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AMEN: The Feast of All Saints

Feast of All Saints: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22

1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

November 5, 2023

Good morning, St. Aidan’s. Welcome to the Feast of All Saints. We stand this morning in a great gathering up of the three days that make up what some call the Fall Triduum. It is a kind of echo in the fullness of time of the Triduum we celebrate at the end of Lent: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, (Holy Saturday and) Easter Sunday. Our parallels are All Hallows’ Eve (aka Halloween which was October 31), All Saints (Hallows, which was November 1), and All Souls (which was November 2). You might think of this service where all three are pancaked, as somewhat akin to the Easter Vigil. We stand very much in a hinge or thin place, rooted in the full blaze of morning in the presence of the vast, risen collective of the holy ones of God—that is, those whom we acknowledge as saints, such as Saint Aidan, and all souls, all our loved ones gone home to God. We bring all our prayerful intention this morning to stand together with them, having asked them to “stand here beside us” in our Litany of the Saints at the opening of this service. We worship together, living and departed, Christians of great renown and everyday, ordinary folk, radiant and alive. Alive in Jesus Christ in whom we are engrafted in the vastness of the Tree of Life, having been baptized into Christ’s death and raised to newness of life lived collectively, across all manner of chasms, among the Communion of Saints, as the Apostle’s Creed names it and as we will speak this collective in the renewal of our Baptismal Covenant. We stand on this holy ground this morning, together with all our beloveds in the nearer presence of God’s holy and just dream. We join our hearts and our voices together, basking in gratitude, uplifting our sorrow, steeping in strength.

Our first reading from the Revelation to John activates our imaginations to place us squarely in the presence of this vast Communion. “After this I, John, looked,” we hear as he describes this facet of his multi-pronged vision. He actively looked and “there was a great multitude that no one could count” (Rev. 7:9). I imagine a vast, unending arena. Think of the most massive concert you ever attended, or a march for justice, or perhaps, as the cover of this booklet evokes from a photo I took in 2014, a Pride march. A living breathing, moving, dancing, singing space in which you were surrounded by people. And not just people like you but, as John says, people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). There you are in this vast collective, palpably part of something much larger than yourself, present as you in all your uniqueness, all your joys, all your struggles and sorrows. There are your ancestors in life and faith, those who have gone before you and paved the way, those whose lives have made possible your life in all its splendor, in the fullness of the humanity God has called you to inhabit. There in this vast crowd are your loved ones who have died, those whose life and presence you long for, gone home to God and now at rest. Yet not static or frozen like so many sarcophagi, but in living, worshipful, ever-moving rest as the Byzantine monastic theologian Maximus the Confessor has described eternal life in the fullness of time.[1] At the front of this crowd – or perhaps we could imagine it as at the center – John our biblical author sees the divine throne and the Lamb, the holy creature who stands for Jesus the Christ who had gone before us, whose saving life, death, and resurrection connects and calls all creation.

Before this awesome, mysterious divine manifestation, the Communion of Saints specifically sings. And what does it sing? John echoes them (Rev. 7:12):

"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."

Fascinating to me is the emphasis on Amen. Not only do they sing it at the end of their song, but at its beginning as well. Amen, “may it be so,” is in this refrain both alpha and omega. It signals the fullness of the singers’ joy, their gratitude at standing before the living God, their adulation of God’s strength. I hear in their words, too, a sense of release, a relinquishing of struggle. John had described this group as people who had gone through what he calls “the great ordeal” (Rev. 7:14). They had suffered deeply, and now they could rest. They could be led in open hearted joy by the lamb who simultaneously and paradoxically is also the shepherd (Rev. 7:17). They could release themselves into his care, their tears wiped away, their gratitude unbound, their joy complete.

