Thought for the Week: 1st November 2020
Our thought this Sunday is written by Louise Hampson.
All Saints Day
Today is All Saints day, tomorrow is All Souls, in ten days’ time we have Armistice Day – a period known as the season of remembrance. This year for many people it perhaps feels more poignant than usual, a time to remember those they have lost and reflect on the selfless dedication of many in our society in caring for the sick and dying.
In everyday life we casually refer to ‘saints’: so-and-so is a saint for their patience, their selfless work, their willingness to put up with all sorts of unpleasantness. We also associate the term saintliness with perfection, with never saying or doing a wrong thing, with superhuman reserves of patience or capacity for suffering. In current times many refer to anyone who works for the NHS a ‘saint’, an epithet which is fine until someone makes a mistake, has feet of clay, then our disappointment can be vicious.
Our two readings (Revelation 7.2-12 and Matthew 5.1-12) give us images of heaven, the life which awaits all those who give their life to Christ, but neither mentions saints for special attention. What is the place of saints in heaven – are they on some sort of higher plane, closer to God, or do those distinctions fall away? What do saints mean for us?
Depending on your churchmanship and denomination, actual saints may play a greater or lesser role in your faith: you may ask them to intercede on your behalf or perform miracles, or you may be barely aware of them beyond a few names and dates. In Revelation we get quite a list of the Elect (by the way, the number 144,000 just means ‘without limit’, we don’t need to worry!) and angels and ‘a great multitude, which no man could number’; in the Gospel we get Jesus’ list based on actions and ways of life. But still no saints, so who are the saints?
If we feel inadequate in the face of the stories of perfection or capacity for suffering, the ideas of saintliness can be double-edged. If we have no hope of even aspiring to these heights of perfection, we can put saints on a pedestal and then leave them there, but that would be missing the value that saints can have for us today. If we set aside medieval ideas of some saints as some kind of superheroes able to come back from ever more elaborate ways of being killed and look at some real people who we know actually existed we might get a more helpful insight. We might consider three who perhaps give us some helpful insights.
St Chad, with his brother St Cedd, left the monastic community in York to establish a community based on the Northumbrian practice at Lastingham. Chad was then called to be bishop of Lichfield, so moved to Mercia without complaint. According to our own Ven Bede, Chad was humble and a people-person: he walked everywhere (until his archbishop insisted he rode to mark his status – Chad walked beside the horse!) became well-beloved and built up the Christian faith amongst ordinary people. Angels thoughtfully gave him 7 days’ notice of his death, so he had time to get his affairs in order.
St Wilfrid, founder of Ripon and Hexham churches and one-time Bishop if York, could not have been more different: perceived as arrogant, outspoken, a strong sense of entitlement with an abrasive leadership style and easily offended he was the polar opposite of Chad, yet he also built up the faith in the 7th century and laid foundations for the way the church was organised and run which remained unchanged for over 1000 years.
Different again was St Hild of Whitby, a royal princess turned abbess whose considerable intellect, diplomatic and political skills and natural authority enabled her to lead a double house and orchestrate the Synod of Whitby in 669 which brought church and political leaders together and set the course of the church nationally for the next millennium.
All saints, all real people, all dealing with life very differently – but what they have in common is the centrality of their faith to their lives and actions. Despite being less than perfect and subject to all the pressures of their times, they were all driven by one goal – to bring the kingdom of God to earth. So we might hope we will never be called to situations requiring us to die for our faith, or to endure unimaginable suffering, but we can be saint-like in putting Christ at the centre of our lives and actions. We can find our place in the great multitude if we follow Jesus’ injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount and hunger and thirst after righteousness but we don’t have to be perfect!