All Saints' Day 2008

2 November 2008 at :00 am

Revelation 7: 9-end; I John 3: 1-3; Matthew 5: 1-12

We may think of St John the Divine penning these words, holed up in exile on the island of Patmos, afraid for his life, during the period at the end of the first century when the emperor Domitian was vigorously persecuting Christians. John's great vision of heaven, of the joy of the saints as they see Almighty God face to face, and as day and night they worship Him, arises not out of peace and tranquillity but out of struggle and conflict. He warns his fellow Christians that they must expect trials and tribulations, but that those who "have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb", who have triumphed in "the great ordeal", the saints of God, will be guided to "springs of the water of life" and God himself "will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

The image of robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb is arresting. It might be connected to the Church's practice of Christian initiation in John's day. Candidates for baptism in the early Church would doff their brightly-coloured everyday clothes, as they descended into the great font of water. When they rose up out of the water having been baptised, the oil of chrism would be poured over them, a sign of God's favour, the anointing oil that united them with Jesus Christ, and then they would be clothed in a new white garment, a sign of re-birth, of purity. This new purity was not regarded as lightly achieved, but as won at great cost, through the life, death on the Cross and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The blood of Christ bathes us and washes our garments clean.

So, the joy of the saints has been won not through their own virtue but at the cost of the Cross. However, a strong theme in the teaching of the New Testament, in the Gospels and Epistles as well as in the Revelation of St John the Divine, associates the persecution and suffering of the saints closely with the passion and death of Our Lord. In the Gospel reading today, we hear Jesus say to his disciples, "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." [Matthew 5: 11.12] And in the same Gospel, Jesus warns his apostles that they will be handed over to councils and flogged in their synagogues; and dragged before governors and kings because of him. [Matthew 10: 17] St Paul too sees that suffering is a necessary part of his ministry and apostolate. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says, "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, the church."

It is certainly true that many of the saints suffered for their faith, whether through the early persecution of the Jews or of the Roman Empire in the 300 years before Christianity's acceptance as the official religion of the Empire. Moreover, Christians have continued to be persecuted in the centuries since then. Many still suffer. We heard recently of Indian outcastes become Christians being driven from their homes and killed by Hindu mobs. The Christian population of Iraq has suffered terribly and been greatly reduced since the overthrow of the dictator whose regime protected them. The story could be told again and again, just as, terribly through history, could be told the story of Christian persecution of the Jews and of other minorities and of Christians by other Christians.

Later this month, we shall observe in the Abbey the 450th anniversary of the death of Queen Mary I, the elder daughter of the reforming King Henry VIII. She reigned as a Catholic Queen from July 1553 until her death on 17th November 1558. Her half sister Elizabeth I, who succeeded her, broke the connection with the Pope and re-established the Catholic and Reformed Church of England. When we think of that period of our national history, we are inclined to concentrate on Mary's persecution of Protestants; we think of her as Bloody Mary and of her sister as Good Queen Bess. During Mary's reign, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of Rochester, Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, and some 300 or so other Christians who would not accept the Roman Catholic faith met their death tied to a stake and surrounded by fire. But the persecution was not only in Mary's reign.

Last Sunday I was privileged to visit the Venerable English College in Rome, since 1579 a seminary for Roman Catholic priests, whose students in the early days signed at the beginning of their training a missionary oath that they would return to England to spread the Catholic faith. They would avoid death if they could but know that their preaching would be regarded as treason. If necessary they would suffer the consequences. A gallery round the church at the English College depicts images, which would have been seen by the students preparing for the English mission, images of their predecessors being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, near where the Marble Arch is now. 44 students of this one College were martyred for the Catholic faith between 1581 and 1679, and 130 suffered imprisonment and exile.

Confronted with these facts and these images, my reaction was that the martyrs of both eras are all our martyrs now. I pray that the Abbey's festival of commemoration of the death of Mary and the accession of Elizabeth later this month will enable us to think afresh about that era and its impact on us.

One effect might be to inspire us to follow the example of the saints and martyrs of their time and to accept persecution if it comes. If death by martyrdom seems a remote prospect for us, though for many Christians it is not so remote, we can even so be inspired by the example of the saints and martyrs to lead our Christian lives sacrificially, to offer everything for Christ, to accept thankfully whatever we may be called upon to suffer.

St Paul spells out in his letter to the Romans what he means by living as saints in the power of Christ's Cross: "Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another." [Romans 12: 9-16a]

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