Monday, 1 November 2010

For all the saints, who from their labours rest

The saints coming before the Lamb on the Throne … from the Ghent Altarpiece

Patrick Comerford

Daniel 7: 1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1: 11-23; Luke 6: 20-31.


May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

All Saints’ Day, which is celebrated in the Western Church today [1 November], and in the Eastern Church on the first Sunday after Pentecost, honours all the saints (Αγίων Πάντων), known and unknown. In some traditions of the Church, tomorrow [2 November] is also marked as All Souls’ Day.

But these days have nothing to do with spooky pranks or ghoulish games. The Feast of All Saints is a day set aside to praise God for all the works he has done through his Church. It is not so much a day to remember people and what they have done as a day to remember what God has done for people. It is a testimony and celebration of the fact that the Gates of Hell have never prevailed against the Church. For God has redeemed people from every generation to be his own..

And today we remember that there is a prayerful, spiritual, sweet communion between the whole church, between all of us gathered before the Lamb on the Throne, and that there are no barriers of time and space, for they have been broken, shattered, by Christ in his death and resurrection.

The Church Triumphant and the Church Militant are one. And the living saints remember those who died but who are alive in Christ – with gratitude and as examples of true discipleship and faithfulness.

This day is one of the seven great feasts of the Church. The celebration of All Saints dates back to the early seventh century. The Martyrology of Tallaght shows that the Irish Church originally marked this day on 20 April; indeed, this date was not agreed on in the Western Church until the eighth or ninth century.

It is said the Byzantine Emperor, Leo VI “the Wise” (886–911), introduced the commemoration of All Saints in the East, whether martyrs or not, after the death of his wife.

After the Reformations, this festival was retained in the Anglican and Lutheran calendars. In English-speaking countries, and especially in Anglican churches, this festival is traditionally associated with the hymn For All the Saints, written by William Walsham How (1823-1897) and first printed in 1864 in Hymns for Saints’ Days, and Other Hymns. It is usually sung to the tune Sine Nomine by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and is regarded as “one of the finest hymn tunes of [the 20th] century.”

Look at the wonderful variety of saints appropriated and celebrated in that hymn: although in the Church of Ireland edited version we miss out on the Apostles, Evangelists and Martyrs.

The ten statues above the West Door of Westminster Abbey representing modern saints and martyrs (from left): Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Archbishop Janani Luwum, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi, Wang Zhiming

Have you ever looked up at the West Front of Westminster Abbey? It contains the statues of ten 20th century martyrs including the Polish Franciscan martyr, Maximillian Kolbe, Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in 1968; Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was assassinated in Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror.

Those niches had been left empty from the late Middle Ages until the statues were unveiled in 1998. The other saints and martyrs that now fill those niches are: Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Manche Masmeola, a 16-year-old South African catechist killed by her mother; Esther John, an evangelist murdered in Pakistan by her brother; Wang Zhiming, who was murdered during the Cultural Revolution in China; and Lucian Tapiedi – one of the oft-neglected 12 Anglican martyrs from New Guinea.

The calendar of the Church of England commemorates not only English saints, but Irish saints too who make no appearance in any calendar of the Church of Ireland, including: Jeremy Taylor (13 August), Bishop of Connor, Down and Dromore; and Mother Harriet O’Brien Monsell (1811-1883, 26 March), from Dromoland, Co Clare, sister of the Irish revolutionary William Smith O’Brien and founder of the Clewer Sisters after she was widowed. In the US, the Calendar of the Episcopal Church includes CS Lewis (22 November), who, of course, was born in Belfast.

Earlier this year, I was invited to take part in a memorial service in the Unitarian Church in Dublin. I found it difficult to grasp what Unitarians might mean by the Communion of Saints. But in the main stained-glass windows they had images of Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, Florence Nightingale and William Caxton, portrayed as if they were the patron saints of discovery, truth, love and work.

