F. Erickson, Ascension & St. Agnes
Rev 7. 9-17; Ps 34. 1-10, 22; 1 Jn 3. 1-3; Mt 5. 1-12
“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? . . . These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev 7. 13b, 14b)
In the Name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The book of Revelation shows a vision of saints gathered in heaven around the throne of God wearing their baptismal garment—the white alb, just as I am wearing today. Christian communities had spread all around the Mediterranean by the time the book of Revelation was written, and Christians were being called up before Roman judges. If they did not deny their faith they were killed—called “martyr”, from the Greek word for “witness”—or they were persecuted, but not to the point of death—the first “confessors of the faith”, also witnesses.
Right away these witnesses were recalled with great love in their local congregations. Relics were kept, and Eucharists and love feasts were held on the anniversaries of their death. By the fifth Century a church was built on the Celian Hill in Rome. It is named for the first martyr, St. Stephen the Deacon, and is called today “San Stefano Rotondo” because the church is completely round. There is a free standing altar at the center and an ambulatory that encompasses the outside edge of the circle. On the outer wall of the ambulatory, starting directly opposite the front of the altar, is a fresco painting showing St. Stephen. The fresco panels continue all along the circular wall, memorializing a succession of martyrs from all over the Roman Empire. As you walk toward the altar, you are surrounded by the frescoes of the saints--literally encompassed by clouds of witness. But not only that—about forty years ago when renovations were done in the church the contractors opened up the pavement around the altar and found relics covering the dirt floor beneath it. In the fifth century as you stood in a congregation around the altar, relics of the saints were beneath your feet, gathered together from the entire world at that time, with memorial frescoes all encircling behind you. The whole building embodied the “communion of saints.”
As time went on and Christians no longer were being killed for their faith, other forms of Christian witness were recognized—just rulers, keen scholars, eloquent preachers, generous benefactors, devoted mystics—many kinds of saints. To be a saint (from the Latin “sanctus”) is to be set apart. That is the Biblical meaning of “holy”—in Hebrew “kadosh”. Ordinary things from the world, when set apart and offered to God are thus restored to their original good uses and in that repurposing God makes them holy. Thus we take ordinary bread and wine, symbolizing the things of Creation transformed by human labor, and set them apart in offering to God, Who returns them to us as “holy things for holy people” as the consecrated bread and wine are called in the Orthodox liturgy. So ordinary people, as they are set apart for God’s purposes, become holy ones—saints. They are like lamps from which shine forth God’s love, mercy, and concern for justice.
But it’s not about sweetness or niceness, or absolute perfection, necessarily. St. Jerome had a caustic tongue, St. Catherine of Siena criticized popes, bishops, and secular rulers. I saw a modern day saint one early morning in Rome—Mother Teresa. As she got out of a car and walked past me she looked like someone not to be messed with. And saints can be troublemakers—St. Francis shocked people with his rejection of inherited wealth—took off all his rich clothes, standing naked in the public square. In our own day Martin Luther King was condemned for causing trouble. Some saints worked for justice in society—William Wilberforce in England getting Parliament to outlaw the slave trade at the beginning of the nineteenth century—others like Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection in seventeenth century France drew closer to God in contemplation as he washed the dishes in his monastery kitchen.
So many different ways of being set apart for God’s purposes—such diversity in the communion of saints! And what encouragement it is for us to recall all the saints today, to be surrounded by their presence and strengthened by their prayers. For you and I are surrounded by the saints right here. I’m sure you all have noticed the saints in the mural above the high altar—I’m especially fond of the one farthest right, St. Vincent of Saragossa, deacon martyr of Spain, in his long fourth century deacon’s dalmatic, over an alb. I’m sure you have noticed our statues of St. Agnes and St. Mary. But have you all looked up to the ceiling? In our very high clerestory, on both sides of this nave, you see small panels of stained glass, each portraying a different saint. (Binoculars would help with this—I’ll just tell you a few names.) On the west side (liturgical north) old testament prophets, including Zechariah, and Isaiah. And apostles, including Peter and Thomas. And martyrs, including Stephen, Agnes, and the Anglo-Saxon king Edmund, killed by Danish Vikings. On the east side, more prophets, including Jeremiah and Malachi, more apostles, including John the Baptist and Matthew, and more martyrs, including James of Jerusalem and Alban, a native Briton, the first martyr in England. Up there at the ceiling are also Pope St. Gregory, St. Anselm, scholar and archbishop of Canterbury, and St. Hugh of Lincoln, who as a bishop ministered to lepers, defended persecuted Jews, played with children, and kept a pet swan. There’s a visual litany of the saints up there. If you’re interested, we have a guide to the windows of the clerestory—copies of it are available from the ushers as you leave today—it may seem like inside baseball, more than you need to know, but it could be an aid to meditation and study. And next week you could bring binoculars.
So just as at San Stefano Rotondo in Rome, the saints and their memory are all around us here at Ascension and St. Agnes. I’m not certain, yet I would guess that we don’t have relics buried beneath the floor of the nave. But look down now at the level of the pews. When each of us came here today, you and I were choosing to be set apart—to come away from the everyday world for repurposing—as Archbishop Cranmer’s words say “and here we offer and present unto thee O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” We bring not only bread, wine, and money to this altar, but our whole selves, our whole lives. In spite of our quirks, our faults, our fears we too are members of the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints, and the saints support us in our own particular witness to Christ and to God’s purposes. Each of us here wears a baptismal garment of white—it’s invisible but it’s really here . So as we rejoice this morning and every Sunday in the memory and communion of the saints of the past, by all means let us look around us and high above us. But let us also lower our view to ground level. For if you want to see saints of today here and now, look to your left and right, to front and back.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.