by The Very Revd Dr John Shepherd AM | Dean Emeritus
The Feast of All Saints emerged in Western Christendom around 610AD during the time of Pope Boniface IV when the Pantheon in Rome was dedicated to Mary and the Christian martyrs. In 835AD Pope Gregory IV moved the date from May to 1 November and broadened the Feast to include not only martyrs and canonized saints but also that great multitude described in the seventh chapter of The Revelation of John the Divine – all races and tribes, nations and languages who stood before the throne and the Lamb and shouted aloud: ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’. John has heard, he says, that there are one hundred and forty-four thousand, but he sees an uncountable multitude whose number is as huge as God’s love is unlimited.
The thing is that all these people are the saints. There’s no thought that only some believers are saints. The great multitude represents all the faithful. And this means it must include us. So the Feast of All Saints is different from all other saints’ days, because we keep a Festival which involves us. We celebrate a constituency to which we belong. We are members of the group we celebrate. All Saints’ Day is our day. It’s our festival. It’s our one day of the year. But wait, we say. It’s very nice being scooped up like this – a great compliment - but surely sainthood is reserved for those extraordinary people who have a special day and a special prayer allocated to them in the Prayer Book? People who have churches and schools and institutions dedicated in their honour? People who’ve finished up looking very handsome in stained glass windows? How can we possibly imagine ourselves to be in the same category as these heroes of the Church?
The answer must be, God believes in us. After all, He believed that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus would effect our salvation, so we know He’s on our side. He believes in us, and we know how such a belief in others can work. We tell people we believe in them in all sorts of circumstances – when their future is at stake, when they’re the subject of rumour and scandal, when they’re about to do a test, or sit an exam, when they’re facing a time of great anxiety. And so on. In these times of trouble and stress what we need above all is someone who says they believe in us.
No doubt it’s important for us to believe in God, but it’s far more important that God believes in us. Our maker has confidence in us. He hasn’t made us in vain, and his purpose won’t be thwarted. Our faithlessness will never cancel the faithfulness of God. And the good news is that if we can see that our faith in God is the result of God’s faith in us, we’ll be less likely to worry about losing it. We’ll also be less likely to wonder how we came to fit into this great Festival of All Saints. It’s because God has faith in us. And more - God will never destroy what he has made. Where we’ve fallen short, God won’t punish or destroy. As John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s London in the seventeenth century put it, ‘God will always repair what is broken in us. Just as in a musicall instrument, if some strings be out of tune, wee doe not breake all the strings, but we tune those which are out of tune’, so God will tune, restore and renovate us. He will never allow us to disintegrate, for he has faith in us.
So we are sustained in faith by the faith of God, and that means we are able to join that great multitude as they shout aloud: ‘Victory to our God and to the Lamb’, and combine with all the hosts of heaven who cry out ‘Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour, power and might, be to our God forever! Amen’.