But we are still reluctant in the Church of Ireland to remember and give thanks for saints, apart from the twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists and the founding figures of our ancient dioceses and our Celtic monasteries.

In one of my favourite churches in the Diocese of Lichfield, I have been asked to preach on the day Jeremy Taylor was remembered in the calendar of the Church of England. But I have been impressed too by the way that church has also remembered graciously and with dignity Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, giving thanks for his role in helping to shape Anglicanism as we know and love and cherish it today, and for his contributions to the beauty of literary English through his Collects and the Book of Common Prayer.

Yet in the Church of Ireland we have no place, yet, for Irish Anglican saints such as William Bedell, Jeremy Taylor, Harriet Monsell or CS Lewis, never mind other Anglicans like Thomas Cranmer and Janani Luwum, Roman Catholics like Maximillian Kolbe and Oscar Romero, Lutherans like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Baptists like Martin Luther King.

If you were to pick your own modern saints, the saints who had influenced you in your faith journey, modern exemplars of Christian faith and discipleship, who would you name?

The late Bishop John Yates (1925-2008), who, as a canon of Lichfield Cathedral, first prompted me to think about ordination when I was only a 19-year-old …

Two former rectors of Wexford, Canon Eddie Grant and Canon Norrie Ruddock, who did the same ...

Dietrich Bonhoeffer …

Martin Luther King …

Colin O’Brien Winter, the exiled Bishop of Namibia, who combined his pacifism with a firm resistance to apartheid, racism and militarism …

Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, the priest who first showed me what engaged discipleship really demands, and the cost of it …

I truly enjoy the way Greeks and other Orthodox Christians put a greater emphasis on celebrating their name days than their birthdays. For when we join the saints in glory before the Lamb on the Throne, the only birthday that will matter will be the day in which we join that wonderful company of saints.

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Collect:

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

Post Communion Prayer:

God, the source of all holiness
and giver of all good things:
May we, who have shared at this table
as strangers and pilgrims here on earth,
be welcomed with all your saints
to the heavenly feast on the day of your kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

For all the saints (Irish Church Hymnal, 459)

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy Name, O Jesu, be forever blessed.
Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might;
thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia!

O may thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
and win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph-song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day:
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia!

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the All Saints’ Day Eucharist in the institute chapel on 1 November 2010.

Movies and Spirituality

The Passion of the Christ was the highest-grossing non-English language film ever

Patrick Comerford

Opening Hymn (475):


Who are these stars appearing ...?

Opening Reading:

Luke 9: 18-27

Opening Prayer:


God of all power,
Ruler of the Universe,
you are worthy of glory and praise.

Glory to you for ever and ever.

At your command
all things came to be:
the vast expanse of the interstellar space,
galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile earth, our island home.

By your will they were created and have their being.

From the primal elements
you brought forth the human race,
and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.
You made us the rulers of creation.
But we turned against you,
and betrayed your trust;
and we turned against one another.

Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.

Again and again, you called us to return.
Through prophets and sages
You revealed your righteous Law.
And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son,
born of a woman,
to fulfil your Law,
to open for us the way of freedom and peace.

By his blood, he reconciled us.
By his wounds, we are healed.


– Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer (TEC, 1977), p. 370.

Introduction:

Well, after that hymn, referring to the saints as stars, that reading for Morning Prayer today, All Saints’ Day [1 November 2010], and that prayer, referring to interstellar spaces and galaxies, we’re going to turn to the Stars … the Stars of Hollywood and the movies.

Today was All Saints’ Day, and not all stars are saints, as we know.

But there is a lot of deep spirituality, some deep spiritual messages, in many movies. They provide interesting opportunities to raise spiritual and pastoral concerns within the context of popular, secular culture, and they also teach us a lot about how to convey truth, values and messages in successive generations.

Some years ago, I brought my two sons to see The Passion of the Christ (2004), Mel Gibson’s movie that dramatises his interpretation and synthesis of the passion narrative in the Four Gospels.

