All Saints day, and we are please that Iestyn Henson accepted the invitation to prepare our zoom service
Zoom service link – https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89461145366?pwd=S3ExNTVjdGVGdXlGVlNQc2k3eldudz09
This morning’s service is, as you might have anticipated, one which has been written for All Saints Sunday, or sometimes called All Souls. Last night was Halloween, ‘All Hallows Eve’ – much quieter than usual from a ‘Trick or Treat’ perspective, but a festival which has its roots not in ghosts, ghouls and zombies (less still in tricks or treats) but in a spiritual and specifically Christian tradition of remembering those who have gone before. We’re going to explore these things this morning, and in doing so, ask of our understanding of sainthood, as well as touch on some other ways in which society and humanity remembers and respects its ancestors.
And then, in the coming weeks, we’re going to follow this train of thought and look specifically at five of Jesus’s ancestors, as given to us in the genealogy list in Matthew’s Gospel. Which five? Well, the five women who are listed, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (unnamed in the list, but known by other references) and finally Mary, perhaps not figures traditionally associated with sainthood though……well……I wonder……
I wonder what comes to mind for you when ‘saint’ or ‘saints’ are mentioned? This might depend on the context, but it’s likely that it’s one of the two ways in which Christianity has chosen to identify a saint, and both of these being the basis for our exploration this morning.
On the one hand, you have the formal, canonised Saints of the Church – the ‘official’ Saints, if you like, declared to be so by the Church down the ages, from St Peter to St David, from St Mary to St Catherine. Saints after whom cathedrals and churches are named; saints who have their own days; saints who are adopted by countries and by professions. These are, in traditional Catholic thinking, Saints-with-a-capital-S
On the other hand, perhaps a more protestant and non-conformist understanding of sainthood is one which recognises ordinary people, neither canonised nor especially remembered by the church at large, but nevertheless utterly crucial in each of our own stories and in the stories of our local congregations. In Catholic thinking, all those in heaven are saints-without-the-capital-s.
We’ll look at each in turn after our readings, but for now, I want to suggest a link between the two and the concept of holiness. I want to suggest here that holiness is the thing which saints of all sorts have in common – whether they know it or not. I was much struck last Sunday by Rowan Williams’ musings, introduced to us by Phil – ‘what does it feel like to imagine holiness as an unselfconscious getting used to others?’ I love that because it requires not a holiness of separation, of going it alone, but one which requires interconnectedness and togetherness. Listen out for a reference to that in a verse from a psalm, coming up. But we might push this further, Dr Williams, and imagine holiness also as unselfconscious and mutual experience of, and influence on each other, to make the world a lovelier place.
I would observe here also then that holiness – and perhaps therefore sainthood – is not the exclusive preserve of Christianity. There are holy people, for sure, in all the major faiths of the world, and by our definitions here, there are holy people of no faith at all. It is highly likely that we have all met these at some stage of our lives, and I want us to remember them also this morning.
There were certainly saints in the traditions of the people of Israel, though the words used in the scriptures are translated in many different ways, depending on preferences. We’re going to hear just a couple(*) of verses from the psalms now, in which the people of God – the saints – are called on to thank God and stay close. We follow that with a reading from Good as New – from the letter which we traditionally call ‘Hebrews’ but which is also – explicitly in these verses – a Call to Trust. And an argument that the writer makes is that it’s by the example of the Saints of the old books that we too can have trust going forward.
(* A ‘Welsh’ couple, in this case, three, as distinct from an ‘English’ couple, which is only ever two. A truth taught to me at about 5 years old by my saintly Welsh Mamgu, when my also-saintly-but-English Auntie Beat invited me to take a couple of sweets, and I tried to take a handful!!)
read by Claire Hughes
Some verses From Psalms (The Message) which mention ‘Saints’ and extracts from Hebrews 11 (from Good as New)
Psalm 30: 4-5 All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God! Thank him to his face! He gets angry once in a while, but across a lifetime there is only love. The nights of crying your eyes out give way to days of laughter.
Psalm 31: 23 Love God, all you saints; God takes care of all who stay close to him but pays back those arrogant enough to go it alone.
Hebrews 11 (1-3; 8-13a) (Good as New) “Trust” means putting your confidence where your hopes are; it means believing there is a reality to things beyond what you can see. It was trust that made our ancestors famous. The idea that the universe came about as a result of God’s thinking and planning is a matter of trust. What we now see with our eyes, started out from something we can’t even imagine.
