01 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.


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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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:

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.

1 comment:

MoralHeroes said...

Great post! So many great people who changed the world.

This week Oscar Romero is featured as hero of week over at moralheroes.org

check him out and tell your friends http://moralheroes.org/oscar-romero

I am sure many of those mentioned in this post will soon be featured as Moral Heroes as well!