The Passion of the Christ largely tells the story of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, from the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to (briefly, albeit very briefly) his Resurrection, with flashbacks to his childhood, the Sermon on the Mount, the saving of the women about to be stoned, and the Last Supper, with a constructed dialogue entirely in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew.

When the movie was released on Ash Wednesday (25 February) 2004, it stirred considerable controversy, with allegations of anti-Semitism, the amount of graphic, if not exacerbated, violence, particularly during the scourging and crucifixion scenes, and serious questions about its interpretation of the Biblical text, narrative and message.

On the other hand, there were many claims of miraculous savings, forgiveness, new-found faith, and even one report of a man who confessed to murdering his girlfriend although police had decided previously she had died by suicide.

The Passion of the Christ was a box-office success – it grossed more than $370 million in the US, and became the highest-grossing non-English language film ever.

As we left the cinema, my then-teenage sons were not so much shocked as stunned. They noticed too how everyone left the cinema in silence.

The success and attention of the movie, apart from the media controversies, raises many questions for us:

● How do we convey and proclaim the message of Christ?
● Are we using means that are out-dated, not speaking to people, who are truly willing to listen and to learn?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church after confirmation age?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church and sit in the dark in uncomfortable chairs?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would hear the Gospel story and still come out wanting to tell others and to share the experience?

Sometimes when movies ridicule the church, I wonder: do we deserve it?

How many of you have bad experiences of weakly-thought out ideas at school assembly?

[Play clip of Michael Palin as the school chaplain in The Meaning of Life]

The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies are probably important for conveying spiritual truths to many we never reach because they tell us:

● The importance of protecting the innocence of children.
● That those who possess power and authority (including parent-figures and religious leaders) are not always right, and don’t always possess a monopoly on truth and wisdom.
● That religious power and authority can be misused.
● That beauty and goodness arenot always to be equated.
● That ugly are not bad because we see them as ugly.
● That simple people can be wise.
● That life is a journey, and a pilgrimage.
● That we must continue to hope and believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil.

The Mission was the No 1 movie on the Church Times Top 50 Religious Films list

The Mission (1986), starring Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, was chosen as the No 1 movie on the Church Times Top 50 Religious Films list. This movie provides us with:

● Challenging images of the church,
● Questions about the role of the Church in political issues,
● different models of the church,
● a variety of models of ministry,
● different models of mission,
● a way of discussing the Church’s engagement with social justice issues
● an introduction to the relevance of liberation theology today.

Some movies you could use in your ministry:

Amadeus (1984):

This move gives an important background to the life of an important composer for Church music (Mozart’s Requiem, Coronation Mass, &c.). It can be used to discuss:

● Why is jealousy a sin?
● Why does God bestow genius on apparent fools?
● What happens when art becomes competition?
● How do we make peace with the gifts we are given instead of letting envy of others destroy our souls?
● What happens when we reduce prayer to bargaining with God, as in Salieri’s case?
● How do we cope when it appears God does not answer our prayers?
● The dangers of binge drinking among young people.
● Parental discipline.

Scripture passages that can help in the discussion group:

● Acts 7: 9-10, The Patriarchs are jealous of Joseph;
● James 4: 1-3, Jealousy and raving lead to conflict;
● I Corinthians 2: 12, Different gifts;
● I Corinthians 7: 7, God’s gifts vary;
● Luke 13: 30, Jesus warns the disciples about competition.

American Beauty (1999):

This could hardly be described as an overtly religious film. Yet it resonates with deep questions about the human condition:

● Who am I?
● Why am I here?
● Where am I going?
● What is the meaning of beauty?
● What is the meaning of work?

The Awakening (1990):

This move is about a doctor working in the Bronx in the 1960s working with people with chronic mental illness. We can use to discuss:

● Great moments of awakening.
● When did you glimpse the transcendent and experience fullness of life?

