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The Sunday within the Octave of All Saints
6 November 2011

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14
Psalm 149
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

 

As many of you know, for over a decade before I entered full-time parish ministry, I was primarily engaged in teaching, research, and writing on the art, religion, and society of Renaissance Italy. One of my principal foci was the interrelationship among the visual arts and the writing of history and theology at the court of Pope Sixtus IV, who died in 1484. Even more specifically—and remember academics can get really quite specific—I was interested in how the preaching in and the decoration of the palace chapel at the Vatican (what we now call the Sistine Chapel in honour of the aforementioned pontiff) reflected a singular understanding of a remarkable incarnational theology.

One of the sermons I became very interested in was preached by the Spanish papal chamberlain, Cardinal Bernard Carvajal, at Solemn Pontifical Vespers on the Eve of All Saints, 1482. He took for his text—surprise, surprise—Matthew 5:1-12, appointed in the breviary for that night as it was then, as it is today, the principal Gospel lection at Mass for All Saints Day. Indeed, Catholic Christians have been thinking about and reflecting on the Beatitudes in relation to our celebration of the saints for over a millennium. The beatitudes, these seminal and radical pronouncements by Jesus, are at the core of our understanding of what it means to be a saint.

Carvajal tells his distinguished congregation that as Moses had given the law to the Children of Israel from Sinai, now Jesus gives the people, whom the preacher names “citizens,” the new law of grace in the form of these beatitudes. He then suggests that the each beatitude is a call to an heroic virtue (as a distinguished member of our congregation reminded me the other night) to which we may aspire and, by grace, embody. He writes:

Truly it is the intention of the law giver to draw the people towards virtue, as book two of Aristotle’s Ethics reminds us. There are indeed virtues of many types, ... a certain excellence which philosophers call heroic or divine. And since the law of the Gospel is most perfect, ... he promises the most excellent virtue, or the truest, most excellent grade of virtues and gifts ... in the blessedness of his presence.

Carvajal goes on to enumerate each beatitude:

We have, therefore, these Beatitudes: seven in number, if you will, responding to the seven gifts of which we read in Isaiah [9(2-7)], ... of which the first is poverty of spirit, which virtue, in no way political or moral, but much more perfectly, excellently, divinely orders man around external goods, certainly divinity and honours. The second is meekness or mildness of heart, by which our irascible appetites are ordered. The third is willing mournfulness, that is to say, rejection of the delights of the flesh by which our appetite for desire is bridled. The fourth is hunger and thirst for justice, that is fervent love of justice and fairness, by which man is ordered with regard to his neighbour in these things which duly possess reason. The fifth is mercy excellently ordering men with respect to his neighbour in governing the gifts of reason. The sixth is purity of heart, by which the human intellect is most excellently perfected in its preparation towards God. The seventh is peace, by which the love and volition of man is most divinely formed around God. Moreover the last beatitude is persecution on account of justice, which indeed makes an eighth beatitude. Excepting peace it is a beatitude superior to the seven first ... as a manifestation and confirmation of all that precede it.

What is remarkable to me about this explanation is that, even in its own context, even having been preached at one of the most important centres of power in the world of its day, Carvajal still espouses these values of modesty, justice, and peace, of suffering for what one believes in.

The beatitudes have always been counter-cultural. As I said the other night on All Saints Day, Jesus did not climb the mountain top and say blessed are the rich, blessed are the powerful, blessed are the successful; blessed are the strong, the athletic, and the physically attractive. Characteristics and activities that might be considered to be weaknesses (perhaps by the stereotypical powerful, successful. athletic, and attractive), like poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, a desire for justice and mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, are transformed into heroic virtues that are in sync with the values of the Kingdom of God. The saints whom we commemorate today, including our own Ignatius of Antioch, our Lady Saint Mary, and even William Temple (whose feast day today is trumped by the Sunday), all desired justice, all worked and cooperated with God for the advancement of his rule, all were willing (and many did) suffer for what they believed in. These and many others, are inspiring examples to us of what is possible if we make divine love, divine peace—both available to us by the grace of God—our goal, our priority.

Those truly blessed, those who are truly saints, are the ones who, above all, have promoted peace and who actually lived their lives according to the peace of God. We learnt from Saint Ignatius of Antioch that as early as the second generation of the church, before the year 100, that being a Christian was more important than saying you are a Christian. Carvajal told his listeners in St Peter’s Basilica fourteen hundred years later, “Indeed, according to the apostle’s letter to Timothy, it does not behoove men to be quarrelsome, haughty, or [arrogant] [and] ... therefore ... we learn that those who preach peace and bite are to be feared.” It is no surprise, therefore, that today we are still called to embrace the virtues to which we are called and imitate the lives of those who have come before. We are called to lives in which we align ourselves with those in need and on the margins of society, we are called to stand-up against injustice, and to call for and witness to the peace of God that passeth all understanding. Today as we commemorate all the saints, all those who have witnessed to the power of the love of God active in creation, let us strive to incarnate within ourselves the still counter-cultural values of the Beatitudes

 

Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Friday within the Octave of All Saints, 4 November 2011

© 2011 Andrew Charles Blume