All Saints Sermon: Fr Paul King

[NB: Several people asked about the picture on the previous post, which was also on the front cover of the mass-book. It is of the Landau altarpiece by Albrecht Dürer, and you can see more of it here]

May I begin by saying on behalf of Hinksey Catholic Parish, and especially on behalf of the community who regularly worship in this church of the Holy Rood, how good it is to be sharing this solemn feast with those who have come into full communion with the Catholic Church through the Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham. At this Mass it is evident that this particular Ordinariate community bring rather special musical gifts, and we are naturally very grateful for that. But I am personally very glad that we have been able to offer them a home here, and I hope very much that we will be able to have these shared celebrations relatively often, as may be liturgically appropriate. And feasts occurring during the week are an obvious example of this. And somehow the Feast of All Saints is a particularly good moment to start. After all, saints are incredibly various – even those officially canonised. And as we take into account today the vast numbers who have surely attained great holiness but without that formal recognition, they must be more various still. But there is only one communion of saints, as there is only one Body of Christ, and to that we all belong. This feast puts us in our place, on the fringe of this great garment of praise, and reminds us of our fundamental unity. Whatever the future holds for the Ordinariate, it would be tragic if it became in any permanent way a self-consciously separate group within the Church. It has been so good that this sharing of a building has also been accompanied by an encouragement to share in each other’s Masses in a quite natural way. Osmosis, it seems to me, is greatly to be encouraged.

One feature of the Ordinariate is that it has from its very inception been using the New English Translation of the Roman Missal. Not only that, but it has been using the Revised Standard Version of the Scriptures, as we have done this evening. This is intended for the rest of us as well, but it probably won’t come about for at least another five years, I guess. However, since last week, when that great box of Altar Missals arrived, we have been using not only the texts on the laminated card, but also the prayers as well. And if you remember the old version of the Collect for All Saints, you will have noticed that today’s prayer was a good deal longer. The old prayer simply said ‘Father,…we rejoice in the saints of every age.’ The new one says ‘Almighty God, by whose gift we venerate the merits of all the Saints.’

 

You will not be surprised to learn that this is what the Latin original actually says. The old prayer had no mention of God’s gift – of God’s grace. It was, I suppose, taken for granted. But you will notice again and again in the new prayers, as we go through the year, that they continually emphasise God’s grace. I suppose you could say that the prayer today is speaking about God’s gift to the Church of this actual Feast – the Feast of All Saints. But there is also the implication that it is by God’s gift, by God’s grace, that the saints are indeed saints. Whatever virtue or holiness the saints have, it is the work of God’s grace.

 

That doesn’t of course mean that becoming a saint is a kind of automatic process. The saints had to co-operate with God’s grace; they had to respond to it, as indeed do we. After all we are all called to be saints, and in the last resort there is no other destiny for the Christian. We are all called to co-operate with God’s grace, although we don’t always do so. But the important thing is that it is God’s grace which always comes first. And that is something which the texts of the Missal constantly reinforce. One of the reasons for a new translation was the weakness of the old one in this respect.

 

Again, the Latin speaks of the merits of the saints – a word which the old prayer simply ignores. The implication of the prayer is that there is a connection between the merits of the saints and their power as intercessors.  Some Christian traditions have been very wary of this word ‘merit’. But it is important to realise that there is no kind of opposition between the idea of ‘merit’ and God’s gift, God’s grace. The merits of the saints are themselves the work of God’s grace; the merits of the saints are a gift from God. Likewise, there is no opposition, or competition, between the holiness of God and the holiness of the saints. The holiness that is manifest in the saints doesn’t in any way distract us from the holiness of God; it actually is the holiness of God, or perhaps it would be better to say it is one facet of the holiness of God, manifested in this particular person made in God’s image. We are, after all, members of the Body of Christ. The holiness which belongs to the Head of the Body really is shared with the members of the Body.

 

So the Opening Prayer sees these graced, holy people above all as intercessors. It is their prayers which will help us to ‘lay aside every weight’ as St Paul says, to overcome the barriers which still keep us from full reconciliation with God. It is strange that some Christians have had real problems with asking for the prayers of the saints, when asking for the prayers of one’s fellow Christians on earth is such an obvious and uncontroversial thing to do. And within that earthly context would one not most naturally go either to those closest to you, or especially to those you saw as closest to God – those who seemed to reflect God’s holiness?  Several people have recently spoken to me about ‘thin’ places – places where God’s presence seems especially close. And surely that sort of thinness must exist within the Body of Christ – between those on earth and the saints in heaven. That is surely one implication of the teaching of St Paul that baptism is the real moment of our death. It is the grace of our baptism which breaks down the barrier between us and our brothers and sisters who give God eternal praise in the heavenly Jerusalem.

 

There is then something both obvious and natural about asking for the intercession of the saints in the context of our shared membership of the Body of Christ. And yet some of the expressions of that intercession are at least curious. One of the most curious comes in a hymn which I dearly love, ‘Hail, Queen of heaven, the ocean star.’ In it we ask Mary to remind her Son that he has died for us. It is, I suppose, a sort of extension of her role at the wedding at Cana. But it is, of course, perfectly obvious that God is incapable of being absent-minded. Despite the images of God that some people have grown up with, it is also not true that God spends most of his time being cross with us. Some of the hymns involving the prayers of the saints seem to imply this. But God isn’t forgetful; God is not angry or cross. The Father, indeed, as Jesus tells us, ‘knows what we need before we ask’. But, as Jesus also strongly insists, it is important for us to ask. God waits upon the asking of his creatures. St Francis wrote that famous prayer, ‘Make me an instrument of your peace’. I suppose many of us encounter that prayer most frequently is the hymn version of it – ‘Make me a channel of your peace’. A channel is not quite the same thing as an instrument, but it has long seemed to me a very good image for the prayer of intercession. God knows what we need before we ask, but waits for a channel to be opened up through which his grace can flow. It must surely be true that those who are holy, those who are closest and most open to God, must also be the most open channels of grace. Saints of God, come to our aid; all holy men and women, pray for us.

Fr Paul King is Co-ordinating Pastor of the Thames-Isis Pastoral Area, in the Diocese of Portsmouth, and Priest-in-charge of Hinksey Parish, within which Holy Rood is situated.

 

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