Bladerunner (1982):

This is based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and set in the year 2019.

It is a story of the alienated and the marginalised, the androids, with a limited lifespan, who seek to know the meaning of life, who question their place in society, want to have life and have it to the full, and question their ‘maker’, Dr Eldon Tyrell.

● Is it a grim story?
● Is it is a story of life and death, self-sacrifice, and of giving, emptying love?
● What is the meaning of life?
● How do we plan for the future?

Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001):

● Look at her desire for lasting relationship.
● Her search for her identity and self-worth.

Dead Man Walking (1995):

● Discuss the role of chaplains (prisons, and schools, hospitals &c.)
● Discuss the death penalty.
● The role of the church and pastoral figures in influencing public policy and morality.
● The value of individual life.
● Ethics in crime and punishment.
● Could be used to introduce a group to more serious, “high art” literature, such as Dostoevsky’s ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ in The Brothers Karamazov.

ET (1982):

● The incarnation,
● God’s intervention in our lives,
● Self-giving (see also Schindler’s List).

The Exorcist (1973):

There was strong criticism of The Exorcist at the time it was first released in 1973 from conservative Christians, and cinemas were picketed. Some scenes are shocking, even today, almost 40 years later. But the author and the director were Roman Catholics seeking to open people’s eyes to the reality of God and to highlight the awful nature of evil that distorts God’s creation. This movie could be used to discuss:

● The reality of evil, and the objectivity of God.
● Coping with psychiatric cases presented during pastoral work.
● Bad images in movies of the “other”: e.g., the opening scene conveys the impression that Islam inhabits a world of evil; there are similar portrayals of Islam as evil in Aladdin (Disney) at the introduction of Jaffar.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994):

● The relevance of the church and ministry (the character of Rowan Atkinson).
● The funeral scene in terms of coping with death, grief and funerals in the course of pastoral ministry.
● Talking about sexuality and church membership, or the pastoral responses to HIV/AIDS.
● Talking about faithfulness in marriage and relationships.

Gladiator (2000):

● A strong theme of belief in the afterlife.

Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies:

● The importance of protecting the innocence of children.
● That those who possess power and authority (including parent-figures and religious leaders) are not always right, and don’t always possess a monopoly on truth and wisdom.
● That religious power and authority can be misused.
● That beauty and goodness are not always to be equated.
● That ugly are not bad because we see them as ugly.
● That simple people can be wise.
● That life is a journey, and a pilgrimage.
● That we must continue to hope and believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil.

The Mission (1986):

● Images of the church,
● The role of the Church in political issues,
● models of the church,
● models of ministry,
● models of mission,
● The Church’s engagement with social justice issues.
● The relevance of liberation theology today.

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979):

Be careful of who you choose to use it with, if you use it, and their sense of humour. But this movie may be used with some groups to discuss:

● Making the Gospel relative rather than relevant.
● Hermeneutics and Biblical literalism: ‘Blessed are the cheese makers’.
● What difference does the incarnation/cross make?
● What role has the church in criticising political life?

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) or Bend it Like Beckham (2002):

● The place of ethnic minorities within our community.
● Inter-church and inter-faith marriages.
● Love as the basic ingredient of long-term commitment and relationship.

A River Runs Through It (1992):

● Can we love without completely understanding?
● How do we cope with others rejecting our offers of help/friendship/love?
● How is faith passed on in families?
● How will you convey faith to your own children?
● How can painful memories be healed? Can we come to terms with them?
● How does remembering the past weaken/strengthen relationships with God?
● Do all things lead to God?

This movie can be used too in ministerial formation and preaching programmes.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Thin Red Line (1998):

● The horrors of war.
● Sacrifice and what we owe each other
● Compare Private Ryan with the story of the Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep.
● Pastoral responsibility for the weak and the lost

Scream (1996):

This cult movie is about a teenage murderer in Paris in April 2000 dressed in the cape and mask that was the hallmark of this movie.

