Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Consolation of the Saints

In a sermon entitled "The Visible Church An Encouragement to Faith," preached at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin and published in 1836, John Henry Newman says something that I have long felt but have had difficulty articulating. Newman notes that being a Christian is a difficult business in that we not only have to struggle against our own sinfulness but also, as if this were not enough, we have to struggle with the world. As he puts it, we are not only tempted to take up the pretence of religion rather than the substance but also we are faced with the difficulty of living in a "Christian country" (Newman was referring to Victorian Britain) where many actually "live to the world". Under such a set of circumstances we can find ourselves lonely, isolated and discouraged. If we do not find our own lives discouraging at times, plenty of discouragement awaits us from the world. How can we maintain a witness?
Newman's answer to this question is that we can find reassurance and consolation in the visible Church. Here Church means not so much buildings or institution but the living communion of people in which and through which the risen Christ is at work through the Holy Spirit. Newman's sermon is based on Hebrews 12:1 which reminds us that we are "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses". The isolated Christian quickly becomes the discouraged Christian and the unfruitful Christian.
Thinking about this, I took a look at the some of the feast days which are appointed for the month of June. What I found was enormous encouragement. Just think about it. There are the feast days of some great early Church theologians such as St. Justyn Martyr (June 1), St. Cyril of Alexandria (June 27) and St. Irenaeus of Lyon (June 28). These men struggled to present the new faith to a pagan world and did so successfully. There are feast days for some of the really great evangelists such as St. Boniface (June 5) who brought the Gospel to Germany and St. Columba (June 9) who helped to evangelize Scotland. There are feast days for martyrs who chose to be killed rather than renounce their faith: St. Justyn Martyr and St. Alban (June 22). There are also feast days for three apostles, St. Barnabas (June 11) and St. Peter and St. Paul (June 29). Here in the span of single month I am able to be reminded of the various and powerful ways that God has been at work in the lives of fellow Christians.
The saints are people in whose lives we are able to see the risen Christ at work; they are living witnesses to his resurrection. When we celebrate the saints we are reminded that the Resurrection is not simply a doctrine to be believed but a reality which changes us and our world.
By taking the saints seriously we are freed from our entrapment in the present and our own pressing concerns and are given a new orientation: "The man of this world lives in the present, or speculates about the future; but faith rests upon the past and its content. It makes the past the mirror of the future. It recounts the list of faithful servants of God, to whom St. Paul refers in the text, and no longer feels sad as if it were alone." Newman was absolutely right. The saints reminds us that by God's grace God's people have successfully met the challenges that faced them and this gives us the encouragement that we may do the same.
Celebrating the saints is celebrating the work of God in and through a diverse range of people. It reminds us of our true place and position. We are not isolated individuals struggling on our own but we are members of the Communion of Saints and from this we get "a peculiar kind of consolation, counteracting the influence of the world that is seen". When I am tempted to be faithless I can remember St. Alban and his martyrdom. When I lack courage I can think of Peter and Paul. When I feel perplexed I can remember Irenaeus battling heresy and paganism. There is a huge consolation to be found here and it is a gift of the Lord.
Michael Petty+

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fr. Michael,

Thank you for your commentary. Your message was just what I needed this week.

Queenell Fox

June 21, 2008 at 9:28 AM  

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