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Wednesday 1 November 2023 All Saints’ Day

Holding-on to holiness

Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

By Peter Dobson

Canon for Outreach and Discipleship, Newcastle Cathedral

Context: Eucharist involving a large and varied congregation, with a mixture of ages, in an urban/suburban setting

Aim: living with the ‘saints’ across a variety of different traditions, understandings and stages on the journey of faith

Recently I’ve been on pilgrimage with a group of friends and colleagues fulfilling one of our number’s ambitions to visit the resting places of various saints, and other places of pilgrimage, across France and Spain. Not a pilgrimage I might have made myself, it was, nevertheless, both profound and entertaining. Part of what was entertaining was the somewhat incongruous soundtrack that kept playing in my mind as we journeyed – the band REM’s 1991 hit, ‘Shiny Happy People’!
The song begins with laughter, it speaks of people meeting in a crowd, holding hands and ‘throwing love around’. It goes on to say, ‘There’s no time to cry, happy, happy’. It’s a song that gives a sense which, it occurs to me, we sometimes have when we think about ‘saints’. Whether we think of saints as those people recognised or canonised by the Church or think of the term in a broader sense – those who are with us as examples on the journey of faith – it’s easy for us to reduce them, their lives and inspiration, to a happy state. We can turn the lives of the saints into something unattainable. Acting as if what the saints have is beyond our reach, their effigies and shrines in places of pilgrimage literally become shiny, both worn and polished from the steady stream of pilgrims who want to come close to them, offer their devotion, reaching out to touch them.
And yet, this All Saints’ Day our readings point to a different truth, not the shiny happiness of the lives of the saints, but the way in which their lives were, and are, rooted in the reality, the suffering and persecution of their time. What is commended is the cultivating of a character, such that, in the midst of the raw reality of life we encounter something of the God who is also rooted in that reality, a God who is in the ordeals of life, and in the business of overcoming them, might be revealed again and again.
This All Saints’ Day, the First Letter of John speaks to that sense we might have in the world – amongst friends and colleagues, family even – of being somewhat unusual, misunderstood, or ridiculed as we live the life of faith. It speaks, perhaps, to the worry we might carry about not communicating our faith ‘well enough’, such that it might make sense to the people around us, the feelings we might have of not being ‘good enough’ as the saints clearly were!
At the same time, we’re given an image from the Book of Revelation, which seems to say that one of the defining features of the saint is having ‘come out of the great ordeal’. And so, maybe it is OK for the road of faith to be tough. But then, I hear people say (and can feel myself wanting to say at times), ‘Have I / have we, had it easy?’ as if suffering were a Christian badge of honour in its own right.
The corrective to our misconceptions of the saints, and our fear that we might not somehow measure up, comes in our Gospel reading. It says that holiness is not something beyond our reach. It says that we miss the point of holiness if we only look to the examples of others. It says that in the reality of life, the saints are those who have reached into themselves, and into the life of Christ that they have cultivated there. It says that we find holiness in the small and often un-prized attempts at mercy, simplicity, purity, peace and dependence on the goodness of others. It says to us that, reaching out to the lives of the saints we should not neglect the work of God within us. It comes with an invitation. In the reality of life, we are invited to reach into ourselves and our histories, to attend to the parts of our lives God, (like pilgrims with statues) is changing, wearing down, but polishing too. It says that our lives should speak of knowing that we are certainly good enough whilst we also become more so. It reminds us that the world is as it is, but God, with and through us, is overcoming and transforming it still.


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