All Saints

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, October 30, 2016 - 9:30am

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

 

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One of the great besetting evils of our age, perhaps the great besetting evil, is loneliness. Here in the western world especially, where we are so fortunate in so many ways, so rich in material wealth and physical wellbeing; where we have a standard of living unheard-of in times past, and beyond the imagining of much of the world’s population, and where, ironically, we have means of communication which were the stuff of fantasy only a generation ago, we are nevertheless uniquely but profoundly alone, and isolated, atomised and unitary.

 

The places where we live, for example, have ceased to be the place where many of us seek our community. An improvement in transport and communication has enabled us to stretch friendships across vast distances, and build communities based upon shared interests or similar backgrounds. We don't necessarily find our best friends in the houses along our street, but we call them up, or drive away to see them at the weekend.

This is no bad thing in itself, indeed it’s a blessing that we can do this, but it does mean that we are not necessarily invested in the people who are physically closest to us, and that it is possible for us to create little ghettos for ourselves in which we never exchange views with those who hold opinions different from our own.

 

Ironically, were we to look into the writings of the Desert Fathers, the great pioneers of monasticism, we would find that, for them, the great advantage of living together was the friction created by difference.

It is by rubbing up against others, they argued, by feeling the challenge of their otherness, that we come to know ourselves, and, what is more, come to see the presence of God at work within our brothers and sisters. If there is no friction; If we always encounter other on our own terms, then all we ever encounter is a comforting reflection of ourselves, and not the image of God made manifest in our neighbour.

 

In a society that fetishises individualism, and the fulfilment of our personal goals and ambitions, it is easy to lose sight of our need for others: That we do not live as islands, but are by turns enriched and diminished by the lives of those around us.

 

The Christian Church is called to be the antithesis of this lonely, solipsistic, existence. To be a Christian is to belong, but not as we might belong to a club or association, not to be locked into an echo chamber of received opinion. Rather, by baptism we belong to Christ as arms and legs and mouth and hands belong to a body - separate and different in use and function, but connected in a unified purpose, and entirely dependent on one another.

 

One charming expression of this is the celebration of Patron Saints. There is often a quirky irony to their patronage which lends a certain charm.

St Clare, for example, is a favourite. The story goes that…

 

One Christmas Eve, Clare was so ill she could not leave her bed to attend Midnight Mass. After all the nuns had left for the chapel, Clare sighed and said, “Look, Lord God, I have been left here alone with you.” At that moment, she had a vision of the Mass. Not only could she see what was happening in the distant church, but she could also hear the organ music and the singing as clearly as if she were present.

 

As a consequence, she was later made the patron saint of television. 

Or how about St Barbara, who was martyred by her pagan husband, who in turn was struck down by a heavenly lightning bolt? She was to become the patron saint of fireworks and artillery.

 

Now, we may smirk at such attributions, but we would be mistaken to assume that they are simply the pious imaginings of those simple folk who suppose that the heavenly realm is organised into some sort celestial Civil Service, with responsibility shared out among its blessed inhabitants.

 

No, I think what is signalled here is far more significant. Above all else, the idea of saintly patronage points to the kinship we share with all God’s people, living and departed, with all the saints. How our salvation is knit with theirs, just as it is with each other. That we depend on the saints for prayer, as much as on the person next to us.

 

For this reason we express our unity whenever we come together in Communion. The sacrament of the Eucharist expresses the presence of Christ in the gathered People of God. When we come together, and share afresh in Christ’s sacrifice, we kneel beside people who are different from us. Not just those in the pews here in St Mary’s, but everywhere that Christ’s command ‘Do this’ is obeyed, from the Vatican to the favelas of Brazil, from Winchester Cathedral to St Apolo’s Katakala. Each of us different, all of us essential, all of us invited into an intimate relationship as children of the same Father.

 

And today especially we remember that we are never alone. That the Church Militant, those of us busy here about Christ’s work, are always joined in prayer by the Church Triumphant, those who have gone before us in faith, and rejoice now in the presence of God. If to share communion with one another is to step into the eternal life of God, then we are unified also with those who have passed through death, and live with him now forever.

 

When we read in the Gospel of Matthew, the words, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, I think it speaks profoundly into the loneliness of modern existence. 

To be poor in spirit is to be empty before God. 

Is to know our need of God. 

Is to recognise that we are not self-sufficient, and that we cannot work out our salvation alone. We are invited instead to be saints. To be clay vessels filled with the wine of God’s kingdom. To be brothers and sisters in one family, and engaged in a shared endeavour that we cannot complete without one another. Those past, those present, those yet to come.