Preacher Revd Neil Summers
November is the month for remembering. Last Wednesday was All Saints’ Day, the day we commemorate those often nameless saints throughout the ages who do not have an individual day of the year allocated to them. We are marking the occasion today. Tonight, we will hold a Requiem Mass for All Souls’ here in St. John’s, remembering all those who have died, in particular those we ourselves have known and loved. Also today, please to remember the fifth of November – gunpowder, treason and plot. Lest we think this is an entirely secular occasion, we should recall that the gunpowder plot had very strong religious origins. Had it succeeded, life – particularly religious life – in this country over the past four hundred years could have been significantly different. Next week, of course, we will mark Remembrance Sunday, when we will honour the victims of two world wars and many other conflicts, including contemporary ones, and reflect on themes of war and peace.
In an important sense, memory defines the self; a crucial part of who we are is made up by what we remember, because the self is in large part the accumulation of remembered learning and experience. If memory defines the self, then it also helps to define communities, groups and nations. Even a quite cursory reading of the Hebrew Scriptures (our OT) makes it plain just how important communal memory is. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years. Remember you were slaves in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you. Small wonder that the Jewish festivals still hold such significance today, as the Jewish community, now so varied and so scattered, remembers its shared past. It is seen in the yearly marking of Hannukah, Yom Kippur and the Passover, and in the weekly observance of the Sabbath. The community’s memory of crucial events in history forms its self-identity. In Deuteronomy, the Israelite settler in the Promised Land is instructed always to remember his origins. The farmer must bring the first fruits of his crop to the priest at the sanctuary and recite the words: ‘My ancestor was a wandering Aramaean, a homeless refugee…’ (Deut. 26.5) In other words: remember your roots; they are what have made you the people you are today.
The theme of remembering also resonates strongly throughout the Christian NT. We see it as its most profound in I Corinthians 11:23, where Paul says, ‘I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ At the very heart of this service is a reenactment of that Last Supper. We literally re-member it, giving present body and current significance to a past event. The church calendar, as it takes us each year through the key events of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection in the great festivals, as well as saints’ days and other commemorations, is another major way in which we maintain our communal memory.
Commemorations and observances are ways of recalling and re-telling our story, in the process redefining the people that we are and the values we hold to be important, and emphasizing the fact that our history matters and has shaped what we are today.
Remembering was important to the people of biblical times, because in those days, obviously, there were no printing presses, internet, email, photos and the rest. Few people could read or write, therefore a person’s, a community’s and a nation’s history often had to be committed to memory, and passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. But it was this remembering, the reciting of their history which strengthened the social and spiritual identity and life of the Hebrew people and the Christians of the early church.
Christ is made present in this Eucharist through the act of remembering, called in the liturgy by the Greek word for remembrance, anamnesis. But this act of remembering is not just recollection of a static past, or pious nostalgia, or a desire to turn the clock back. The act of remembering is a relationship with history that always has the potential to change us and shape our present and our future. Recalling our story is in some sense to enter into it and make that story our own, so that it has not only historical, but also contemporary, relevance. It may well have its roots ‘back then’, but it has meaning here and now.
Remembering means making the story of our faith community our personal story as well. The texts we read about the obedience of Abraham, the treachery of Isaac, the struggles of Jacob, the Hebrews’ escape from slavery, and their disobedience in the wilderness are our story, too. When we read about David and his many mistakes, we can replace his name with ours. When we read about Peter, James and John being called to discipleship, we can hear that call being addressed to us. When we read about Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, we are reading our own story of treachery, cowardice and fear. When we read of Jesus forgiving the adulterous woman, or him befriending Mary Magdalene, or healing the sick or raising the dead, we can replace their names with our names, because their stories of forgiveness, healing and salvation are our stories, too. And so it is with those nameless saints we remember at All Saints-tide. Excessive piety does not necessarily make a saint, but true humanity does. Today, we honour those saints who didn’t quite make having an individual day of their own in the church calendar. But to what extent do we recognise that their names and their stories may well be added to by saints in our own day?
St Paul addressed many of his epistles to members of Christian churches dotted around Asia Minor. He frequently referred to them as ‘saints’. If he were to write a letter to us today, he’d probably start by saying, ‘To the saints of the church in Richmond’. Ever thought of yourself as a saint? No, me neither. Not many saints achieve their own day in the church calendar, or a place in a stained glass window, but All Saints-tide sweeps up all the rest and honours them. It is hard to define the word ‘saint’, but perhaps what we share with them is not an exalted holiness, but rather an identity as those who know their need of God. In the Christian understanding, all our lives are touched by the lives of the saints, whether figures of history or memory whose influence lingers on, or kneeling alongside us at the altar this morning. Past and present, dead and alive, I am among them now – and so are you. Thanks be to God.