The Ordinary Extra-Ordinary

The Ordinary Extra-Ordinary

Solemnity of All Saints. Fr Peter Harries on all those individual men and women who are not formally recognised by the Church as ‘Saints’.

All Saints is the feast of the ordinary saints of the church, the huge number, impossible to count of every nation, race, tribe and language.

It is the feast of the mums and dads who have been gentle and merciful. It is the feast of the grandparents and neighbours who have mourned and been pure in heart. It is the feast of the children and young people who have been peacemakers and thirsted for what is right. It is the feast of those who have mourned and those who have been persecuted in the cause of right. We remember the ordinary Christian people who have been extra-ordinary.

This feast is not about remembering all the canonised and beatified Saints of the Church that have not got on the general calendar. It is primarily not about obscure Roman martyrs before the Emperor Constantine’s time, nor mystic medieval women whose memory has always been confined to their home village.

It is about those who are not formally recognised by the Church. Some of them will be remembered as kind old relatives, or as neighbours who were always there and for whom nothing was too much trouble.

Others we will have met but we never realised the depth of their gentle and merciful love. It is a feast of the peasants and the plumbers, the child-minders and the children, not the rulers and important ecclesiastics.

All Saints is a sign of hope that heaven is full. The Church is not a small isolated band of eccentrics, but a communion of women and men united in faith, hope and charity. All Saints is a sign of faith in the forgiveness of sins. Heaven will be full of prostitutes and lots of thieves, who have repented. Hope is trust in God and the goodness of creation.

Heaven is full of the people referred to as ‘the poor’ in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel, people who quietly trust God whatever war, disease or famine happen along. Love is shown to neighbour whatever the colour of their skin or their legal status. I expect heaven to be full of people who washed their sick neighbour’s clothes or gave a cup of tea to their bereaved neighbour.

This feast is about heaven being for ordinary, normal people, not for a carefully self-selected holy huddle of like-minded bores. The saints are people who are able to love their neighbours as themselves.

In the gospel Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan who comes to aid a Jew. The hated outsider is the one who loves his neighbour.

With the current wars and international tensions, who are the people today whom we fail to treat as neighbours? Do we really hunger and thirst for what is right and just for the people of Afghanistan or Somalia? Do we want mercy shown to prisoners or migrant workers without proper papers? Or do we just listen to politicians and the popular press?

When we seek mercy for others we will be despised. We will be told that we do not understand their crimes, or international politics, or judicial systems or whatever. When we thirst for justice we will be told that market forces operate this way and cannot be challenged.

Too often such answers are a cover for ill-concealed greed, xenophobia, racism or contempt. The saints have been in this position before and sought peace not war, feeding the hungry not political spin, comforting those who mourn not lecturing them on their ‘errors’.

Why be a saint? Why bring persecution and misunderstanding and derision upon oneself? Why love our neighbour?

The saints are those who dare live out the fully human life. They are lovers, in love with God our creator. Like God, in whose image and likeness we were all created, the saints love. It is a boundless overflowing compassionate love, not restricted by expectations of financial or emotional reward.

St. John sums up our hope. All we know is that we will be like God, because we shall see God as he really is. The Church has hope. The saints have gone before us.

Readings: Rev 7:2-4,9-14 | 1 John 3:1-3 | Matt 5:1-12

fr. Peter Harries is chaplain to the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.