The Feast of All Saints: the celebration of holy paradox

This week’s blog draws on two of the lectionary readings for All Saints Day, Matthew 5.1-12 and Revelation 7.9-17 to dig into the meaning of this great feast in the church’s year. This year, in these difficult days, it seems more important than ever to celebrate All Saints with joy.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship; clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

A woman from the last Christian family living in Nisibis, southern Turkey, standing by the tomb of St Jacob of Nisibis

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12), especially as they are presented in the Gospel of Matthew, have a special place in Christian hearts and imaginations. Placed as they are at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount they are clearly intended to be seen as a fundamental marker for Christian faith and life. It is right that they are selected on a regular basis as the lectionary Gospel for All Saints, the festival that in many ways acts as the culmination of the Christian liturgical year. I find the musical setting of the Beatitudes to a Russian Orthodox chant powerful: it is especially appropriate for All Saints given its repeated refrain, ‘This day you will be with me in Paradise’. The chant is sung very well by the choir of St David’s Church, Exeter at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaZozkVRiHI&feature=youtu.be

Even looking quickly for resources and comments on the Beatitudes you soon come across the word ‘paradox’. The wisdom they contain is regularly described as ‘paradoxical’. That the meek should inherit the earth, or the poor gain the Kingdom of Heaven, or that those who are persecuted should be called ‘blessed’ runs counter to the ‘received wisdom’ of secular human society.

I don’t think that we take seriously enough these days the intrinsically paradoxical nature of our faith. Paradox, I believe, is at the heart of the Christian story. Previous generations were much more aware of this than we are. It is interesting, in fact, that there is another specific example of ‘paradox’ in the lectionary reading from Revelation 7.9-17, ‘the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their (the saints’) shepherd’.  We are so familiar with scripture, that we don’t necessarily appreciate the jarring and paradoxical nature of what is being proclaimed – that a Lamb should be a shepherd.

Over the last few years I have become increasingly fascinated by the Book of Revelation – after many years of wanting to keep it at a distance. Within the New Testament it seems to me to have a special place in that, far more than any other New Testament text, and certainly far more than any of Paul’s letters, it invites us to explore a profoundly semitic theological thought-world. Revelation may have been actually written in Greek, though many scholars are  impolite about the ‘quality’ of the author’s use of the language! – but one has a strong sense that the author was really far more at home in the semitic tongues and idioms of Hebrew and Aramaic (Syriac).

Certainly a celebration of paradox is characteristic of the Syriac strand of Christian theology. All too often our appreciation for the influence of theologians who thought and wrote in Latin and Greek upon the development of Christian theology – figures like Clement of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo for example – has meant that we have not paid adequate attention to the contribution offered by a third strand, the Syriac and semitic thought-world. Probably the greatest, and certainly the best known, exponent of theology written in Syriac was the fourth century St Ephrem of Nisibis. Ephrem’s most characteristic theological mode involves paradox. A couple of examples:

Glory to that Hidden One, whose Son was made manifest!
Glory to that Living One, whose Son was made to die!
Glory to that Great One, whose Son descended and was small!

Whenever I see (or think of) the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with its entrance door so low that one has to stoop down to pass through it, I remember these lines of Ephrem about the Great One becoming small.

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

I found myself reflecting on Ephrem partly because in another of his writings he himself closely echoes that Lamb/Shepherd paradox of Revelation:

Blessed be the Shepherd, who became the Lamb for our atonement!
Blessed be the Vineshoot, which became the Chalice for our salvation!
Blessed also be the Farmer, who became the wheat which was sown and the sheaf which was harvested!
Blessed be the Architect, who became the Tower for our house of refuge… 

I think it is vital for us to celebrate ‘paradox’ as intrinsic to our faith. It is, I think, linked somehow to the very nature of grace.

