We can also recall the Catholic saints of the second millennium from St Edward the Confessor, our king who lies enshrined in this very city at Westminster Abbey, St Aelred abbot of Rievaulx famed for his spiritual sweetness, St Anselm of Canterbury, another gift from Britain to the whole of Christianity as a second Doctor of the Church, Blessed John Duns Scotus the great philosopher, St Margaret the Queen and Pearl of Scotland, St Magnus the Martyr king of the Orkneys, St Julian of Norwich the mystic, St Thomas Becket the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, St Richard bishop of Chichester, St Stephen Harding, a founder of the Cistercian Order of Benedictines, St Simon Stock, a founder of the modern Carmelites descended from the hermits in the Christian East of old, from the Holy Land itself.
We can go on to remember, too, those who gave their lives in the 16th and 17th centuries - like St Alban, St Magnus, St Edmund, St Ursula, St Oswald and St Thomas Becket before them - out of obedience to Christ’s truth and the unity of the Catholic faith and Church. They include St John Ogilvie in Scotland, and St Thomas More the Lord Chancellor and St John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Cardinal in England. Just a few yards away from our Cathedral those who lost their lives at the Tyburn gallows at what is now Marble Arch include St Margaret Ward, St John Houghton, prior of the Charterhouse in London, and St John Southworth, the Jesuit priest who is enshrined in Westminster Cathedral.
More recently we have celebrated the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in our own land by Pope Benedict XVI; and this reminds us that Britain’s saints and blessed Christians are not only people from long ago, but those among us in recent history and experience. It also reminds us that Britain’s history for the last 500 years of history has been one of division between Christians in which we do not completely share each other’s view of righteousness and what it means to be faithful to Christ to the end. Yet our Catholic Church teaches us that not a few of the sacred acts of other Christians engender a life of grace and give access to the communion of salvation (Unitatis Redintegratio). Indeed they are means of salvation, such as the written Word of God, the life of grace in baptism, the interior gifts of the Spirit, the exercise of the virtues of faith, hope and charity, as well as visible elements in the traditions of other Churches, which Pope St John Paul invited us all to embrace and learn from each other, in such a mutual exchange of riches that we might thereby grow in holiness and reach more closely each other as we advance in union with God in Christ (Ut Unum Sint). So, surely, it is not inappropriate, as we recall all the saints of Britain, that we give thanks to God for the purity, dedication, sacrifice, and holy example of other British Christians who are not Catholic but who surely belong to God in the Spirit of His Son’s Kingdom. Perhaps above all we can mention in a spirit of love and reconciliation: Thomas Bilney the saintly first of the reformers to die in martyrdom, the preaching missionaries of Scriptural holiness John and Charles Wesley, the spiritual guides from the Anglicans such as Bishops Lancelot Andrewes and Thomas Ken, the poets John Dunne, George Herbert, and the mystic Evelyn Underhill, to a Puritan like John Bunyan or the founder of the Society of Friends, George Fox; the hymn-writers Isaac Watts, John Keble and John Mason Neale, the holy pastors like Bishop Edward King, religious founders like Richard Benson of the Cowley Fathers and Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, the martyrs like Bishop William Hannington in East Africa, Nurse Edith Cavell in the Great War, Bishop Nicholas Ridley in the Reformation, and the controversial King Charles I; the founders of the Salvation Army William and Catherine Booth, and the great social reformers like William Wilberforce who did so much to end slavery, Elizabeth Fry the prison reformer, and Florence Nightingale the mother of nursing.
When we think of all these names, the heart and mind resonate with the Apostle who, in today’s Epistle (Hebrews 11.33-12.1), sees how we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, calling upon us to lay aside all the sin that clings to us and holds us back from being holy, so that we keep on running in the race that is set out before us, with our eyes fixed like theirs on Jesus, who has pioneered the way ahead and was the first to complete it.
