One, but never alone

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints 2020, preached at the church of the Holy Angels, Hoar Cross

Ut unum sint: may they be one. Not words from today’s readings, but from the same school of S John from whose Revelation and First Epistle we have just heard, guiding us towards the Gospel, the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Words which help us to hear more clearly what both Ss John and Matthew heard spoken by the Divine Word who lived among them, and whom they loved and knew: words from his final prayer, just before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Ut unum sint: may they be one.

S John’s Revelation echoes that of the prophets before him, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, in those prophecies we hear every year in the run up to Christmas: that Pentecostal vision of a great and uncountable multitude from every race and nation and language, all gathered before God. It is a message of universality, that God desires not only his chosen people, the Jews, but through them, all people to come to him in worship and be one with him at the end of time. But Our Lord’s words, ut unum sint, are not exhausted by a diversity and inclusion agenda. Nor is it enough to take them, as they are so often taken, as an ”ecumenical matter,” as though Our Lord is making a pragmatic call for all Christians to submit to any one ecclesiastical authority. Not that I am excluding either of these senses as a possibility: we may well hear Our Lord’s words calling the whole world to unify as one people in one Church. But however desirable this kind of unity may be – that is to say, unity in this world – it is not enough.

Our Lord prays for much more than any unity this world can offer, more than any union of nations or of creeds:

That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.

That they may be one, even as we are one: I in them and thou in me.

That they may be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.

The very night that Our Lord offers himself as both priest and victim, he prays that this sacrifice would bring his followers into Communion not only with one another, but into that same, utter Communion with the Father which he alone can know, as the pre-existent Word and Wisdom of God, who is with God and is God.

We know that if we look directly at the sun, we will go blind: still less can the eyes of our souls gaze at the Divine Glory, the uncreated radiance of God, without being burnt out completely. No mortal priest can stare into the Divine. Even Moses himself had to turn his face from the Lord’s Presence or die. The world hath not known thee: but I have known thee. Only God can contemplate God, for only God is perfect. Yet it is for our perfection that Our Lord continues his prayer: that they may be made perfect in one. That, in words from the Sermon on the Mount, we may be made perfect as God is perfect. That we may know what we cannot know, see what we cannot see.

Only God can know God. So, the Word is made flesh, and God becomes human, that humans might become God. And here is the more profound significance of ut unum sint: the saints are those who have, indeed, become one with God. The Feast of All Saints is more than a day when we remember the saints, more even than a day when we ask their prayers. Both are of great value: the examples of the saints are worth marking and emulating, their prayers are efficacious because they are so much closer to God than we are, and so much more consistently so. But there is no point at all in remembering or invoking the saints if we do not seek the highest good, which to become saints ourselves. They are guides and helpers along that way, or they are nothing. To be a saint is to be One: one through Christ Our Lord with God who is One, in whom is no division, but absolute simplicity.

So how? What is the way to sainthood, to oneness with God? The answer is given in the Beatitudes, that Gospel passage from Matthew, to those who have the key to read it. The key is Christ himself, who is the Way. It begins with poverty: poverty, that is, of spirit. Our Lord is not sentimentalising the plight of those who are materially poor. Rather, he is calling for us to develop an inner poverty, a state where we rely on nothing in this world, where we account all that we have and all that we are, even our very selves, as nothing. To be rich is not a matter of how much one has. It is a matter of how much one wants. If you want nothing more, if you are content with your inner poverty, then you are rich indeed: and it is only with this inner poverty that you come to realise the greatest gift of all, which is God’s gift of his self within you. Spiritual poverty is mourning, repentence, hunger for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, yielding the self to the point of persecution: for in that poverty, one becomes like Christ himself, who did not cling to equality with the Father but emptied himself of his glory, taking the form of a slave, and so manifested the overflowing generosity and wealth of God, that all-consuming, burning fire of love.

I cannot achieve oneness with God. I can only offer myself in poverty, like Our Blessed Lady and chief of the saints, that his oneness may be born in me. That is what I try to do every time the altar is set and the offerings are presented: I offer myself. It is what I do when I offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, knowing that it is never me making the offering, an unworthy vessel, but always Christ within me, true priest and victim. And when I receive Him in Communion, I pray that I may know that he dwells in me and I in him, and that we may be One.

Nor can I hope to become one with God alone, in some isolated flight of mystic fancy. As we face another month of church closure, a month without mass, this matters. The saints did not become one with God through a computer screen locked away at home. They became one with God through one another – there is no love of God without love of neighbour – and they became one with God through the means which God himself had given them, through the Apostles, the night before he died. God gives himself to us in the holy sacrifice of the mass. Saints and martyrs died to preserve this truth. The Roman Catholic bishops have already responded to the Government by pointing out that our churches are more Covid secure than supermarkets or schools, and asked for evidence that stopping Sunday worship will have any effect on the spread of the virus. We have yet to see whether the bishops of the Church of England will likewise live up to the example of the Apostles, saints and martyrs, of whom they are the successors and whose faith they are charged to guard: whether, in the end, they count as more “essential” the daily bread which fills the belly, or the daily bread which saves from sin and gives the medicine of eternal life.

Be that as it may, we need to prepare for a spiritual lock-down. As things stand, you will not be able to attend mass. We priests will continue to offer it, not because we are glutting ourselves on the Sacrament while the laity go hungry, but to offer the sacrifice on your behalf as best we can. Your job is to continue firm in both prayer and in neighbourly love: keep making that offering to God, and we will keep offering your work and prayers up at the altar. Use the Prayer Book or online devotions for Morning and Evening Prayer; learn the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer and spent time in silent meditation; read the Holy Scriptures. Mark Sundays, holy days, Remembrance Sunday at home. Email or call any of the clergy for advice on prayer. Stay firm in the faith, and offer yourself to God, and his unifying work will continue, the angels will still lift us up to join Our Blessed Lady and all the saints in blessed Communion, ut unum simus: that we may be one.