News Archive

Wednesday 3 November 2021

All Saints' Day: Made in Yorkshire


Here is Fr Richard's sermon from the feast of All Saints:

In Rome, in the year 610,  the old pagan temple, the Pantheon, sacred to all the gods of Rome, was consecrated as a church in honour of St Mary and the Martyrs. This took place on 13th May. It was, in a way, the definitive end of the old pagan gods. That became the feast day  of Our Lady and all the Martyrs. This was not merely replacing the old pagan gods. It  drove them out. The old gods were recognised as demons they were.

That feast was probably brought to England from Rome by St Egbert, who was bishop (and  the first Archbishop) of York. It is first recorded as being celebrated in the Cathedral in York in about AD 800, on 1st November, which was the Anglo-Saxon practice. So you heard it here first!

1st November was probably the day in northern Europe on which the gods and demons of winter were invoked for protection. So it became the day on which all the saints would be venerated, and their protection sought against the rigours of the northern European winter. It is why “Halloween” is about driving out the old demons.

Alcuin of York was St Egbert’s pupil – when Alcuin moved to the Emperor Charlemagne’s court he took the date with him and it spread to the whole Church. The Yorkshire All Saints' went global.

On All Saints', we celebrate the great multitude of holy men and women, those whom the Church has recognised and the vastly greater number whose names we do not know. Not just martyrs, but confessors. Changes in perception of sanctity and models of sanctity after Constantine. Monastic life, chaste life, the life dedicated to charity; patron saints for lawyers, barbers.. for old and young.. even Blessed Carlo Acutis, the 15 year old web designer known – according to Wikipedia – for his cheerfulness, computer skills and devotion to the Eucharist.

Sanctity is not a common feature that is shared by lots of people, like being right handed or having red hair. Sanctity, holiness, is being fully alive, as God created each thing uniquely to be. There are as many ways of being a saint as there are human beings.

There is a danger this can sound like that trite expression: “Be yourself”. But there is  a paradox at the heart of the Christian understanding of holiness. We can only really be ourselves, most authentically who we uniquely are, by conforming to Christ. St Paul said “It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.” This does not mean that St Paul’s individuality was extinguished but that in Christ it came to complete fruition.

Thomas Merton said to his novices at Gethsemane Abbey: “What you came here for is to become yourself, to discover your complete identity, to be you. But the catch is that of course our full identity as monks and Christians is Christ. It is Christ in each of us… I’ve got to become me in such a way that I am the Christ that can only be the Christ in me. There is a Louis Christ that must be brought into existence and hasn’t matured yet. It has a long way to go.”

We need the courage to let go of what might look as if it makes us special – a superiority based on our looks, or intelligence, or amazing skill in sport  – to attain that unique identity in Christ, which is beyond  rivalry and competition because it is always uniquely our own.

This is wonderful news for a society in which many people have insecure identities, and for whom celebrities are the only real people. Only real if on Instagram!  If only we could wear what they wear, eat the same food and have their hairstyle, then we would be real too! But these are the pseudo-identities of the market place, off the peg self images, illusions. Who wants off the peg when you can have tailor-made?

We celebrate the vast throng of saints today, each utterly different; each themselves by being one in Christ.

All Saints' Day is also the day on which we think of all the uncanonised saints there are, and especially those we have a personal devotion to. Some people we think ought to be canonised – we might think in York of Mary Ward. But also the holy, inspirational people we have known in our families, churches and communities, those who in our own estimation have gone straight to heaven when they died, saints totally unknown and unsung in the Church at large.

These are all the saints whose holiness in Christ we celebrate and give thanks for today; whose intercession we plead for; and whose example we strive to follow. While the weather on the 1st November can be a reminder that we struggle on “in the winter of our discontent.” But the saints remind us that each one of us is called to the kingdom of light, in the “glorious summer of the sons (and daughters) of York”.