01 November 2011

On All Saints’, we are all saints

This sermon was originally written for All Saints' Day in 2008, but since the liturgical year A is back, this is as good a time as any to repost it.

Sermon for All Saints’ Day, Year A

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

This being All Saints’ Day, the obvious question is, “what is a saint?” Most people probably think of saints being guys running around with halos around their heads. After all, that’s what you see in icons and paintings like the ones of Jesus and Mary hanging on the wall behind me.

So I brought my own halo tonight. Just some tinfoil, doesn’t look like much, but it’ll do. It looks much like the one in this picture:

Of course, I notice some of you giggling a little. A ring of tinfoil doesn’t make a saint, does it? The halo itself as a ring around someone’s head looks a little ridiculous. Did the saints of old really run around with rings around their heads?

So let’s do a little bit of art history here. The idea of the halo-as-ring is actually relatively new. A halo is more properly called a nimbus, and the original purpose of the halo in art was not to represent something like this ring of tinfoil, but this:

...a candle, or more particularly its radiant glow. Early artists, and indeed the authors of the Gospels or even Jesus Himself, tended to speak in symbols and metaphor, and the halo itself is a metaphor for the inner light.

Jesus is portrayed in the Transfiguration as being a figure of radiant light. In early hagiographies, saints are described as having faces shining, as if they themselves were lamps or lanterns. The artists of the Middle Ages weren’t interested in literal portrayals of people, so they made symbolic portrayals of an idealized, stylized world. Rather than try to paint a radiant glow, they resorted to painting gold disks or just circles, like this:

If you’ve ever seen the ring around the Moon on a wintry night, you’ll know exactly where they got that from. There’s the origin of the halo.

Fast-forward to the Renaissance, and artists like Giotto and da Vinci were slowly “rediscovering” perspective. Realism, rather than symbolism, was the order of the day. The problem is that in the course of time, artists – indeed everyone – had forgotten what the reasoning behind the icons was, and thought that the symbol was to be taken literally. So when they began to paint in perspective, they tried to paint the halo in perspective, as a disc attached to the back of the person’s head, like in this painting by Giotto:

...then later as a ring, like in this painting, where da Vinci is showing off his talent by painting softly glowing rings in perfect perspective.

The problem is only that they didn’t know what it was they were painting. In the passing of the centuries, the original purpose of the halo was forgotten, the whole mentality of the people had changed. The point had been lost with time.

The irony is that the quest for realism stunted our sense of reality as badly as those people of the Dark Ages ignorant of science. Today we are very literal in our way of thinking – a product of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when we learned to use logic and science to achieve great things. The result is that our metaphors for people change as our environment changes. We are surrounded by machines and computers, and thus we compare ourselves to machines and computers. We don’t think in animalistic terms very well anymore. We don’t think in symbols well anymore, either. We have unwittingly degraded ourselves to machines. Modern medicine arguably treats people as a machine as well. A pain in your leg means your leg is broken and needs to be fixed. A pain in your heads means…well, we won’t go there.

So we need to not just be logical and rational, but to reconnect with more ancient ways of thinking, to rediscover how people thought in those days, as an additional tool to understand. That tool is symbolism.

The symbol we have here today in church is a powerful one. The symbol is the ultimate sacrifice by Jesus Christ for us. We celebrate that symbol in the form of the Eucharist, in the partaking in bread and wine that we believe become the Body and Blood of Christ – not in a literal mechanical sense, that is, you can’t take the consecrated bread and wine and put them under a microscope and see blood cells or skin cells. But in a symbolic sense. The reality behind those things is changed. Mere bread and wine become powerfully precious to us, representing God Himself and the sum of His Creation in our midst.

It is a serious mistake to say “well, it’s not literally true”. Symbols have power, because they explain things that other methods of communication can’t achieve. In the same way our bodies are more than mere machines, so too is this Universe of ours something more than mere molecules. It’s more than the sum of its parts. Symbols give us a glimpse of something else, of the inner light that infuses every particle of our world. The Universe itself lives and breathes, and we with it.

The letter of John that we read today says it in a very straightforward way. “We should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. […] When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” Holiness, or seeing God, is thus about seeing the totality of reality. Each of us alone is blind to the vast majority of reality. Each of us casts only a tiny bit of light into the darkness, because we only see just that tiny bit of truth. We don’t see the whole truth. And light is the essence of enlightenment.

God is revealed to us when we open our eyes wide, as wide as we can, fearless of the consequences of the truth. Each of us can share our little bit of light. Each of us carries with us a halo, our own nimbus – some brighter than others, but still, each one of us has it within us. Even though each of us may be little more than a small candle, our light put together – our shared Truth – makes the world ever brighter. We see more as we not only open our own eyes, but we learn to see with the eyes of others. Reality itself is transformed. All of that is communicated by the symbols of the Eucharist. Communion is God revealed.

In the Beatitudes we heard in the Gospel, Jesus reels off a list of all the people who are blessed. It is not an exclusive list. What Jesus is doing is reminding us that even the most downtrodden, pain-ridden, suffering, poor leper of a person carries blessings and truth within them. Every human being has value, no matter how low their station. We need to see through the eyes of everyone, not just through our own. No exceptions.

In the end, each and every one of us is a saint, or has saintliness within us. We celebrate All Saints’ to celebrate the limitless potential of our own sainthood, by remembering those who went before us.

So rather than look at things merely in literal terms, I’d like you to look at the world in symbolic terms. That’s when the poetry of Creation takes shape and begins to sing, with each of us a voice in the chorus. Then the vision expressed in Revelation will come true: For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Amen.