Describing the spirit that motivated all those who ahead of us set off on this race for joy to reach to mount the throne of God, even if it meant that the throne took the form of a Cross that we have to mount before any hope of participating in God’s glory, the Apostle says a something striking thing that one might not notice at first. He says that people’s strong faith in Christ convinced them to follow Christ so bravely in the hope of a “better resurrection”. Then he goes on to say that, though they were commended for their faith, they did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something even better that a “better resurrection”. What can this mean? It is understandable that human beings think that the more effort we put into things, the greater will be result. So, in the world of faith, we are inclined to think that the greater love and devotion we show for God and His Christ, the more He will love us, the more generous will be His pride in our faithfulness to Him, the more abundant will be our reward and destiny. But, as Christ reminded the mother of two of the apostles, the place of those in the Kingdom of Heaven is not His to give but His Father’s (Mark 10.40). For, in the Kingdom of Heaven, there are not two resurrections, three resurrections, personal resurrections nor any special resurrections, just one that is for all, the Resurrection that is Christ’s by the power of His Father, in which live the Mother of God and all the saints alike in Christ. Thus, as we sing in today’s Kontakion, “You are the One, O Christ, Who offer Resurrection to all” (Tone 1)
The Apostle tells us that what Christ offers that is better than a “better resurrection” is for us all to be made perfect - no one apart, no one held back, no one excluded, all by grace to be freed from sin, all released from whatever has been holding us back, all to be one with Christ in His one Body in His Kingdom, before the One Father of us all. Charles Wesley, the great Methodist hymnographer, extolled this in a way that cannot be bettered:
Finish then Thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be;
let us see Thy great salvation
perfectly restored in Thee:
changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before Thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise. (from Love Divine, all loves excelling, 1747)
In other words, all the Saints of Britain are none other than those who have gone before us into the Resurrection of Christ who is the pioneer and perfecter of their faith. As creatures and human beings they were sinners; but in following Christ by taking up His Cross to go on to His throne they become creatures who at last are finished – “pure and spotless” like the All Holy Mother of God, “perfectly restored” like the saints before them that they venerated. Just as Christ entered the cloud at His Ascension, so they came to enter in turn. Just as they formed the cloud of witnesses that the Apostle perceived, so all the Saints of Britain have come to form it too. Next it will be our turn into the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, “casting down our crowns” and our earthly results and achievements, “lost in wonder, love and praise” before heaven’s achievement, which will be our completion in Christ.
So what is it that can make us into saints of Britain, and lights in the cloud of witnesses? It is not about being better or special. But it does have something to do with our perspective on our judgment. Do not misunderstand me. I am not describing the judgment of God that Christ says he receives from His Father. I am talking about yours and mine. “Judge not, lest you be judged,” He warns us. And yet we are always forming judgments of each other – especially when we think we are not, and yet we are simply being elevated above others in our own minds and looking down on others with either lofty disregard or spiritual pride. Let us not deceive ourselves. It is part of our condition to be people who judge and assess and calculate. In the 20th and 21st centuries we have learned to turn our sense of judgment onto God. It is as though we stand in judgment over Him, deciding as if we are the arbiter of His very existence, whether we believe in Him or not, whether He is truly a being or not. The Saints are those who by the Light of Christ caught themselves thinking like that and said to themselves, “No, God does not stand in relation to me: I stand in relation to God. I am to serve Him and His Kingdom, not my own sense of direction. I am to respond to His love, not demand its attention for my own satisfaction. I am to seek after Christ, to catch up with Him so that I may see what He sees and see AS He sees.” Or as Christ Himself put it, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Or, as another, poetic translation once put it, “Blessed are those who know their need of God.”
Blessed indeed are those who desire above all else the Kingdom that is above and constantly draws us into its realms. Blessed are those who do not seek the Resurrection for merely personal survival, a “better resurrection” than the one Resurrection that is none other than Christ’s one, for all and for the whole created universe. Blessed are those who long for it all and for us all to be “perfectly restored” in Christ, Blessed are those who want to be changed from one glory into glory that is heaven’s. Blessed are those who get “lost in wonder, love and praise.”