Sermon preached on All Saints' Day, Sunday, 1 November 2015, by the Revd James Milne, Minor Canon and Sacrist

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12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached on All Saints' Day, Sunday, 1 November 2015, by the Revd James Milne, Minor Canon and Sacrist

The Revd James Milne considers martyrs, saints and a lively children's party.

Some years ago I organised for the children of the parish in which I was serving an All Saints’ Day Party. The children were encouraged to come dressed as their favourite saint with some emblem that spoke of their holiness. The evening, I hoped, would be more uplifting than the rather gruesome Halloween evenings with which they were more familiar. It would, I felt, be more pleasing to greet, at the door of the parish hall, Saint Francis, The Venerable Bede, Florence Nightingale or Saint Cecilia, than a host of ghouls and goblins.

Much to the surprise of my more sceptical parishioners the party was enthusiastically supported by the younger members of the Church, but few of the saints I had expected came to my party. Saint George and Joan of Arc both appeared with impressive swords and promptly challenged each other to a dual. Saint Stephen appeared with a bag of papier-mâché stones with which he wreaked his revenge on a crowd of elderly helpers. Saint Sebastian, dripping in fake blood, did likewise, with a bow and arrow set. There was one child dressed as Saint Francis, but he came with his pet Alsatian, who gave a convincing performance as the wolf of Gubbio, before Saint Francis tamed him.

Much to my surprise, my All Saints’ Day party was judged, by my superiors, to have been more riotous and bloodthirsty, than the Halloween parties it replaced, and it was never repeated. I cannot help but feel, however, that those who, centuries ago, conceived of this day in honour of all the saints would have approved of such a spirited and realistic celebration. 

It was customary in the early church for local Christians to gather at the gravesides of those who had been martyred, to celebrate the Eucharist and to read aloud graphic accounts of their deaths. In due course, calendars recording the names of the martyrs and the dates of their executions were drawn up, allowing for a wider commemoration within the Christian community.

In the fifth century, however, mindful that the names of many martyrs had not been recorded, there arose a feast for all known and unknown martyrs. This feast, celebrated on the Friday after Easter in the Syrian liturgy and on the octave day of Pentecost in the Byzantine liturgy, is the origin of the Feast of All Saints as we now know it.

Though this great festival now celebrates the lives of all saints, whether martyrs or not, our second reading from the Gospel of Luke reminds us that it came to birth, like the Church itself, in an age of persecution. The disciples of Jesus were looking for fame and glory, but Jesus tells them plainly: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

It is our first reading, however, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which speaks of the transformation of the desert and those who inhabit it, that reminds us what we celebrate this day. Those who went to the graves of the martyrs on the anniversaries of their deaths, who read aloud vivid accounts of their executions, and even slept beside their graves, did so, not because they wished to revel in the manner of their dying, but because they believed that they who had lost their lives professing Jesus Christ as Lord, had, as he promised, gained new and glorious lives with God. The earthly bodies that they had freely offered had, like the bread and wine of the Eucharist, been transformed into something heavenly, living and glorious.

We may not hallow the bones of the martyrs as did our forebears but at the heart our faith lies the great and glorious truth that God can, through his holy people, begin to redeem the tragedies and disasters of our age. As the eyes of the blind are opened and the ears of deaf unstopped; as the lame leap like a dear and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy so God does wonderful and extraordinary things in every age through lives lived faithfully and lovingly.

Thus, may we, inspired by the saints of old, pledge ourselves to be the people through whom God does marvellous things in our day and through whom our world, devastated by war, injustice and poverty, is transformed.