Homily delivered on the External Solemnity of All Saints, 2014 at Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois.
“Almighty God,” our Collect begins, “you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.“
It has been said, not altogether inaccurately, that if you want to know what Anglicans believe in terms of doctrine, look at their Collects. At each Mass, the appointed Collect receives pride of place at the culmination of the Entrance Rite, which is what brings us back together, after a week of ministry according to our gifts and circumstance. The Collects are arranged in a very intentional way to correlate with the turning of the liturgical year. And in terms of their doctrinal content, the Collects express doctrine not in a straight, you might say, dry academic way. Doctrine rather is expressed in the Collects in a way that integrates with Prayer.
For those of you who have spent any time devotionally reading the works of Saint Anselm, who has a fundamental role in English, and hence Anglican, spirituality, you might notice a similarity between the style of Anselm and the style of our Collects. It is not, here is some doctrine and dogma, and over here is some high devotional words. No, in Anselm, in our Collects, and I would say in authentic Anglican life, there is an integral balance, in the Benedictine sense, of intellect and action, head and feeling, study and wilderness, dogma and love.
So what of this Collect, appointed for this, the Solemnity of All Saints? Can we look to this Collect for insight into what Anglicans believe about this feast? I believe we can. And I would go further than that — for what we have in this Collect is not only an authentically Anglican view of All Saints, but one deeply Catholic because it expresses Remnant theology. So let’s have a look.
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. So, we talk in this parish about Catholic vision, and every once in a while, as a counter example of what is not Catholic, every once in a while we talk a little bit about something called Calvinism. Perhaps you have heard of it? Well in this “adoration” part of the Collect, where God’s nature or acts are praised in pure adoration of who He is, there is this word “elect” that is of course something of a buzz word in the Catholic-Calvinist debate. Often it means predestination. Some people are predestined, according to historical Calvinism, as God’s “elect” to be saved; and others predestined to be damned. It is a nasty bit of theology, and the Catholic faith holds this to be heretical. Yet why, then, is the word “elect” part of our Collect? If our Collects express our doctrine, and this Collect says “elect”, are we Calvinist in our doctrine?
Not at all. The word “elect” is there because it has everything to do with the Saints. It has everything to do with those who we already call Saints, those treasure-troves of holiness; and with those yet to be Saints, those departed who have proceeded to the next stage of their lives, the intermediate state of Paradise, to further complete their journey of theosis, of being reforming into likeness of Jesus. And it has everything to do with Saints yet born, and yet to die. Because being a Saint is a vocation. Saints are called by God. As Martin Thornton wrote (in The Function of Theology), God makes Himself present — often confronting the person with the resurrected Christ — which issues in personal dialogue or “colloquy”, which is what is meant generally by “mental prayer”, an interchange between minds: the mind of the saint and the mind of Christ. This is how the “voice of God” is “heard” by the spiritual ears of the dedicated mind. This is an existential way of understanding what it means to be “elect.” It means being called by God.
You have knit together your elect. All of this is of God’s initiative, or “prevenient Grace.” Certainly an archetype of all this is Abraham, called by God. This was a calling that tested his resolve, tested his faith, even to the point of sacrificing Isaac his son. Abraham indeed was confronted in the same ways Saints are confronted — completely, demanding the whole person, not just the mind, the emotions, or the body, but all of it, for prayer is loving God in a total way.
You have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. This means, simply, the Church. It expresses our baptismal promise in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints.” That is not two statements, but one expressed two ways. For the holy Catholic Church IS the communion of saints. Those saints of the past, of the present, and of the future. Saints in this sense includes the Angels, and pride of place goes to Our Lady, Blessed Mary Holy Mother of God, Lady of all Angels and Saints. And the Church of Saints, in all its glorious diversity of expression, of gifts, of time and place — all of it is expression of God, an expression of the mystical Body of Jesus Christ.
Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living. Again, the ability to follow comes from God’s action, prevenient grace. And we are to follow the Saints. We are to learn about them. They are alive. “Communion of Saints” is also a statement about their present condition. They join us at the altar, they watch over us, and make themselves available to us. It is a very good form of devotional meditation to imagine what their lives were like. We often have only scanty details of history about them. This can also be a gift, for it allows us to more easily to see our lives in theirs, and their lives in ours.
The saints, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture.” He continues, “The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out.” That is another way of saying that the lives of saints — both for their heroism and their failures — mediate what Scripture authoritatively points toward: the activity of God, his divine providence.
Saints also point to the proper interpretation of the Beatitudes. Those who are blessed — are poor in spirit, mourn, are meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful, pure in heart, are peacemakers, and are persecuted for righteousness sake. This list of terms might sound imposing — and in truth, the responsibilities of the Christian life are imposing from one perspective — but as Thornton wrote (in English Spirituality) this list can be described as the following qualities: “poor in spirit” means humility, sensitive to spiritual things; “mourn” means being sympathetic and penitent, “meek” means understanding the joy of life, “hunger and thirst for righteousness” means “craving progress toward union with God”, “merciful” means compassionate, “pure in heart” means constant in religious participation (Office, Mass, Devotion), “peacemaker” means prudent in searching for harmony among men; and “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” means fortitude amid the battle against sin.
Forgive me for breezing through these, for each of them is enough food for a homily itself. But I am just touching on them now to point out that the life of the Saint, which is the life the Christian faith calls people toward, involves qualities and characteristics that are not alien to our everyday experience. All we can do, all Saints every did, all God asks, is to respond to God as his activity is made available to our senses and our mind — according to the gifts and talents we are given by God. Not some other gifts and talents, but those we have, used not for selfish interest but rather for the greater glory of God.
That we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you. Listen to these words! Ineffable joys — joy beyond our ability to imagine or conceive. Prepared by God — because he wants us, yearns for us, fundamentally desires us. Prepared for those who truly love you. This is what Remnant really means. The faithful Remnant are those called by God, who respond to God’s calling, and by his help learn to truly Love him in all moments and activities of their being, beginning in this life and continuing to the next. The Saints, and sainthood whether known officially or unknown, is what we mean by “faithful Remnant.” The Beatitudes are not just qualities of holiness. They are qualities of Jesus himself, qualities in their perfect form, yet available to us by the grace of God wherever we happen to be in our journey. The Beatitudes are a description of the Remnant — those called to fully live out the ministry initiated by Jesus himself — to live out and perpetuate Jesus whether in a monastic community or in a secular community such as Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois.
And it is a life built on sacramentality or Catholic imagination, the Sacraments themselves, built on absorbing Scriptural insight, built on joy, built on obedience, built on community. And, fundamentally, built on love.
O all ye Saints of the holy Catholic Church — O ye holy Men and Women — pray for us.