What this vast multitude sings, dear friends, is what we sing every week as we gather at God’s table, a table that is set for all, all, all; a table around which we tell the great story arc of salvation history in each Eucharistic prayer; a table at which Christ shares his own embodiment with us in the sustaining gifts of bread and wine; a table at which we are invited each week to sing together with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” to sing the sanctus, a song that very much joins in the spirit of John’s vision: “holy, holy holy, God of power and might; heaven and earth are full of your glory, hosanna in the highest; blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God; Hosanna in the highest.” And then at the close of our prayer around this table comes what is known as the “doxology” – the culminating expression of glory to God, “the bursting forth" of gratitude that sums up the whole of our prayer.[2] “By Christ, and with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours forever and ever.” Followed by the AMEN. This is that Amen of which John spoke, repeated twice. This is the AMEN printed in all capital letters by the Book of Common Prayer—something that came up in the announcements a few weeks ago after I had been reminded by our wonderful parish administrator Cary McCullough about the purposefulness of this capitalization. The liturgical theologian Leonel Mitchell describes it: “thus the doxology and ‘Amen’ are often joyfully sung in celebration of this mystery...”[3] In honor of this Feast, of the great gathering up of prayer offered to God in the presence of all our holy ones, we will sing that Great Amen together this morning.

As we do so, we will be stepping ever more fully into the stream of prayer offered constantly before God’s throne. I envision doing so in a spirit not only of gratitude and awe, but also in love and in openness of heart to gather strength from those who have gone before us and who stand here beside us. Because we have need of strength, St. Aidan’s friends. We have made our way through very difficult losses this past year and in our world very much as we speak. I know we feel these losses, each in our own way and collectively as a community, even as we make our way forward. A line in Eucharistic Prayer C comes to mind, in which we invite God to help us as we neglect to open ourselves to all that the Eucharist offers to us: “for coming to this table for solace only and not for strength, for pardon only and not for renewal.”[4] I, for one, am very mindful especially on this day of coming to this table for all of it: for solace, pardon, strength, and renewal. And I give thanks to God for granting those gifts so freely, so abundantly, with such richness of life and grace. Thanks be to God for catching us all up in the vast, unfolding story of the Good News.

* * * *

There is a quirky practice we’ve developed in our family that I received permission to share with you this morning. We all do it, but we are led by the youngest among us. When one of us is taking leave in some way – heading out the door, or perhaps going to sleep – the leaving one says, “I love you.” (We say I love you a lot.) Then the other person (or persons) replies, “I love you too,” or simply “I love you.” Except sometimes they’ll say, “I love you more.” And then the other person says, “no, I love you more,” and on and on. There is a sense of being sent forth in love, a love that continues, that will surround you, whatever may happen that day, or whatever dreams may perhaps disturb your sleep. But at some point, the “I love yous” have to come to a close, but without foreclosing the expression of love’s infinite expansiveness. For a while I tried to do this using the phrase “we love each other more.” But that was rejected. Not acceptable. Somewhere along the line, and I’m honestly not sure who started it, an acceptable reply finally emerged: Amen. Or should I perhaps say, an AMEN with all caps. Sometimes one person will start it and both will end up saying it together: AAAAAAAMEN. I think this response emerged as acceptable because AMEN has a way of conveying and indefinitely extending love. The love we have for each other, which extends across our days, through our challenges, connecting us to one another even across the veil that separates the living from the departed. AMEN we sing, in love, in courage, drawing strength in the flow of relationship shared with all our beloveds. AMEN, we say, gathering up all our I love yous, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. AMEN we proclaim, we pray together, now and forever. Let the people say: AMEN.

[1] Maximus the Confessor, Quaestiones ad Thalassium 65, as cited in Paul Blowers, “Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Concept of ‘Perpetual Progress’” in Vigiliae Christianae 46 (1992), 159. Also, Ambiguum 67 in trans. Nicholas Constas, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua. Vol. 2 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 297. [2] Leonel Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Books, 2016), p. 198 [3] Leonel Mitchell, 198 [4] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 1979), p. 372.

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