Monday, 31 October 2011

a sermon for All Saints Day

I used to own a shirt that once belonged to Elvis Presley. Or to be exact, I owned a square inch of a shirt that belonged to Elvis. It was on sale in the gift shop attached to his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. It had purple and white stripes, printed on some seriously nasty nylon. But it was amazing to think that here was something that had once been on the back of the man they called the King.

That was, until a sceptical friend pointed out that I had no real way of knowing whether this was actually Elvis' shirt. "Maybe they just cut up any old bits of fabric and flogged them off to gullible tourists," he said, eyeing me pointedly. After that my souvenir never felt quite so satisfying.

I was reminded of Elvis' shirt when I visited the recent Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum. Here they had gathered together a stunning collection of medieval reliquaries - jewelled caskets and beautifully painted cabinets, each containing the relic of a saint or of Christ himself. A lock of hair, a bone, a fragment of the true cross. Like Elvis Presley's shirt there was no way of knowing how authentic the relics were (although I'll stick my neck out and say I'm pretty sure the vial containing the breast milk of the Virgin Mary was a fraud. In any case, it was by now evaporated milk).

The utterly corrupt trade in relics was one of the catalysts for the Reformation. Churches yearned to possess their own relic for pilgrims to visit and venerate. Such high demand coupled with a lack of any effective means of authentication led inevitably to the circulation of bogus relics. As well as telling us something about the human capacity to cash in on a good thing, the veneration of saints and their remaindered body parts points to how compelling and inspirational the lives of saints were to faithful Christians in the middle ages.

A book by an Italian monk written in the 13th century did much to fuel the appetite for tales of saints. The Golden Legend by Jacobus De Voragine sold like wildfire across Europe in various translations. It became a source of inspiration for poets, painters and church artisans. Here were collected stories of miraculous deeds, grisly martyrdoms and virgins protecting their virtue. St Valerie who, on being beheaded, picked up her head and took it to present to her bishop. St Giles, whose coat miraculously healed those who wore it. St Clements who was martyred at sea, after which the waters parted to reveal a marble mausoleum that God had built to house his corpse.

Picking through these fantastic fables, one theme stands out - a saintly devotion to God and steadfastness in living faithfully to his word. Reading of the lengths gone to, and the fortitude shown, in the face of adversity inspired medieval Christians to redouble their efforts to live a godly life.

This is the same impetus that continues to draw Christians to the stories of saints. Their capacity to inspire us to become better people, or strive for those qualities that elude us when we are under pressure, offers us hope and possibility in our journey towards wholeness. There may be modern day saints who better serve to inspire us. The decades of care and nursing shown by Mother Teresa in the face of grim poverty. The magnanimous forgiveness of Nelson Mandela towards his captors. The courage in speaking truth to power of Martin Luther King or Dorothy Day. Or perhaps simply a friend or family member who has encountered hardship with cheerfulness or an absence of self-pity.

Inspirational stories urge us on to be our best selves. And while the veneration of saints is not so popular, the appetite for role models remains. Think of TV shows which honour heroes or acts of bravery. Or newspaper stories of celebrities who have battled their demons to achieve success. Or sports personalities who triumph through hard work and discipline. We seek out the success of others to remind us of what is possible in our own lives.

The question arises of how we discern fact from fiction, or determine which qualities to cultivate. It is certainly easy to mock the credulity of medieval Christians reading The Golden Legend. But the strive for perfection was at the heart of their devotion. The worship of celebrity in our own age - which still has the potential to inspire good, and is perhaps our nearest equivalent to the adoration of saints - is increasingly losing its own way. Rather than emulating positive qualities, increasingly it is the lifestyle of the rich and famous that is most eagerly sought after.

For Christians the challenge is to remain true to the gospel of Christ. Like our medieval forebears it is too easy for us to become distracted by the trends or culture of our day, or to embroider our faith with made-up doctrine or quasi-religious practices that divert us from the model of life taught by Jesus. It couldn't be more fitting that the gospel reading for All Saints Day (Matthew 5.1-12) is from the sermon on the mount, that pivotal passage which distils Christ's teaching and sets out the upside-down values of the kingdom of God - where the poor, the pure and the peacemakers are blessed.

The church continues to struggle in clearing away the clutter and rubbish of our times to reach the heart of this vision, just as much as Christians in the past did. But if the choices we make and the priorities we set are guided above all by Christ we'll do better than we've been seen to do of late. The lesson we can learn from saints of the past is the example of their determination and single-mindedness in trying.

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