The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
November 1, 2015
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day. We celebrate a moment in which we pause to consider all the people before and after us who have come along and provided us with a window into God’s love in this world; a window that shined the brightness of God. If I can point to a moment in my life in which I was able to understand the magnitude of this day, it would be at a moment in which I was going with my wife, Claire, on a delayed honeymoon. We were married in 1990 and we went on our honeymoon in 1992 because we were broke. We had gathered a bit of money and so we went on our honeymoon and we went to Italy.
Having lived a slightly lower middle-class level in Venice, we decided to find an Italian town where we could really live it up. We heard about this town called Ravenna which is a little south of Venice, a little bit inland, and it had these magnificent mosaics. We went to Ravenna and we checked into the best hotel in town. It was only three stars but we felt like rock stars. We went to the best restaurant in town. It wasn’t that great but it was the best restaurant in town and so we felt like swells. We walked up and down the street during the promenade which is what all the Italians did and we felt for a moment a little less like tourists and a little bit more like inhabitants.
We went to Ravenna to two churches that were founded and built in the 6th century, the late 6th century and we were blown away by what we saw that day, what I saw that day. Both of these churches were established to commemorate 2nd century martyrs. Both of them had beautiful, incredible mosaics articulating all that God had in store for that community which was then facing opposition and persecution again.
The first one was Saint Vitale. Saint Vitale was named after a saint called Vitales of Milan. He was a general who had testified to his Christian faith and was buried alive and martyred in Ravenna. That is the picture I have for you right here in your bulletins. If you look over here at this incredible piece, the Church of San Vitale is octagonal. It’s unusual. It carries with it some of the Byzantine influences of the day.
In it you have this moment in which you have Christ sitting on a globe and handing, holding in his left hand the scrolls from Revelation that we read today. In his right hand, he is handing out a crown to Saint Vitales which is over on the left here receiving the crown in exchange for his wonderful life. There’s this giving and receiving going on in the painting.
But what’s remarkable about it is that Byzantine art wanted to look to the past in order to paint the future. That is to say, let me underscore this for you because we have a few babies here today, Byzantine art was not so much a moment in which Western art lost what the Roman art hard done; the naturalism and the figures that were done. But Byzantine art was trying to articulate a way in which the past became the future for that congregation and for all of us.
You see this particularly in the moment in which you see the face of Jesus and you realize that the Jesus depicted here has no beard. Now, this wasn’t a moment of cultural accommodation. It wasn’t like going beardless went popular in the late 6th century. At the beginning of the church, when you walk into the front, you look up and you see a picture of a bearded Christ right at the point of death. The thing that that space tried to communicate for the people was as they walked into that entrance to the church, they were walking through Christ’s death to participate when they reached the altar, in Christ’s resurrection.
It was at that moment that they would see a risen Christ whose body was now risen and glorified, who no longer had the effects of age, or violence, or sadness, or sorrow. All those things have passed away. The reason they had this vision of Saint Vitales standing next to Christ is to encourage the people at that time to see themselves in a similar space. They themselves were passing from death to life. They themselves were being caught up in God’s magnificent economy of salvation in which nothing is lost and everything is redeemed.
Anthropologists would call this a moment of liminality. Liminality are those moments of deep change that occur through rites of passage. They’re moments in which we are changed. They’re moments in which realize that we cannot go back. The moment when I held my eldest daughter the day she was born was a moment of liminality. There was no going back. There was only a future I had to live into and one that I was living into joyously. Liminality are these moments in which the presence of God becomes palpable, when you can almost feel God in the room with you. Liminality happens also in moments of death when you are with someone at their last breaths. One of the great benefits of being a priest is I get to go places where so many people don’t know; places next to people as they are dying and I am overwhelmed in those moments by a sense of God’s presence. Liminality is a moment in which this world and the next come a bit closer together.
You and I, when we give thanks to God for the saints of our lives, for the saints of our Church, for the saints of our faith, we are living into this moment of liminality. We are recognizing that we are not alone, that every time you and I are going through a deep change that God is present. Incidentally, this is the point I think, of today’s gospel; Jesus is present with Mary, and Martha, and with Lazarus at the moment of death, and sorrow, and weeping. Because of Jesus Christ, no one is ever alone again. No one goes through a liminal experience, a birth or a death, without the presence of God.
All of this will be summed up today when we engage in this practice of baptism. Because baptism is the moment in which we are buried with Christ and then raised with Him to participate not only in His death but in His resurrection. We are bound with Christ. Named as Christ’s’ own forever so that we would be transformed as He has been transformed so that we would experience life beyond death and can live as if death were not. That’s the first thing I learned walking through Ravenna with my beautiful wife Claire.
The second thing I learned happened when we visited the Church of Saint Apollinaris. As we were walking through that church I looked and I saw two lines of martyrs on one side and the other of the church. It was built more like this church. On one side we had the incredible virgin martyrs all of them holding on to their crowns that they had done. The crowns were their life. The crowns were their life’s accomplishments.
The individuality of these martyrs, you can see is kind of effaced; you don’t quite know one from the other except for Saint Agnes who has a little lamb next to her. The same goes for the male martyrs on the other side of the church. You have these martyrs moving along and they all look like each other except for Saint Apollinaris who has got a robe that is similar to the robe that Christ wears in that church.
Again, you don’t see them differently from each other except for the crowns in their hands. The kinds of crowns they hold and the way they hold them. Either through fabric or with their own hands indicate the specific ways in which they lived their lives as saints; the shape of their martyrdom, if you will. The nature and challenges that they faced, the way their particular lives bore witness to the presence of God in their life through Jesus Christ.
In Celtic Christianity, there are three kinds of martyrdom. There are red martyrs who are martyrs like we know from the things we just read about. They are martyrs who died for their faith. There are martyrs who refused to remain silent in the face of persecution. There are also white martyrs. These are people who experience martyrdom when they’re elevated to an office or they take on a particular challenge in life, a particular role in a community. White martyrs are people who become bishop and have to leave their life of study. Finally, you have green martyrs. Green martyrs are the most common kind of martyr there is. Those are people for whom nothing external changes. They’re martyrdom is entirely internal. No one knows the sacrifice they have made. No one knows the challenges they faced. From the outside nothing changes, the martyrdom is inside.
All martyrdom is not just a willingness to die. Martyrdom is a moment in which we bear witness to the deep change that God is doing in us through Christ so that our lives can be icons and sacraments to God’s grace, so that we can grow together as the body of Christ. What kind of martyr is God calling you to be? What is the shape of the crown you’re fashioning of your life? Where have you experienced deep change? What will this look like 10,000 years from now when people walk through this church and remember us? These are the things we must ask ourselves on this day of days in which we celebrate the saints of the church, those present and those past. Amen.