Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Feast of All Saints

Today is the feast of All Saints when we remember those who have gone before us.
Most of us are reasonably familiar with the calendar of the Church year. Fewer of us (and I include myself here) may be familiar with the saints’ calendar. While most of the saints have a feast day of their own, it is rare that they get a mention in Church for the simple reason that the regular Sunday service nearly always takes precedence and that’s a pity, because there is so much we can learn from the lives of the saints. Some were great scholars; others illiterate. Some were ancient; others modern. But what is particularly striking about this calendar is that it is quite unpredictable: ninth-century saint follows twentieth century saint; European and Near Eastern; young and old come and go in random order.

Just this month, for instance, ancient Willibrord, (don’t ask, I have no idea) whose feast is kept on the seventh of November hobnobs with Reformation-era Richard Hooker who is remembered on November the third, and medieval Margaret of Scotland who is remembered on November the sixteenth.

In I John Ch 3 - my nominal text for this morning - St. John refers to his readers as “Children of God” and my mind has been very much focussed on children over the last day or two: I was browsing through some blogs (in an act of task avoidance) and I came across this comment on the blog of a friend of mine, a Priest in Newcastle. It was a short post headed GO AWAY (in capitals):
“It's Wednesday October 29th. 8.30 p.m. I've already had 3 trick or treaters ringing my door bell. The dogs are up the wall. Bloody Americans!!!”

Short and to the point I thought, and typically acerbic.

But I wonder how many of us share that feeling at this time of year. I have to confess I do, but then I am “Bah Humbug” personified.

Some of the responses subsequently posted on his blog were very interesting though:

• You'll be going in costume, then?

• Hey, stop whining, look up Wikipedia, it was YOUR idea in the first place!! Bloody Brits!

Got any candy, mate?

• People who get to wear silly clothes all the year round as part of their job have no sense of fun!

• Thanks for reminding me to turn off the lights early or to spend the night out on the town.

• Those were American children who rang your doorbell?
Yes, it is quite a treat for them. All the way from the US of A to be told 'get knotted' by an English cleric. What a holiday treat!

• If the US wants to run the show, dominate the world media and film industry, impose their form of politics on everybody at gunpoint, bring everybody else's economy down with their own, decide trading rules and bore the rest of the world silly with its endless elections, then it is going to have to accept that it is going to be blamed for everything - including Halloween!

Someone got out of bed on the wrong side there I thought.
Halloween is October 31, and All Saints' is November 1, though many congregations celebrate All Saints' on the following Sunday as we are today.

So, Halloween: it does seem to need defending against those who regard it as terrible. Certainly there can be excesses, but it is surely only a bit of fun (unless you are the sort of Christian who will not allow your children to read Harry Potter on the basis that it opens them up to witchcraft and worse – demonic possession). So you probably knew the name Halloween means All Hallows' Eve, or All Saints' Eve. What you may not have known is what one American commentator was at pains to tell our friendly cleric from Newcastle, that many popular Halloween customs date back to the pre-Christian Druids of Britain.

However, these customs come to us through the filter of many Christian centuries and we mustn’t forget that Christ has conquered the powers of darkness, and the old gods and customs have been abandoned with their belief systems. Your daughter dresses up as a witch and goes scrounging sweets from indulgent neighbours? She is not the handmaiden of Beelzebub. The last time my daughter Claire went on the sweetie trail she dressed as a mouse: I’m not entirely sure where that features in the iconography of evil but let’s be clear: the once fearful aspects of this season have become playful and where once adults shuddered in fear, now even the smallest child can have fun. They walk through their neighbourhoods in the evening dressed in outlandish costumes, they collect sweets or money, and they return home again. The whole business is treated as a delightful joke. Behind the scary masks and costumes are laughing children. Inside neighbours houses, some even decorated to look spooky, are friendly, generous people and the occasional miserable git who won’t enter into the spirit of the occasion (like my friend in Newcastle).

It's our Christian confidence that makes Halloween a light-hearted time. In the same way that many who are not Christians share the joy of Christmas each year because the light of Jesus is abundant, so many who are not Christian share our confidence that the old associations of Halloween have been rendered meaningless. They might not be able to articulate the theology but they know that Halloween is pre-Christian: it has been baptized, if you like. It has become All Saints' Eve in more than name alone: both occasions address the same themes, though they do so in different ways. Both occasions are concerned with the idea of life beyond the grave. All Saints' approaches these themes with triumphant joy and expectation. Halloween deals with them through mischievous humour.

The child who goes forth with a trick-or-treat bag takes a sane, healthy, and adventuresome risk, and at some level finds that the universe can be a safe place. The trick-or-treater discovers that the world is a comedy where terrible things have been defeated and remain only as a laughingstock. It's a great therapy for fear. There's nothing evil about it.

Children are not embarrassed to struggle with the great division between good and evil, life and death, heaven and hell. They are new to this fight, and want to prove themselves heroic. So the Halloween wisdom of children comes down to this: there are monsters under the bed, but we can face our fears, and by grace and struggle be set free from them. The Halloween children have caught a glimpse of the Gospel. Their hearts are filled with faith and fun. It is our role as parents and friends to build on those foundations and help them see the applications to the gospel.

This feast of All Saints' is the sunny side of Halloween. Today is joy while Halloween was comedy. The saints we honour today, a vast, innumerable crowd including our own loved ones, are but graduates of the school of grace and struggle in which our trick-or-treaters have just enrolled. It is our role to ensure that our little trick or treaters go on to complete the course and graduate as saints in their turn.

Some of these saints are a hard act to follow. Too often saints are depicted as people who are so extraordinary that we could never identify with them. Their commitment to God and virtue is unwavering, their trust in divine providence unshakable, and their unselfish service of others puts everything that we do to shame. But let’s also remember the ones we never hear about because their lives were unremarkable: they did not live in dramatic times or do amazing works. Are they any less saints because they got on quietly with a life of unfussy commitment to God and service to their peers without drawing attention to themselves? There are far more of those in Heaven than the big names we might think of who may have had a good post-mortem publicity machine or friends in high places.

I don’t know at this point why I am referring to “they” and “them” as if they were other than us or apart from us, because we, of course, are saints too, from the same mould.

Do you think of yourself in those terms? If not, perhaps you should start now.
What makes us the saints we are? The renowned Episcopal preacher Barbara Taylor offers a list of upsetting characteristics, including “immoderate faith, intemperate hope and inordinate love.” That’s us she’s talking about: “immoderate faith, intemperate hope and inordinate love.” We put on these characteristics like the outlandish costumes of Halloween.

So, in spite of their variety and age and culture, the saints learned to become vulnerable, to be fully human, and to take chances on others, even when it may seem to go against common sense or one’s own self interest. And like it or not, each of us will also be given plenty of opportunity to experience this vulnerability in our own lives – at work, at home, among friends, and sometimes at church as well as we express our own prophetic ministries.

We will not always be good. We will not always get it right the first time. We will fail. We will have plenty of reason to witness to and accept our own vulnerability. But then we are in good company. After all, what words other than “vulnerable” and “committed” can we use to describe a God willing to become one of us with all the messiness of our self doubts, and strings of failures, and hurts, and even death?
Trick-or-treaters venturing forth on Halloween night provide us with a map for the journey, one drawn in the bright colours of childhood trust, courage, and humour.

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