Sunday 31 October 2021: All Saints
Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things
Context: A congregation of all ages in a largely wealthy middle-class suburban parish in which many have very pressured lives, with many still at home, joining the celebration by livestream
Aim: To invite the congregation to view the saints as ordinary people and to embrace their own call to live the vision set out in the Beatitudes
Some years ago, the Catholic overseas development agency CAFOD used as a ‘strap line’ the phrase, ‘Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.’ That phrase takes us to the heart of the meaning of this feast – or rather to two alternative understandings of it. What do you think makes a saint? Do you want to highlight their ordinariness or those extraordinary things in their life-story which make them memorable? And who are we celebrating today – the select few, who ‘made it’ and whose names are still up in lights centuries after their demise, or the many, their names now forgotten, who are also part of the great multitude gathered ready for the great feast in the Kingdom of God?
Most Christians most of the time focus on the extraordinary aspects of the saints’ biographies – and we should acknowledge that some of them have been more than extraordinary. Some have frankly been downright weird! In fact, it is often the single-minded pursuit of a particular insight that drives them out of the mainstream and on to greatness. Saints aren’t necessarily naturally balanced people, although a life of prayer and Christian charity ought to be an integrating factor, leading even eccentric souls towards unity.
PLASTER SAINTS AND FEET OF CLAY
We used to talk of canonisation as ‘raising them to the altars.’ Oftentimes it looked more like putting them on pedestals where we could look up to them from a safe distance, with the comforting thought that ‘we could never do that’ – whatever ‘that’ happened to be (embracing martyrdom, radical poverty, undertaking missionary journeys, founding new movements in response to emerging needs …). God would surely never ask us to do anything so unreasonable …
There’s another way in which we can simultaneously idealise and neutralise their message: we wait until they are safely dead before we listen to them. There are certainly good reasons for delaying canonisation. In recent years, the Catholic Church has had a few near misses, with widely admired Church leaders discovered belatedly to be manipulative charlatans. That is probably a greater risk today, when social media can polish people’s profiles and beam propaganda around the world in an instant. But, even without the discovery of any significant skeletons in the cupboard, once we’ve buried our spiritual heroes the odour of sanctity can be enjoyed without encountering those feet of clay which we all inherit from Adam. There’s an old quip that every saint has their martyr. Saints, by repute, aren’t always easy to live with. They’re certainly not perfect! And yet they lead us to God.
Again, it is a comforting thought that there are holy men and women praying for us in heaven. We might have a ‘devotion’ to one and even regard him or her as our ‘patron saint.’ But the important thing is that they lead us to what they themselves sought – an ever-deepening trust in God’s love and mercy; an ever-greater openness to God’s call. If we find ourselves asking them to have a word with the Almighty on our behalf about something (instead of us being able to voice our concerns directly to the Lord), maybe we should ask them to show us how to achieve the same profound confidence in God’s providence which they achieved.
The celebration of this feast of ‘All Saints’ began when there simply weren’t enough days of the year to commemorate all the martyrs and other saints who had lived and died in the first centuries of the Church. It was about remembering ordinary Christians, neighbours, people who had walked the same streets and worshipped in the same communities; people who showed succeeding generations how to live in their world. It was indeed about ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things.’
Sanctity isn’t something to be put on a shelf, admired from a safe distance. It isn’t meant to be postponed till after death, either. Holiness is what we’re called to here and now – we who paradoxically both aren’t holy (because only God is holy) and are holy (because God’s transformative love and mercy has touched our lives). The Beatitudes aren’t either ‘an impossible ideal’ or a training manual for an elite squad. They are the Magna Carta of Christian discipleship – a way of life which is about being in communion and seeking unity; about poverty of Spirit, gentle living, and patience in sorrow; about a common hunger for justice, mercy, purity of heart and peace. That’s the calling of all the baptised (and the yearning of the whole of Creation, in truth); which means that this is very much our feast, the day when we proclaim our unity both with those who’ve gone before us and with those who will come after us; all generations now gathered in this holy moment by the Lord to hear his Word, to break his Bread and to become his Body.
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