● Discuss the role of movies and the media in upholding or destroying societal values.

Shadowlands (1987):

● A good one because it is relatively short (89 minutes).
● There is the obvious Christian interest in the writings of C.S. Lewis.
● A story of love and death and of Christian hope.
● Suffering and how we understand pain.

To kill a mockingbird (1962):

An obvious one to use with mid-teens because it is on the reading list for the Junior Certificate. It can be used to discuss Christian values applied to:

● Compassion;
● Compassion for outcasts;
● The value of truth;
● The misuse of power;
● Understanding human weakness;
● Racism;
● Truth;
● Innocence and childhood;
● Ethics and crime and punishment.

Trainspotting (1995) and Traffic (2000):

A useful way with a youth group to discuss the dangers of drug misuse and the consequences of the narcotics trade.

The Passion of the Christ (2004):

● How do we convey and proclaim the message of Christ?
● Are we using means that are out-dated, not speaking to people, who are truly willing to listen and to learn?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church after confirmation age?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church and sit in the dark in uncomfortable chairs?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would hear the Gospel story and still come out wanting to tell others and to share the experience?

Conclusions:

If you find yourself using movies in pastoral, parochial, youth or spiritually-focussed groups, do not leave your humour outside the Church door. Reinhold Neibuhr once observed, ‘Humour is a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.’

Or, Conrad Hynes says in The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith: “If humour without faith is in danger of dissolving into cynicism and despair, faith without humour is in danger of dissolving into arrogance and intolerance.’ And Psalm 2: 4 notes: “Who sits in the heavens laughs.”

Closing Prayer (Collect of the Day):

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

Some reading and resources:

Corley, Kathleen E., and Webb, Robert L., Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (London/New York: Continuum, 2004).
Denizen, Norman K., Images of Postmodern Society: Social theory and contemporary cinema (London: SAGE Publications, 1991).
Dickerson, Matthew, Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings ((Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003).
Egan, Joe, Brave Heart of Jesus: Mel Gibson’s Postmodern Way of the Cross (Dublin: Columba, 2004).
Johnston, Robert K., Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).
Maher, Ian, Faith and Film: Close Encounters of an Evangelistic Kind (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2002, Grove Evangelism Series Ev 59).
Marsh, Clive, and Ortiz, Gary (eds), Explorations in Theology and Film (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).
McLaren, Brian D., The Church on the Other Side: Doing ministry in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000 ed).
McMillan, Barry, in Michael Breen, ‘The Future Is Now: The Matrix as Cultural Mirror’, in Eamonn Conway and Barry McMillan (eds), Technology and Transcendence (Dublin: Columba, 2003, pp 22-35).
Mraz, Barbara, Finding Faith at the Movies (Harrisburg: Continuum/Morehouse, 2004).
Neal, Connie, The Gospel According to Harry Potter, spirituality in the stories of the world’s most famous seeker (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
Pecklers, Keith (ed.), Liturgy in a Postmodern World (London and New York: Continuum, 2003).
Wright, Alex, Why bother with theology? (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002).

Regular film reviews in the Church Times, &c.

Web resources:

www.hollywoodjesus.com – “Visual movies, reviews, with explorations into the deeper more profound meaning behind film, music and pop culture.”
www.damaris.org.uk – “Helps people relate Christian faith and contemporary culture.”
www.word-on-the-web.co.uk – Includes monthly film review.

Handout:

For reflection:


● What would your three favourite films of all time be, and why?
● If you could be one character from a film, who would it be and why?
● Which film has had the most powerful impact upon you, and why?
● Can you recall a film that has challenged, disturbed, or strengthened your faith in God in any way?
● If you have seen any film portrayals of Christ, how realistic do you think they were?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes and handouts were used in a presentation in the series of Monday morning reflections on Spirituality on 1 November 2010