Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Solemnity of All Saints: 2013 (Updated)

Behold a great multitude which no man can number . . . standing before the throne and before the Lamb

One of the many glories of Durham Cathedral, in whose shadow I lived for several years, is the great Neville Screen behind the high altar, given by John Lord Neville in 1372. It is one of the finest surviving examples of medieval English stone carving. But it ran afoul of the iconoclastic fury at the time of Reformation. The screen originally contained a hundred or so alabaster figures of the saints, each in its own Gothic niche. Now only the empty pedestals for the statues remain.

There was a plan at the end of the 19th century to restore the statues to the Neville Screen as a memorial to the most famous 19th Century Bishop of Durham, J.B. Lightfoot. But this was foiled by one of the Canons of the Cathedral, H.B. Tristam.

Canon Tristam had two and only two passions, Reformation religion and Ornithology, not necessarily in that order. The one passion he indulged by giving every missionary he met a small gun and instructions to shoot and return to him for stuffing any strange birds they might happen upon in the mission field. The other enthusiasm prompted him to say that, if the statues were restored to the Neville Screen,  he would the next time he was to preach read in its entirety the 16th Century Homily “Against the Peril of Idolatry and Superfluous  Decking of Churches”. Further he warned that he had read the homily to his wife the night before and it had taken an hour and a half.

The project was dropped immediately. Which only shows that Anglicans will do anything to avoid long sermons so I had better get on with this one.

It would be a much easier matter, if the 'the peril of idolatry' could be dealt with by simply rearranging the furniture in churches. Unfortunately the peril of idolatry involves rearranging the priorities of our souls. Our idols are not made of fragile alabaster but of our ambitions, our fears, our determination to be on-top and on-top of every situation and circumstance. The worst idol of all is the idol of me and I don't know about you but this idol is more often than not the idol I worship.

The Communion of Saints is as troublesome a part of the Christian religion in 21st Century as it was in the 16th and 19th Centuries. Because what we are acknowledging in the Creed of our baptism and when we join our voices with the whole company of heaven is that we are eternally tangled up in the messy and inconvenient and complicated business of other people’s lives and hopes and prayers. It would admittedly be much easier if God had set up things so that all we had to worry about was me and God without all the clutter of Church, Priest and Sacrament to get in the way. If we could clear away the crowd which throngs before the Throne and the Lamb as they always thronged him and got in the way when he walked the dirt roads of Palestine.

Jesus too is an iconoclast but the scope of his demolition is wide. As Fr. Von Balthasar put it:

“A communion of open hearts no longer preoccupied with the boundaries of ‘I’ and ‘thou’ since this dividing wall has been pulled down and the bastions once demolished will never be re-erected. Henceforth God’ salvation and his ultimate and conclusive love can be encountered only in the ‘we’”.

Jesus the God-Man has torn down the barrier between the two loves, God and neighbor.  

In the Beatitudes the two loves are wildly mixed  up:

            Blessed are those who have nothing but God

But also

            Blessed are those who mourn the dead

Blessed are those who are desperate that God’s righteousness should be realized

But also

            Blessed are those who show mercy

            Blessed are those whose hearts are set on God

But also

            Blessed are those who make peace among men

By his death and resurrection Jesus has torn down the barriers not only between God and man and those which divide human beings from each other but also the barrier between the living and the dead.

The bond of love is the only thing that lasts, that knows no bounds, that cannot be broken even by death. “Love is stronger than death” and the proof is in the empty tomb and the passion-scarred but glorified and risen body of Jesus.

The love of God and neighbor and the Beatitudes which join them together are not simply a program for making this world a better place, something provisional, temporary, a program for personal growth or social justice, although they are that. The Beatitudes are the program for eternity. We cannot graduate to a higher place  in which the rule of love no longer applies. The saints living and the saints departed, it makes no difference. For all and forever love of God and love of neighbor is binding. Nothing in heaven or earth can abolish that command. The standard of love, the rule of love, is pervasive and stretches out in all directions through space and time and beyond.

Because they are 'we' and not just 'me' Christians in obedience to the command of the two loves have ever prayed  for those ‘who have gone before us with the mark faith and rest in sleep’.  And because the saints too are bound by this same command to love God and neighbor, “we venerate the memory, first, of the glorious ever Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord Jesus Christ: as also of blessed Joseph, her most chaste spouse, and the blessed Apostles and Martyrs, that by their merits and prayers we may in all things be defended with the help of God’s protection.”

This is our  song, the song  of the whole Church militant, expectant and triumphant: ora pro nobis – ‘pray for us’.

Behold a great multitude which no man can number . . . standing before the throne and before the Lamb


Anonymous said...

Fr. Allen, 1) Canon Tristam's wife must have been a patient woman; 2) "Lord, I wanna be a Christian inna my heart." Thanks for your thoughts; inspiring. ...Inundated by work-work and grad work. It gets like this as the semester progresses w/add'l requirements. I hope to be there soon. Respectfully and best, Brent

Anonymous said...

Fr. Allen, interesting to me that you quote Von Balthasar; didn't realize your read him. I'm considering writing my grad thesis on him but not yet firm. he's an underappreciated theologian. Thanks for quoting. Respectfully, Brent