Homily for the Sunday of All Saints, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

The trouble with actually writing homilies is that one gets to learn how repetitive one is; for myself it reveals something that I half-know anyway, for my patient listeners, or hearers, it might be a good deal more irritating: here we go again. Nevertheless, here we go again! My reflections this Sunday turn on three words in Greek: one of which occurs in both the Apostle and the Gospel for today, the Sunday of All Saints; the other two don’t actually occur in either, but they seem to me to lie at the heart of what we are celebrating today.

The first word is ἄξιος, ‘worthy’: it is word familiar (if that is not too strong a word) to Orthodox who are not Greek, as it is left untranslated in the one place where it occurs as an exclamation in the Liturgy. In the rite of ordination, after the candidate has been ordained, he is presented to the people by the ordaining bishop with the exclamation, Ἄξιος! to which the people reply: Ἄξιος, ἄξιος, ἄξιος! We acclaim him (it is still always a ‘him’) worthy of being a deacon, a priest, or a bishop. This doesn’t mean that we think he deserves to be a priest, or whatever, that he has the right ‘qualifications’. When, for instance, a deacon is ordained to the priesthood, the bishop reads over the deacon a very short prayer—and given the length of some of our prayers, its shortness and immediacy is even more striking:

The divine grace, which always heals weaknesses and fills up what is lacking, puts forward the most pious deacon X to the priesthood; let us therefore pray for him that the grace of the All-holy Spirit may come upon him.

The priest is ‘worthy’, ἄξιος, because of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which ‘always heals weaknesses and fills up what is lacking’—not because he is supremely well qualified, with no weaknesses and lacking nothing—his worthiness is due to divine grace. And that does not only apply to deacons, priests, and bishops: it applies to us all. We are worthy because we are open to the Spirit of God. The worthiness that we pray for as we prepare for Holy Communion is not about our deserving the Holy Gifts in some way—it is about our not deserving them, but being enabled by the Spirit to be worthy, to be those open to the divine grace that is being bestowed on us. (All of this is much on my mind at the moment, because last Monday was the Day of the Holy Spirit, and three years ago, on that day, Fr Justin came back, having been ordained deacon at Pentecost, and he and I concelebrated for the first time in St Mary’s-the-Less.)

The word ἄξιος, I said, occurs both in the Apostle and in the Gospel. The Apostle is the last section of a recalling of the great saints of the Old Covenant—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua (not mentioned by name), Rahab the prostitute, then quickening the pace he lists Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets—and moves on to listing their deeds of faith, leading up to ‘they were stoned, sawn asunder, killed by the sword, clothed in sheepskins, goatskins, going without, persecuted, ill-treated—of whom the world was not worthy, ὧν οὐκ ἦν ἄξιος ὁ κόσμος—wandering about in desert places and mountains and caves and holes in the earth’ (Heb. 11: 37–8). The world was not worthy of them, but they were worthy of being God’s, or as earlier on we read of Abraham, that ‘he looked forward to a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Heb. 11: 10). The Gospel picks up this notion of worthiness: ‘one who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; one who will not take up his cross and follow me, is not worthy of me’—οὐκ ἔστιν μου ἄξιος (Matt. 10: 37–8). To be worthy of Christ is to be Christ’s, to be his disciple, to take up our cross and follow him. Not to march along after Christ (still less alongside Christ), confident in our strength, but to follow, limping and stumbling, maybe, but to follow him, to know that only in following him will we find true riches, true peace. We are not worthy of him if we treasure anything more than him, for as the Lord says in the Sermon on the Mount, which we are reading now on weekdays: ‘for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ (Matt. 6: 21).

The other two words! Κλητοῖς ἁγίοις, to ‘those called to be saints’, as the Apostle Paul addresses the Christians in Rome, at the beginning of the letter to them: we read the verse with these words last Tuesday, the Day of the Trinity, and again yesterday, in the Eucharistic lectionary. These are among the Apostle’s first words to the Christians in Rome, few of whom he would have known: called to be saints, κλητοὶ ἅγιοι, or: ‘called to be holy’. What do we mean by that? It is not κλητοὶ ἄγαθοι, called to be good. Yes, it is better to be good than to be evil or wicked,  but what we are called to be as Christians cannot be reduced to the moralism of trying to be good—often enough trying to be good will end up as being trying… to those we want to be good to. Holiness is more and different than goodness. First of all, even though we might succeed is becoming good, in possessing goodness, that is not possible with holiness. In the Divine Liturgy, just after the Lord’s Prayer, the priest lifts up the consecrated Lamb with the words ἅγια τοῖς ἀγίοις, ‘Holy things for those who are holy’, to which your reply is ‘One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.’ We disclaim any holiness of our own, and acclaim the only one who is holy: Jesus Christ. To be called to be holy, to be among those κλητοὶ ἅγιοι, is nothing other than to follow Christ, to take up our cross and follow Him. And that is brought out by the other word, κλητοὶ, called: we do not present ourselves to Christ as people confident of being worthy of him in our own strength. We are responding to a call; as Jesus says himself, just after he has told his disciples that he will no longer call them ‘servants’ (or really ‘slaves’), but rather his friends, ‘You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you’ (John 15: 16). We are all called, we are here because we are called. We may hear the call in different ways—a sudden commanding voice from heaven, as with St Paul, or something much less unusual, but no less persistent—but it is because we have heard it that we are here, or it may be because we can’t refuse it, even though we have not yet fully acknowledged it. And this call is a call to be saints, to be holy, to be those in whom and through whom something can be discerned (not so much by us, as by others) of the holiness, the glory, of Christ, or (thinking back to last week, to Pentecost) to be those from within whom ‘rivers of living water—the Holy Spirit himself—are welling up’ (John 7: 38). Holiness is, if you like, being transparent to the holiness of Christ—a transparence made possible by the abiding within us of the Holy Spirit. Holiness, in that sense, is bound up much more with attention—attention to God in prayer, attention to others in love—that with some moralist desire to be good, to do good. Amen.

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