[And then, after mentioning Abel, Enoch and Noah, the writer continues]
Abraham trusted God too. He took God’s advice and set out to find a permanent home for his family. He had no idea where he was going. He had to keep on trusting because, although he spent a long time in the land God had in mind for him, it didn’t seem like home. He only had tents to live in. The same was true for Isaac his son and Jacob his grandson. They shared Abraham’s dram. He had a vision of a city built on firm foundations and God would be the architect and the builder.
Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was able to have a baby, even though she was past the normal age of having children. That was because she trusted God to keep a promise. Although Sarah and Abraham were coming to the end of their lives, they had as many descendants as there are starts in the sky or pebbles on the beach.
All these people trusted thought of what would come about one day made them happy. to the last moment of their lives. They didn’t see their dreams fulfilled. Just the thought of what would come about one day made them happy.
All Saints Sunday then, a day on which we celebrate and give thanks for all the saints, all of those who have gone before, Saints of the Church, and the saints of our lives. We’ll take each in turn.
I wonder how much we know about the concept and history of sainthood in the church? Sure, we know about one or two of the big characters, of some of the historical figures who were admitted to Sainthood by the church – whether David or the other saints of our homeland, or characters such as Joan of Arc, or Francis of Assisi, right up to the canonisation of Mother Teresa as recently as 2016. But where did this idea of canonisation come from, and what was its purpose? What were the criteria for sainthood, historically, and what are they today? Well, I’ve spent some time over the past month or so reading up on this, and it’ll come as no surprise to you that there are hours and hours of reading available, or, if you prefer, several hours of viewing opinion of differing quality and depth on You Tube. These are not easy questions to answer, and not without some contention, so of necessity what we have this morning is a summary.
Originally, Saints were decreed by acclamation of the people, the people met together as Church. If someone had lived a particularly holy life, if their ministry or witness had been notable and worthy of recognition and memorial, if they had suffered a martyr’s death, they might be declared a saint on their death, or shortly thereafter. As we might imagine, with no formal rules or criteria, the numbers of saints grew rapidly and so, as is perhaps our very human nature, the leaders soon wanted some rules put in place, and to reserve decision making to those in positions of authority.
In both Catholic and Orthodox traditions (and still in the Orthodox churches, I believe), Sainthood was conferred by Bishops, as individuals or as a Synod. The last Catholic Saint to be canonized by a Bishop was Saint Walter of Pontoise, in 1153, but by 1170, Pope Alexander III had decreed that only the Pontiff could canonize Saints.
And since that time, the rules have remained essentially the same, notwithstanding that it has become somewhat harder to meet the criteria in the context of the modern science and medicine. Here’s the short version of the four-stage process:
- Following the death of the individual, a congregation or group, with the support of their local Bishop can propose the ‘Cause’ of an individual to the Church.
- Based on investigation of the individual’s life, witness and example, a special department of the Vatican can recognise the Cause and declare the person ‘Venerable’.
- Proof of a first miracle is required; usually, but not exclusively healing. The miracle must have happened as a consequence of direct intercessory prayer to the individual (and none other), and must be instant, lasting and unexplainable by science or medicine. A commission of investigation decides on this, and if proof is established, the Church declares the individual ‘Blessed’ – the Beatification.
- Finally, proof of a second miracle, with the same strict criteria, is required, this having happened after the Beatification. If that proof is established, the Pope may declare the individual a Saint.
It’s important to note that strictly speaking, neither the Pope nor the Church is ‘making a Saint’ – but rather recognising publicly the proof that the individual is in heaven, and with God. They are recognising Sainthood, not bestowing it, and I think that’s a rather important distinction when it comes to our understanding, which is far more protestant or reformed in its outlook.
So we need to move on to that second understanding, and the recognition of the saints of our lives, noting again that this is not of necessity in contradiction to what we’ve just heard, since the whole church believes that those in heaven are saints, only that the Catholic and Orthodox churches have ways and means of declaring the proof of that. It is true however that the protestant churches, non-conformity in general, and puritanism in particular, have rejected significant elements of the theology of Sainthood in reformed theology, and I think it’s important to understand a little of why that is.
Again, this is a five-minute summary, so we can only scratch the surface, but the principle objection is that ‘special’ Sainthood is not scriptural. Reformed theologians, from Luther and Calvin, and to modern day evangelical traditions, have insisted on ‘Sola Scriptura’ – by scripture alone – as the sole infallible authority for faith and practice. The reformers rejected any practice that was not based on scripture, so whilst the idea of saints may be regarded as scriptural, canonisation of individuals as Saints-with-a-capital-S, may not.
