The Set Apart Ones by The Rev. Dr. Wesley Hill

This homily was preached at Trinity Cathedral on the Feast of All Saints 2019. It was delivered in three parts in conjunction with the three parts of the Sequence from Mozart’s Requiem which were played and sung as part of the Eucharistic service on Sunday.

I.

Earlier this year one of the great Christians of our time died. His name was Jean Vanier. (I expect many of you will have heard of him.)

In 1964, in a village in northern France, Vanier invited two men with disabilities to live together in a house with him. Vanier had heard from a Catholic priest about the bad conditions of many institutions for disabled persons, and he wanted to try out a different way of life — one in which so-called able-bodied people could receive the gifts of disabled persons as well as help with their care by living together with them.

From this small beginning was born L’Arche (“The Ark” in English) — an international movement whose “mission is to make known the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities, working together toward a more humane society.”

When I heard, in May, that Jean Vanier had died, the news brought a knot to my stomach. Of course I felt joy over the life he had lived so generously and beautifully. (Right after he died, a friend of mine texted me a picture of Vanier’s famous smile and said, “I love the faces of the saints. They carry Christ in their countenances.” Indeed they do and Vanier did!)

But while I felt joy, I also felt such a keen sense of loss — loss of an exemplary person whose witness touched the world. I know Vanier’s work will keep going for years to come through the ministry of L’Arche, but I also felt at the time of his death how sad it is that Vanier himself is no longer here with us to keep showing us the love of Jesus.

That is part of what we ponder this Sunday on which we are marking the Feast of All Saints. We ponder the fact that Christ’s holy ones do depart this life. They pass, just as we all one day will, through the suffering and finality of death. They complete their earthly pilgrimage and enter into the presence of God where they now live. They leave behind their struggle in the “church militant” here on earth, and they join the throng of the “church triumphant” with God in Christ. And, with their absence, we feel the loss of a tangible conduit of God’s love and holiness to us.

But then too, as they leave us, they keep on living, in a glorified state of personal communion with Jesus. And they wait, with us, for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.

In the words of the prophet Daniel in our Old Testament lesson for today, “[T]he holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever.”

II.

It is not only great and famous holy people like Jean Vanier whom we remember at the Feast of All Saints. We also remember all the others who lived their lives in the same self-giving way and yet whose names are largely unknown or forgotten. How many Jean Vaniers have lived and died in obscurity, without any camera or newspaper or smartphone capturing their daily lives of charity and justice-seeking? And isn’t it fitting that we should think about them too today?

There is a poem by the eighteenth-century writer Thomas Gray called “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The poet looks at the tombstones in the country churchyard and wonders about the lives each one represents. How many lives have been forgotten! Only their names and epitaphs remain on their tombstones, some of them eroded by rain and wind, some of them obscured by moss and lichen. One of the stanzas of Gray’s poem goes like this:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
         The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

How many gems — how many saints — have lived and died in “dark unfathom’d caves” and corners of the world? How many flowers — how many faithful Christian people — have bloomed and wilted in unvisited meadows?

Let your mind imagine those lives whose love and virtue only God knows this morning. Let yourself be thankful for all the company of Christ’s faithful people and all the thousands upon thousands of good works — the acts of trust and hope in God and love towards neighbors and enemies — that they strove to continue on in.[1]

III.

But what, more precisely, are we giving thanks for when we observe this holy feast day in honor of All Saints?

Certainly, we are using this occasion to remember the holy acts of God’s holy people. The deeds of kindness and justice and peacemaking they performed. The times when they stood up for the overlooked or the forgotten. The instances when they visited those in prison. The moments when they served the poor and advocated for widows and orphans. The times when they followed their consciences and maintained integrity even at notable cost to themselves. We remember the ways that people like Jean Vanier — and, with him, holy people like Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Benedict of Nursia, stretching back all the way to Sts. Felicitas and Tabitha and Peter and others — tended the sick, offered comfort to the lonely, and endured persecution in Jesus’s name.

But there is something deeper we are acknowledging today than just the record of these compassionate and courageous actions.

To be a saint means to be one who is “set apart,” one who is made somehow “other” to or unencumbered by the competitiveness, unkindness, and selfishness of our world as it usually goes. The saints are “set apart ones” whose lives show us a different way of being human than the versions most popular and attractive — and yet somehow also most empty and deadly — that we’re tempted to pursue today.

“Set apart” by whom, we should ask, though. Who is the One who has made the saints the beacons of light in our world that they are?

In our epistle reading this morning, St. Paul testifies to “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe.” That power that God has caused to be effective among us and through us, Paul says, is the same power that God exercised “in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” It is the power of God in Christ — the new risen life that Jesus now has as a gift from His Father and that He now lives and gives to us after and beyond his death — that is working in the lives of the saints we commemorate today.

The saints, in other words, are not uniquely heroic or successful people who somehow have an intellect or willpower or genius or charisma that is inherently superior to what you or I have. They are not spiritual “elites.” No, it is that the saints’ lives, by God’s grace, have become especially and strikingly transparent to what shines through them. And what shines through them is Jesus. Jesus, who is alive today, who listens to prayer and speaks to us through His Word and feeds us in Holy Communion — this Jesus is living His risen life in and through His saints. He is the one energizing them and empowering them and demonstrating His goodness and grace and love in their service to the poor and suffering. And it is because of Him that we can begin to imitate the saints and thereby become more transparent ourselves to the love that Jesus has for the world.

It is ultimately our Lord Himself whom we give thanks for and commemorate on this holy day. We give thanks for the glimpses we have seen of Him, the true and great Set Apart One, in and through all the ones He has set apart for Himself.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.



[1] This part of the homily was prompted by Christopher Beha’s newsletter The Amphibium, pt. 10, “Foundress of nothing,” <https://buttondown.email/chrisbeha/archive/the-amphibium-pt-10/>.