Sermon for All Saints’ Day – High Mass Thursday 1 November 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Peter Groves, St Mary Magdalen’s Oxford
All Saints Day 2018
Give thanks to the Father who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light
For me, it’s that time of year again. Not the fuss over Halloween, nor the end of British Summer Time, nor the autumn chill, nor the impending transformation of every retail outlet in the country into a hideous riot of tinsel and tacky decorations. For me, it’s the time of year in Oxford when we begin the process we call “Admissions”. There is a lot of unnecessary mystique about this phenomenon, encouraged not least by the media, but while less enigmatic than the Daily Mail would have you think, it is also more complicated, involving – quite rightly – enormous amounts of preparation and analysis by those involved in selection, analysis underwritten by very extensive data and evidence and algorithms provided by UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, and by the university’s large and dedicated team.
One of the joys, or occasionally sorrows, comes in reading applicants’ personal statements, the section of their UCAS form where they describe what they want to study, why they want to study it, and why we ought to admit them. Fortunately, rigorous data protection rules prevent me sharing these details, otherwise we could enjoy a very peculiar form of theological bingo, gaining points for the number of mentions of the problem of evil, or Martin Luther, or sexual behaviour, or Richard Dawkins or any combination of the above. Indeed, some temptingly bizarre combinations do present themselves.
One common allusion among hopeful sixth formers is to Plato’s allegory of the Cave, one of the most famous tales in the Western canon. A dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon in Book VII of the Republic, it compares the world of knowledge and learning to the visual field of prisoners in an underground cave. Facing the wall, with their backs to the entrance, they are chained and unable to move even their heads. Behind them, though they do not know it, is the world of light. At the entrance to the cave is a fire. All they can see are the dancing shadows on the wall ahead of them. When sounds echo from that wall, they not unreasonably suppose them to be the voices of the shadows.
Suppose they are released from their chains, able to turn round, approach the light, and leave the cave. What will they see? At first, they will see almost nothing. Their eyes will be dazzled with the glare, and the pain that it causes will make them shut those eyes, and turn back to the comfort of the darkness they knew, where at least they can see the moving shadows. If at this point somebody suggests that they can see better looking towards the light they are likely to dismiss the notion. Gradually, of course, they will be able to see. If asked to give an order to the things they can see most clearly, they will begin with the shadows, move on to the reflections and only then proceed to the lights of moon, stars and sun.
Our first reading, from Revelation, told of the heavenly city, coming out of heaven from God. The epistle to the Hebrews, contrasts the mountain of the law, its fire blazing amidst the darkness, with that heavenly Jerusalem which is Mount Zion, not Mount Sinai. When Colossians exhorts us to give thanks to “the Father who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light”, we naturally think of that heavenly city, depicted so strikingly in the magnificent interior of this church. It is perfectly natural to think of light, in scripture, as an unequivocal good. The first thing which God creates, the image both of Christ and of his church, the source of discipleship as we are drawn more closely to the truth by following after the light of the world. But of course light, in our experience, has many contexts and takes many forms. If I sit in a darkened room for any length of time, and you then come in and switch on a powerful overhead light, I will not find the initial experience a pleasant one. I will need to protect my eyes, which have become too accustomed to the gloom.
Those who feel their way out of Plato’s cave are protecting and adjusting their vision. The light is a gift to their quest for truth, but a gift which must be enjoyed in the knowledge that their vision is limited, it needs looking after, it needs to be managed. Sometimes the ignorance which darkness provides can seem like a blessing. If the dark room in which I am sitting is filthy with dirt, then the darkness is protecting me from discovering something I might not wish to know. The light, when it comes, might seem to make things worse: before illumination, I didn’t realise quite how grim was my situation. Shining a light into the darkness entails my recognizing just how bad things are. Now, in the longer term of course, that recognition is a positive thing, the first step in the process of improvement. Once I realise that the room is filthy I can get on with cleaning it up. What at first seems to be negative, is the basis for genuine progress. Readers of St Paul might recognize this line of argument as echoing the seventh chapter of the Letter to the Romans.
But light does not illuminate for its own sake. It illuminates something. There is a situation, a circumstance, on which light is being shed. And the details which light reveals are then, themselves, testimony to the light. The gradual visual progress made by those who come out of the cave is brought home to them not by staring at the source of the light itself – since that would blind them – but by delineating, by making out the particular objects of their vision – the first shadows, then objects, then heavenly bodies and so on.
Hence the saints and their heavenly city. The saints are in light not because of what they see or have seen, but because of what we see when we look at them. The light in which they are bathed enables us to identify and recognize them, to see in them what it means to be redeemed, what it means to live as one who is focused on following Christ. The vision with which they present us has a double purpose: it exemplifies discipleship, illuminating for us what holiness looks like, what the love of God entails when fully embraced by a human being; but it also points us beyond itself, reminding us that we can see the saints because of the light which is given both to us and to them, they reflect the greater light which is the love of God himself, the unapproachable light of the creator.
And because their example is one of discipleship, of learning, of following, the vision they present is far from static. Our gospel reading presented the Beatitudes, and we misunderstand those blessings if we think that they offer a timeless picture of precisely what action to perform. Rather, they present a pattern of life being lived, a process of conversion of turning ever more closely towards the vision of God himself. The divine light towards which the saints are turning is the light we see in them, so that the example to which all the blessed aspire is nothing other than the example of complete self-emptying, of utter humiliation and degradation in the passion of Jesus Christ.
The fullness of Christian light and life is found in the imitation of the one who incarnates the creative love of God, and that fullness means, paradoxically, an emptying of all we thought we knew. To be holy, to be a saint, to be Christ like, is to mourn, to be merciful, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to seek and strive for peace, to suffer and rejoice in persecution. That is what it means to be happy, to be blessed, to be following in the footsteps of the one who leads us to the fullest glory of heaven by not by filling himself with worldly success but by emptying himself of his divine life.
There is no more powerful vision, there is no stronger, more dazzling source of light. Small wonder we struggle with our calling to be Christ-like, small wonder that we are bewildered and blundering in our attempts to love. The saints are there to help us, by their prayers, by their example, by the hope they set before us. The saints dwell forever in light, so that that light – given and poured out for you and for me – can guide our eyes and our steps to itself.