Added to which, it is, and remains, the practice of the Catholic church to also venerate its Saints, to include icons and statues, practices which the reformation argued weren’t just unscriptural, but, being idols, are specifically prohibited in scripture. In the eyes of reformed theologians (and, no doubt, in the teaching received by the people in the pews) the line between remembering and recognising those who have gone before us, and ‘worshipping’ them is crossed when you kneel before a statue, or pray to someone who is not God or God in Christ Jesus.
Please forgive my generalisation here. It’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. But I think it’s a distinction which we, particularly perhaps those of us who claim the name of Saint David as the patron of our local congregation, can recognise. We remember David, we remember his life, his teaching, some of the specific things of his preaching, and we continue to consider the little things that we can do to make a difference. It’s part of who we are. But we neither pray to David, nor do we bow to a statue of him; I’m not sure that there’s even an artist’s impression of him in our building, though personally, I wouldn’t mind if there were.
Rather, what we do is to look back in remembrance in order that we might look forward, with faith and in hope.
This is very much part of the message of the writer to the Hebrews, calling to trust in Chapter 11 of that letter. The chapter points to the earliest saints of the Hebrew faith, naming not only the patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but ensuring also that Sarah gets a mention for her faith; likewise Matthew includes the names of significant women in his genealogy. This ‘storytelling’ of ancestry is something which has been shared by all ancient civilisations, of course. Both oral traditions and earliest writings chose to honour ancestry through story and song; from biography to family photo albums, we continue to this day. The point for the Hebrews however was very much one of example. ‘Look at what these people were able to do because they trusted God’ says the writer. ‘And even if they didn’t see all their projects through to completion, just the thought of what might be possible with trust in God filled them with joy’. The writer is wholly convincing in the argument that the Jesus story is the continuation of these projects; that faith in God through Christ inherits all that the ancients understood as God’s promise and covenant.
In a moment, we’re going to share our ‘gallery of Saints’ – the photographs and names which we’ve sent in in preparation for this service. I would invite you all, whether you are watching or listening live on Sunday morning, watching later on You Tube, or reading this as a script, to take this quiet time to think about, to name – out loud if you wish – and to remember, with thanks, the people who have been your history, the saints of your story. It may have been a teacher or Sunday School teacher; it may have been a minister or pastor; it may have been just someone in the pew. It may also have been someone wholly unconnected to church and formal organisations; it may have been a friend or a stranger who showed love to you when you most needed it; it may have been a friend or a stranger who challenged you to love when they most needed it. And of course, for many of us, it may have been grandparents, parents, and family close by.
For we all have saints of God in our stories. We all have people who have been an example to us, who have been an influence on us, both individually and together. And today really is about all saints – it’s about recognising and remembering the contributions of all God’s people, from the world-famous greats to the individuals known only to ourselves, who loved God, and who showed God’s love to the world in their time and place. We are who we are because of their example to us. We pray that we can continue to show the love of God to the world, in our time and our place.
Prayer for All Saints Day
by Deborah Jones
Read by Lynda Bull
All Saints Day meaning and history for Christianity is a Christian holiday of honouring Saints. The word saint comes from the Greek word hagios which means consecrated to God, holy sacred, pious and from the Latin Sanctus.
All Saints Day is known as All Hallows Day, Hallomas, the feast of all Saints.
Psalm 31:23 Love the Lord all you his Saints.
Lord we thank you for all the Saints, people of faith, some of the Saints are:
St David Patron Saint of Wales
St George Patron Saint of England
Pope John Paul
Saint Augustine, a theologian, philosopher and bishop of Hippo, Roman North Africa
The 12 apostles
Just like Jesus
They have lived on earth
Preached the gospel
Healed the sick
Rested on the sabbath
We will not forget the Saints, how days have been named after the Saints.
How the church celebrates Saints days.
Let us spend time remembering the Saints.
The Saints light the path for a better world.
Lord knowing the Saints brings us closer to you.
A Saint for the world.
The monuments, the paintings, art work, stained glass help us to carry the Saints from past to future.
Lord you are a timeless God, past, present and future.
Help us to care for our world and its creation.
Help us to care for our world where our Saints dwelt.
We pray for our political leaders and whether political leaders stay or change through elections
that they shape the world for a better future.
We pray for a healed world free of the virus.
We pray for members of our church who are no longer with us who blessed us.
During this time of coronavirus we pause to remember all the Saints.
As the church moves to the future
Hallelujah to the Saints
Hymn – I sing a song of the Saints of God (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWDPh_S9Vc0)