When I worked for the World Council of Churches, one of the tasks I most enjoyed each year was participating in an interreligious summer school that took place at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey. Young people from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths gathered together for a period of three weeks and learned – not least from each other.  One of my tasks each year was to ‘introduce’ Christianity in a couple of lectures over a morning. It was an interesting challenge, seeking to encapsulate the ‘heart’ of my faith in a way that was both comprehensible to those of ‘other faiths’ (who might not know very much about it) and yet also could offer some new insights to the young Christians who were also present.  I found myself suggesting that what was characteristic of Christianity was the attempt to hold together what I called ‘binary polarities’ in a sort of creative tension. Things for example like:

  • Holy/Secular
  • Perfection/Failure
  • Vision/Reality
  • Exclusive/Inclusive
  • Worship/Action
  • Present/Future

Those are simply examples – my actual list was much longer. Though I referred to them then as ‘binary polarities’, I could also have described them in terms of ‘paradox’. As I explored these examples with the class I found myself suggesting that it was the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, God becoming a human being  that was the ultimate paradox at the heart of Christianity – it was the paradox which validated all the others.

It was therefore interesting to me to re-read a year or so ago, that great theological classic by the Scottish theologian Donald Baillie, God was in Christ.  I had first come across it and cherished it years ago when I was studying theology at university, but over the years I had probably forgotten much of what Baillie had written.

Here are some of Baillie’s treasures (with, where necessary, brief notes by me to contextualise them)

  • ‘Paradox comes into all religious thought … because God cannot be comprehended in any human words or in any of the categories of our finite thought.’
  • ‘It is a commonplace to say that most of the great heresies arose from an undue desire for simplification, an undue impatience with mystery and paradox, and an endeavor after a common-sense theology’
  • The only way to a true knowledge of God lies through the veil of paradox, ‘A healthy faith will always be acknowledging the antinomy, yet always also struggling against it, striving for a fuller light and a deeper experience in which the paradox will be less acute.’
  • The incarnation is ‘the supreme paradox’ which is central to Christian theology and is the climax of all the subsidiary paradoxes. If we seek to eliminate the element of paradox we find ourselves losing the essential truth of the incarnation and we do not fully understand the love of God in Christ.

All Saints Day is actually the celebration of the ridiculous paradox that WE are ‘all saints’, at least potentially, even if honesty forces us to admit that it doesn’t always seem like that in the present. In fact if we (mistakenly) put our focus on ‘All Saints Day’ on the great and traditional saints of the church’s history – we miss the meaning of the Feast.   

It is of course remembering that Paul’s characteristic address in his letters to different Christian communities, was to refer to them as ‘saints’ – however quarrelsome and imperfect they clearly were at times. (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 1.2 ). We should take a leaf out of Paul’s writings!

A picture taken of a diocesan Zoom service in gallery view. A contemporary way of conveying ‘All Saints’ – though ideally there should also be more lay people in view!

There is of course, much more that could be said, and I hint at some further ideas via the quotations and pictures I offer or refer to below.

But I conclude by drawing attention to the picture which stands at the head of this piece. It was taken 40 years ago in Nisibis (in Turkey, a town today on the border between Turkey and Syria). Nisibis in physically in the Diocese in Europe (that is a paradox in itself!). Nisibis was the home-city of St Ephrem of those great Syriac hymns. The woman was at that time a member of the only Christian family left in Nisibis: today there are no Christians left in the city. It has become impossible for them to remain. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5.10) She is showing us the tomb of St Jacob of Nisibis – another of the Syriac saints linked to that particular town. So it is a picture of two people that we could rightly call ‘saints’, St Jacob and the woman. On All Saints day we rightly honour both.  Clare Amos

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All Saints/the Beatitudes in art and writing:

On All Saints’ Day, it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and overbearing ones, the broken ones and whole ones, the despots and tosspots and crackpots of our lives who, one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own. (Frederick Buechner, ‘The Sacred Journey’)

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The saints provide a glimpse of God’s already in the midst of our not-yet (Tim Beach-Verhey)

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A Last Beatitude

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organise the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.  (Malcolm Guite)

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The ‘Haywood St Fresco’ at Haywood St Church, Asheville, North Carolina, painted by  Christopher Holt (who holds the copyright), illustrates the Beatitudes with scenes and people from local life

For more details see: https://visit.haywoodstreetfresco.org/

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