Thursday, November 6, 2008

Solemnity of All Saints - Mrs Lucy Gardner

As the earth continues her relentless journey around the sun and so the leaves and the seasons turn as they have so many times before, as comforting darkness closes in around us here in the northern hemisphere, it strikes me as cheering, comforting and fitting that the turn of the liturgical year in its turn brings us the bright light and austere warmth of the Feast of All Saints, just as, when we shall have grown tired of the short, dark, fruitless days of winter and long for something greener, richer and more rousing, our way shall be lightened by the Feast of Candlemas.

Both Feasts speak to us of Christ as the Light of the World whilst showing that human beings can live lives which are so focused on Him that they, too, shine as lights in the world, lighting paths for others to follow.

Now there’s a lot in this wonderful metaphor of light.

Human beings have always been fascinated by light: from tiny babies to seasoned astro-physicists, we are easily lured into whiling away our time contemplating the myriad ways light plays and dances. No wonder we have made such use of light as a metaphor for things that delight and please us.

And we marvel not only at light’s playfulness, but also at its power: from frenzied pagan sun-worshippers, to lethargic sun-bathers, we cannot help but be struck by the sheer brute energy of light.

No wonder we have made such use of light as a metaphor for power, strength and ascendancy.

We love the way that light can show us things, too: for, bemusingly perhaps, it is only in sensing, perceiving, seeing light, that we can “see” anything at all; we are such visual creatures that we sometimes hardly notice the ways in which we use metaphors of light to talk about truth and knowledge and understanding.

And if we stop to think about it, we can become aware that light is more than beautiful, and powerful, and useful; it is also beneficial, we might almost say benevolent, for it brings food and warmth, and so light’s metaphorical might reaches beyond the realms of truth and beauty and power into the sphere of the good and the gracious. By the same token, though, light’s power can be destructive; it pushes away darkness and can burn things clean away; and so metaphors of light can be used to describe correction, banishment and purification.

Ultimately, of course, light is the great source upon which all life on this planet is dependent. Little wonder that the sun has been revered as a god; and no wonder that theological and philosophical traditions alike have pictured God’s relationship to the universe in terms of the sun’s relationship to the earth.

All this and more is invoked when we describe God as the Light of the World; all this and more is intended when we declare that Christ is this self-same Light of the World; all this and more is suggested when we acknowledge the ways in which the Saints light up this dark and wintry world.

For, almost immediately after the Beatitudes read in today’s Gospel, Christ, the One we know to be the Light of World, tells his followers that they are the “light of the world”.

They – we – are called to reflect the light of God in such a way that any light that appears to come from us leads directly back to its Source.

Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

And this is what those who have been hailed as “Saints” have pre-eminently achieved.

Their rewards, we can be certain, are great; they are the blessings which are promised in the Beatitudes. But the costs, we must be clear, are also great, in worldly terms at least.

For those who shine in this way are not passive mirrors, unaltered by the light that reflects and deflects from them. Rather, they are torches which burn with a flame: a life lived as witness to Christ and to the Father, is a life ignited by the Holy Spirit; it is a life which burns with love of God and with God’s love for the world; it is a life which is given over, a life which is “spent”.

Nor is this burning always a safe, demure, carefully contained affair like some elegant Victorian spirit lamp, or an orderly sanctuary light. As the wild and contradictory lives of the Saints show, this is something rather more exciting. As the writer of the Book of Wisdom has it, the souls of the righteous will “run like sparks through the stubble” (see Wis. 3:1-9), their fire spreading like a contagion. To burn like this with the love of God is costly and infectious.

We cannot ignore the fact that the Beatitudes promise happiness and blessings to those who mourn, and lack, and thirst, and hunger, to those who do not insist on their rights or justice for themselves, to those who are hounded and persecuted, to those who hurt and suffer.

But nor can we ignore the fact that these blessings are not simply showered on all those who experience such difficulties.

It is not that in some strange, twisted way the desperate situations of bereavement, hunger, thirst, suffering or injustice are in any sense in themselves “good” or “desirable”.

No, these difficult circumstances are the opportunity for good; the promised blessings will be bestowed upon those who respond to adversity with God’s faith, hope and love in place of the world’s anger, despair and bitterness.

The happiness and blessings promised in the Beatitudes come, that is, to those who mourn what needs to be mourned; to those who seek what needs to be sought; to those who give what needs to be given; to those who sacrifice what needs to be sacrificed.

And so the Beatitudes lay out for us something like a charter for holiness, but this is not in terms of the necessary conditions for holiness to happen; nor even in terms of specific privileged actions to be named “holy”; rather this charter for holiness is couched in terms of a description of the character of holiness, harbouring at its heart an account of the ways in which a God-directed life will deal with life’s hardships.

A life lived as a torch burning for Christ in the world will have a particular direction: it will always be a life with a particular place in the Church; it will always be a life which locates itself in relation to God and the world, rather than simply in relation to itself; as such, it will always, therefore, be a life to which difficulties and hardships adhere. All the Saints endure suffering: they suffer with and for God’s world; they suffer with and for the Church; they suffer with and for Christ.

But in a life lived as a torch burning for Christ in the world, hardship is dealt with in certain ways and not others.

In the world around us today, there is great emotional, social and political capital to be won from clinging to and using “my hurt”. Indeed, such moves have become prevalent in the rhetoric of many of the ecclesial and theological debates which trouble us today.

But make no mistake: holiness is not to be found in licking our wounds or cherishing our sufferings for their own sake, as a means to gain leverage, self righteous or otherwise, over others. Such is the path of festering meanness and corrosion. If we only cling to suffering for its own sake, our arms will remain closed and unable to receive God’s good gifts.

The Saints do cherish their sufferings but only insofar as they are a true sharing in the suffering of Christ, with and for the world, born of his love which he has from, shares with and ever pours out to the Father; as such the Saints cherish their sufferings only insofar as they can lead to Christ.

Holiness is to be found in joining our response to the suffering which we experience and see around us with God’s response to suffering in the gifts of faith and hope and love. It is this which burns so brightly and ignites the lives of others.

On this Feast of All Saints, let us pray that our lives might be lit by the lives of the Saints, that we like them might burn in our times with Christ’s love as lights in the World, learning to count not the costs but the rewards, learning to respond with God to hardship and suffering with faith and hope and love; and let us pray that we might never extinguish the love which is growing in others, but rather that we, once lit, might run with the Saints like sparks through the stubble, igniting all around us with the love of God.