It is November. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is a dead month. Dead leaves are being stripped off the trees; the darkness seems all-pervasive; and November contains, of course, Weeks 5 and 6 of Michaelmas Term, when it is obligatory for all undergraduates to experience those 5th (or, according to taste, 6th) week blues, something akin to The Wall that Marathon runners hit at about 18 miles. This is the moment when students realise that there is absolutely no hope of getting to the end of term, or of coping with the absurd demands of their tutor. For these, and other reasons, we feel ourselves in this month surrounded by death, bereft of hope and meaning. So we celebrate All Souls Day, to pray for the dead, on November 2nd; and it is a healthy tradition within the Catholic church, to pray all month long for those who have died. Next weekend we shall have Remembrance Sunday, to remember and honour those who have died in war. And, in Halloween, we have an ancient ritual for keeping the darkness at bay. Which is why on Friday evening, if you remember, you were rushing about Oxford in those strange costumes and those odd masks. And today, celebrating the feast of All Saints, the Church wisely gives us a glimpse of that that hope and meaning that seems so far off in dark November.
For the saints whom we recall today are not those plaster statues of doubtful artistic merit that you sometimes find in Catholic churches, wearing those unattractively pious expressions. Saints are flesh and blood human beings, with flaws and frailties of their own, who, on their journey to God have their own share of battles to fight, and have marched, or limped, or crawled, to the end, and, in the process, have given us a glimpse of God, and the consequent recognition that there is hope and meaning in life.
Consider the readings that you have just heard. The first was probably written for that extraordinarily difficult time in Israel’s history, when the exiles came back from Babylon to Jerusalem; Jerusalem had functioned for them, all during that half-century of being away, like the thought of an oasis in the desert (or of home after a term at boarding school or university). And they get there, and find that no one wants to know. They are not welcome, nor are people queuing up to restore to them the property that had once been theirs. The city’s infrastructure was a shambles; sin and corruption were rife. There was no Temple any more, and no enthusiasm to rebuild one. (I was in South Africa in July and August this year, and found something of these reactions among those who had most looked forward to the aftermath of the first democratic elections in that country, in April 1994). Where, they must have asked, is all this hope and meaning? To those baffled returnees, the prophet offers a wonderful vision of the world that God is creating: Jerusalem is to be a ‘joy’; instead of a shambles, it will become a place where there is no premature death; and instead of a desert, the prophet depicts a remarkable picture of unexpected fertility, a place where the ‘wolf and the lamb will lie down together’, and, beyond all belief, but still capable of inspiring and moving us, the affirmation that ‘none shall hurt or destroy on my holy mountain, says the Lord’. We notice, of course, that at this stage in Israel’s development there is no hope at all of Resurrection; but there is, after all, meaning and hope, in the view of this unnamed prophet. It is a glimpse of God at work in our world; and that glimpse is what saints, the saints whom we recall today, give to us.
The second reading comes from the Letter to the Hebrews, which has sometimes been attributed to Paul; but we shall do well to listen to Origen, the great Greek biblical scholar, who said, ‘Who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, only God knows’. Certainly, the author had an extraordinary theological mind, one of the best in the New Testament; and we listen with awe as he reflects on the difficulties of being Church in the world today, and on the awkward question of who Jesus is, a question that he resolves by saying, in effect, that ‘Jesus is the Real Thing’. This is an appropriate enough reading for All Saints, because it offers a list of our forebears, who gave us the glimpse of God that saints can present. And it may help you to consider that there were some pretty ropey characters among the names he mentions: have a look, if you have nothing better to do this evening, at the doings of Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah in your favourite translation of the Book of Judges. And reflect also on some of David’s less appealing characteristics, for his was another of the names listed there. Nevertheless, these somewhat hairy individuals did extraordinary things under God, and so can you (although I have to urge that, at any rate just for the moment, you don’t try closing the mouths of lions or being sawn in two). And, says the author, ‘they were stoned’. I suppose that in this company I do not have to make it clear that this term is used literally, not in the vernacular sense which you saw exemplified last night.
Notice, however, that even though these characters have given us a glimpse of the vision of hope and meaning that God has on offer for us, they have not quite made it. What you and I need, to complete the picture, is the one whom the author describes as ‘Jesus, pioneer and perfecter of our faith’. Jesus, you remember, is for this author ‘The Real Thing’, the one who experienced the hopelessness and meaninglessness of the Cross, and is still God’s ultimate affirmation that there is hope and meaning, even in November. So even on this dark and damp evening you should be glimpsing the vision of a promise that hovers just around the corner.
How, then, can this work in your life? Let me speak of three events that took place this week that gave rise to a vision of meaning and hopefulness.
On Monday, we buried a member of our community. He was 92 and had heart problems, so his death, which happened quietly in his armchair, was not a surprise; but it was something of a shock. He was an old man, very deaf, but startlingly observant, who saw everything, and gazed upon it with a patrician benevolence and a deft touch of humour. I was enormously impressed with the range of people whom he drew to his funeral, the more so in that much of his working life had been spent in Africa, so that a good many of his friends could not be with us on the day. In particular, I was touched by the grief of two young men, brothers in their 20s, who had flown in from Boston and from Kathmandu in order to be there. Because, you see, he had given them a glimpse of hope and meaning. And that is how God uses us human beings.
Then on Wednesday, we started to hear of two murders, of Jesuits, who belonged to the tiny Jesuit community in Moscow. It did not attract much attention in this country, but it was on the various Jesuit networks, and, in particular, we at Campion Hall got to hear a good deal about it because one of our current students is a member of that Moscow community. So it came home very much to us, as our brother spoke of what had happened: the two had been quite brutally murdered, 20 hours apart, in the apartment that was their community residence, by a killer who apparently waited in the apartment, having killed the first, for the second one to appear. Where, you ask, is the meaning and hope in all that? Simply, I think, in the fact that that the community will continue its work, and will not think of ceasing to do so. There is a glimpse of God, even in those circumstances.
Finally, yesterday, I was in Newcastle, at a meeting, a part of which took the form of a religious service for sick people and those who care for them. Before the service started, I overheard a wife talking about how difficult and demanding her wheelchair-bound husband was being. Then, at the Lord’s Prayer, I happened to see her, standing by his wheelchair, unobtrusively, but with enormous tenderness, place her hands on his. That was a glimpse of God, of hope and meaning.
And what of you? There are people in your life who speak to you of God. And they may be unexpected people, for all of us, including your tutor and the homeless man whom you hurried past yesterday because he looked a bit unkempt, all of us are saints made in God’s image and likeness; and all of us offer a glimpse of the hope and meaning that are found only in God and in Jesus.
And do you see what that means? It means that you too are saints, made in God’s image, and that you too can give people a glimpse of that God. So today is your feast, and you must be prepared to leave this Evensong ready to radiate your God-likeness, and so to proclaim to a dark November world that there is meaning and hope in life. It is a great invitation that the Lord lays before you this evening.
Rev’d Nicholas King, Lecturer in New Testament at Worcester College
2nd November 2008