Homily for All Saints’ Day 2013
One of the disadvantages of being Abbot is that I am expected to preach on the same cycle of feasts year by year – and each year I try to find something new to say. I was struggling yesterday until we came to sing the Magnificat antiphon at Vespers. You will all remember it very well: ‘Angels, Archangels, Thrones and Dominations, Principalities and Powers, Virtues of heaven, Cherubim and Seraphim, Patriarchs, Prophets, Holy Teachers of the Law, Apostles, all Martyrs of Christ, holy Confessors, Virgins of the Lord, Anchorites and all Holy Ones, pray for us’. What is the message of this lengthy antiphon?
The first thing I would want to point out in this densely packed sentence is that the first nine nouns refer to heavenly beings whilst the remaining nine refer to earthly beings. Nine, of course, is three times three and in Judaeo-Christian numerology this indicates perfection. Thus we can say that all these created beings are perfect, they are holy.
Secondly I would point out that the writer divides the earthly beings into two major categories: the first three are those related to the Old Testament – the Patriarchs, the Prophets, and the Holy Teachers of the Law; the second group of six are all related to the New Testament – the Apostles, Martyrs of Christ, Confessors, Virgins of the Lord, Anchorites and Holy Ones. Does the increased number of categories of holy people in the New Testament group imply that the New Covenant makes it easier to become holy as a Christian believer than it was under the Jewish Law? Paul certainly believed that this was the case. Whether this latter point is true or not is perhaps of less importance than it is to note that both Jews and Christians are seen as ‘Holy Ones’.
Thirdly we might want to note the variety of holy people described in the New Testament group: the Apostles – who should not be limited to the Twelve for scripture includes Matthias, Paul and Barnabas among the Apostles. These are the men who hand on the faith to others so that the whole world may hear the Gospel, the Word of God. The Martyrs who shed their blood and who are, according to the ancient tradition of the Church, the seed of Christians. The Confessors – those holy ones who proclaim the faith in words and deeds. The Virgins of the Lord who witness to their love of Christ and their belief in the life of the world to come by foregoing marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. There are the hermits who live on the fringes of human society and who battle the demons in the deserted places of the known world. And lastly there are those other holy ones who are mentioned in ancient texts such as the sayings of the Desert Fathers – the ordinary, largely unknown, men and women who witness to Christ by their fidelity to the commands of God contained in the Gospel.
Fourthly we might want to reflect on what makes Christian people holy. In the Eastern rites there is an explicit separation between the liturgy of the Catechumens and the liturgy for the Baptised because at the end of the Liturgy of the Word the deacon tells the Catechumens to leave and only the Baptised remain to partake of the Holy of Holies. Again in the Eastern Rite, before the communion of the faithful, the priest proclaims ‘Sancta Sanctis’, ‘Holy things for Holy People’. Listening to the Word of God creates a certain holiness in men and women of good will, but the sacraments of the Church, especially the Eucharist, are the ‘holy things’ reserved for the ‘holy ones’ – the holy things that increase the holiness of the holy ones enabling the holy ones on earth to become as holy as those who now rejoice in the kingdom of God in heaven.
According to this antiphon, then, the feast of All Saints celebrates the perfection, the holiness, of God’s Chosen People: the Chosen People of both Old and New Testaments. It celebrates especially the holiness of those who are now in the presence of God but it celebrates also the holiness of those who are members of the Church on earth for in the ancient usage of the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church both groups are accounted as Saints. It draws to our attention a variety of men and women who are acknowledged as Holy; but in the final group, the Holy Ones, it points out to us that there are men and women both in heaven above and on earth below who are beloved of God even though they do not fall into a recognisable category. It invites us to believe that all the Holy Ones are alive – because only those who are alive can pray for each other. Thus the Saints are those who are enlivened by the life of Christ; those who are in the presence of Christ – and clearly that includes us: for today we are gathered around this altar, giving thanks to God for His kindness to us. We are in the presence of God. We will receive the Holy Things, the Body and Blood of Christ the Lord. We are being called to become Holy Ones, that is Saints. Let us pray, then, that this earthly Eucharist may be for us the foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet and that receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord, we may become what they are and so be fitted for eternal beatitude.