Sunday, 1 November 2020

When the meek are blessed
along with all the saints who
are silenced and forgotten

Saints and Martyrs … the ten martyrs of the 20th century above the West Door of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 1 November 2020

All Saints’ Day


The Readings: Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 34; 1-10; Revelation 7: 9-17 or I John 3: 1-3; Matthew 5: 1-12.

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

All Saints’ Day is one of the 12 Principal Feasts of the Church set out in the Book of Common Prayer.

One of the great hymns celebrating this day is ‘For all the saints, who from their labours rest’ (Church Hymnal, 459), written by Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897).

The saints recalled in this hymn are ordinary people in their weaknesses and their failings. In its original form, it had 11 verses. The verses extolling ‘the glorious company of the Apostles,’ ‘the godly fellowship of the prophets’ and ‘the noble army of martyrs’ were inspired by the canticle Te Deum.

The name of the tune, Sine Nomine (‘Without Name’), written by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), refers to the great multitude of unknown saints, the sort of people praised by Christ in our reading of the Beatitudes this morning (Matthew 5: 1-12).

The writer of this hymn, Walsham How, spent time in Rome as chaplain of the Anglican Church there, All Saints’ Church. When he became a bishop, he was known as ‘the poor man’s bishop.’ He died in Leenane, Co Mayo, in 1897 while he was on holiday in Dulough.

His hymn vibrates with images from the Book of Revelation. The saints recalled by ‘the poor man’s bishop’ are ordinary people who, in spite of their weaknesses and their failings, respond in faith to Christ’s call to service and love, and who have endured the battle against the powers of evil and darkness.

The heart of the hymn is in the stanza that sings about the unity of the Church in heaven and on earth, ‘knit together in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of … Christ our Lord.’ Despite our ‘feeble struggles,’ we are united in Christ and with one another in one ‘blest communion’ and ‘fellowship divine.’

This morning’s Gospel reading, with its praise of people weighed down in their ‘feeble struggles,’ is the most familiar account of the Beatitudes.

In an interview some years ago, Father Brian D’Arcy told how Dorothy Day once spoke of how people regularly confess to ‘breaking’ one of the Ten Commandments, but wondered how often they confess to ‘breaking’ one of the Eight Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes are so familiar that we all understand the irreverent humour found in a scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

‘Blessed are the Meek’ – which means the humble, patient, submissive and gentle – is misheard in The Life of Brian as: ‘Blessed is the Greek – apparently he’s going to inherit the earth.’ When they finally get what Jesus actually says, a woman says, ‘Oh it’s the Meek … blessed are the Meek! That’s nice, I’m glad they’re getting something, ’cause they have a hell of a time.’

The political activist and agitator Reg then says: ‘What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.’ This sums up the growing annoyance of the violent with the peaceful attitude of Christ. But it also highlights that the Beatitudes are about ordinary, everyday people, the people who were the priority in his hymn for the ‘Poor Man’s Bishop.’

Too often we see the saints celebrated by the church as martyrs and apostles, missionaries and hermits, bishops and theologians. How often do we see them as ordinary, meek, everyday people, the people who too often are dismissed as problems, who are living with problems, who often go without attention from politicians and activists alike?

The mother and child separated at birth in the ‘mother and baby’ home and blocked at every stage as they tried to find each other. Watching Catherine Corless on the Late Late Show on Friday night, I wondered at how the sinners had been turned into saints while the saints were those who were sinned against and labelled as sinners.

The middle-aged mother who hopes that life is going to get better as the years move on, but then finds instead every waking hour is devoted to an adult child with special needs, or to an elderly parent who now needs to be looked after like a child.

The couple filled with faith but afraid to come to church, marginalised because of their colour, class, language or sexuality.

The lone protester who stands outside a government office or embassy, ignored by those inside and berated outside by passing, hooting motorists, but who knows right is on her side … ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.’

Think for a moment of who your forgotten, silent, even silenced saints are among ‘the glorious company of the Apostles’ and ‘the godly fellowship of the prophets.’

Are they unnamed among ‘the noble army of martyrs’?

In our New Testament reading (Revelation 7: 9-17), Saint John in his vision sees a great multitude, a countless number from every nation, tribe, people and language, gathered before the Lamb on the throne.

They have come through a great ordeal, the final testing. Now they are before the throne of God, the Lamb of God, ceaselessly celebrating the celestial liturgy in God’s presence. No longer will they suffer or hunger, and ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

But if the Church is a sign of the Kingdom of God, a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy, how does our life as the Church, in the parish and in the diocese, offer solace, comfort, a foretaste, hope for the meek, the downtrodden, the lonely, the oppressed, who are praised in the Beatitudes and who are invited as part of the great multitude, the countless number from every nation, tribe, people and language, to gather before the Lamb on the throne?

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit … those who mourn … the meek … those who hunger and thirst …’

May theirs be the kingdom of heaven, may they be comforted, may they inherit the earth, may they be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful … the pure in heart … the peacemakers … those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake …’

May we be generous in showing mercy, may we see God, be called children of God, find ourselves in the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are we even when others revile us for standing up for these values … when we stand up for those values, may we rejoice and be glad.

And in those struggles, we are ‘knit together in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of ... Christ our Lord.’ In our ‘feeble struggles,’ may we rejoice in being united in Christ and with one another in one ‘blest communion’ and ‘fellowship divine.’

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

The Berliner Dom in Berlin, popularly known as Berlin Cathedral … the images inside the dome illustrate the Beatitudes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’

All Saints’ Day … the Lamb on the Throne surrounded by the angels and saints

Liturgical Colour: White.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord, you are gracious and compassionate.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

You are loving to all,
and your mercy is over all your creation.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your faithful servants bless your name,
and speak of the glory of your kingdom.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The 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. Amen.

Introduction to the Peace:

We are fellow citizens with the saints
and the household of God,
through Christ our Lord,
who came and preached peace to those who were far off
and those who were near (Ephesians 2: 19, 17).

The Preface:

In the saints
you have given us an example of godly living,
that rejoicing in their fellowship,
we may run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
and with them receive the unfading crown of glory …

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. Amen.

The Blessing:

God give you grace
to share the inheritance of all his saints in glory …

‘The Tree of the Church’ (1895) by Charles Kempe … a window in the south transept of Lichfield Cathedral shows Christ surrounded by the saints (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

466, Here from all nations, all tongues, and all peoples
459, For all the saints, who from their labours rest

The saints before the Lamb of God on the Throne … the Altar in Saint Patrick’s Church, Ballyragget, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Christ the Pantocrator surrounded by the saints in the Dome of the Church of Analipsi in Georgioupoli, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)



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