in this commemoration that resonates strongly with the understanding of Christian vocation as an endeavor that is done in community, and in communion with generations past, present, and future. 

It is a powerful idea, and it is the vision presented to us in our reading from the Revelation of John, which declares that “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”  These great crowds of people are assembled with all the company of heaven to offer God praise and worship.  We are told that they are accorded this place of honor in heaven, because “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.”  This description clearly articulates two key features of the early years of the Christian community, the eschatological expectation of Jesus’s imminent return, and the omnipresent threat of persecution and martyrdom for the faith.  The Jesus these saints encounter in the image of the Lamb is one who responds with love and compassion to their suffering and sacrifice, relieving them from hunger, thirst, scorching heat, and offering them comfort.  In this beatific vision, Revelation assures us that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The second reading from the First Letter of John expresses hope for this beatific vision, which has yet to be revealed.  In this moment of revelation, the faithful will see God as God actually is in heaven, but in the meantime, the saints must remain patient and steadfast in the faith in the midst of this waiting, this expectation, of Christ’s imminent arrival in the parousia.  The author of the epistle affirms that “all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”  This leaves us with the question of what such purification looks like or entails.  Is it self-mortification by scourging, or fasting, or penance, or some other penitential discipline? 

A preliminary answer to this question may be found in the Beatitudes in Matthew, which is the Gospel reading appointed for today.  To experience purification then is to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to make peace, to be persecuted for righteousness sake, and to suffer persecution on Jesus’s account.  In other words, to be pure as Jesus is pure is, first, to embody the justice and mercy that I would argue are part of the essence of God, and second, to be willing to risk and endure the worldly consequences of this way of living.  Faithfulness to godliness, to holiness, to the beatific vision of revelation is to suffer persecution in the here-and-now.  It might smack some of you as cold comfort for the evangelist to end the Beatitudes with the words, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” with the prospect of so much human suffering before us.  I imagine it may have appeared so to many of the first saints when they heard it, as well.  And we as Chicago Theological Seminary students, have become hyper-aware of the ways the promise of bliss in the afterlife can be a dodge, a cop out, for ending human suffering and oppression here on earth.  So, what are we to do?

St. Mother Théodore Guérin
A couple of days ago I ran across an article by James Martin in the most recent issue of the Catholic weekly, America, which examines the pitfalls of the two ways Roman Catholics have traditionally understood their relationship to the saints.  The saint as patron often suffers from a moral idealization that fails to honor the ways in which the holy man or woman displayed gritty human foibles, defied and ran afoul of the institutional church, and messed things up as all humans generally do.  The saint as companion, on the other hand, suffers from the opposite tendency, to focus so narrowly on the earthly life of the holy person that his or her saintly qualities become obscured.  The trick, Martin says, is to steer a course between these two extremes.  “A healthier (and more accurate) model,” he says, “is to see the saint as both patron and companion: the manifestly human being whose earthly life shows that being a saint means being who you are, but who now enjoys life in heaven and intercedes for us.”  Martin then gives us a couple of very colorful examples of women saints who resisted these extremes.  St. Mother Theodore Guérin, the most recent American saint, fought incessantly with her bishop, who attempted to have her ejected as the superior of the religious community she founded, because he did not like the fact that a woman was successfully building convents all over his diocese.   The nuns were so defiant in supporting Mother Guérin that the bishop, in an act of desperation, actually locked her in his house, until the Vatican stepped in and had him replaced.  On the other end of the spectrum is St. Bernadette Soubirous, the saint who first received visions from Our Lady in Lourdes.  It may sound wacky in this day and age to believe in miraculous visions and healings effected by the prayers of saints, but then again, numerous are the accounts of healings for which scientific and medical professionals can give no other explanation.  Besides if we believe that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and we ask our family and friends to pray for us here on earth, why not St. Bernadette, or Grandma in heaven?  God is God after all, and having created the entire universe, why could God not receive the prayers of a saint on behalf of a person with cancer?

Jesus preaches the Beatitudes in
the Sermon on the Mount

So, with these two paradigms of sainthood before us, how are we as seminarians to purify ourselves as Christ is pure, and yet still honor our full humanity?  I would suggest, for a start, that we make our peace with the notion that our lives may be beset by more suffering and sacrifice than other people.  If we are called to be ministers of the Church, we are called to work with the saints to bring the beatific vision of John’s Revelation into being here on earth by pursuing the justice and mercy that Jesus commends to us in the Beatitudes.  Such a prophetic commitment will require that we risk more than many of those outside the Church, and that we accept the repercussions of defying worldly powers and vanities that seek to keep the status quo firmly in place.  A second step might be to model Martin’s middle course of being who we are and interceding for others through the prayers of our lips, our hands, and our feet.  We must not be merely icons on the walls, but icons in the world.  Yet if we are to be icons in the world, there must be something conspicuously holy, and at times even counter-cultural, about how we live our lives, while still holding on to the earthy ordinariness of our common experience as human beings.  Being both a patron and a companion is the way we purify ourselves to resemble the purity of Jesus, in whom divinity and humanity were fully united and expressed.  This is what the saints, as the Church has traditionally understood them, have sought to model for the rest of us that we might emulate in our own bodies and contexts their struggles to resemble Jesus. 

In one of his own sermons for this day, the Venerable Bede said, “Only in this short and scanty life is there wrestling and working, but the crown and the prize endureth for a life which is eternal.  The work is soon over, but the wage is paid forever.”  But this is hard work, for which we need the prayers of this great cloud of witness, to sustain and assist us in this transformation within ourselves and within the world.  So, I would like to conclude by inviting you to join me in the prayer appointed for the Feast of All Saints:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. 

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