Sermon: Saints in Light
Preached on 1st November 2009
(All Saints Day)
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
Sermon: Durham Cathedral, All Saints Day 2009, Sung Eucharist and Dedication of the Tymms Candlesticks
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
Today is a truly great day. This morning at this Sung Eucharist we dedicate two exquisite candlesticks in memory of Wilfrid Tymms, and this afternoon we look forward to the historic moment when we admit our new team of Girl Choristers to the Cathedral Choir to take their place along with our magnificent team of Boy Choristers and the Gentlemen of the Choir.
And what better day to celebrate all this than on All Saints' Day, one of the greatest days of the Christian Year. All Saints' is an expansive feast. Yes, it celebrates all the holy men and women, the heroes and heroines of the Faith, who do not have a Saint's Day of their own. But more than that, it celebrates the very unity in Christ of the Church in heaven and the Church on earth. As the Collect prays,
You have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son.
It may be a cliché, but it is none the less true, that the Church is a society that never loses a member through death. In Christ we continue a real and unending relationship,
a fellowship of on-going love and prayer, with those who have gone before us in faith. Nowhere is this more eloquently stated than in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded - surrounded - by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.
All Saints' Day summons us, ‘the Church militant here in earth', as those called to be saints, to holiness of life, to perseverance in discipleship, to seek those unseen things above, as we too look to Jesus.
And so, today, we give thanks to God for the life and ministry of Wilfrid Tymms, and especially for his long and faithful service to this Diocese, and for his work as a Canon of this Cathedral. He was a weekly member of this congregation in the last years of his life, supported as ever by his close and loving family. When I was ordained priest here in 1982, it was the custom to spend the night before the ordination here in The College, and I well remember being hosted by Canon Tymms and his wife Dorothy at No. 6A, and their kindness and hospitality. When he served on the Chapter, they were the days of the first experiments at using a Nave Altar for occasional services, and so how fitting it is that that innovation, which is now so much a part of our regular worship, should be adorned today by these magnificently crafted altar lights, designed by Christopher Downs in consultation with the silversmith and maker Rod Kelly, and complementing the processional cross and acolyte candles designed by Ian Curry.
And this is such a fitting gift for today. All Saints' Day emblazons with light. It comes out in this morning's hymnody:
Who are these like stars appearing?
Who are these of dazzling brightness?
How bright these glorious spirits shine.....
Lo! These are they from suffering great
who came to realms of light.
And if this morning's first reading had continued its description of the holy City, the New Jerusalem, we would have heard, as we do each year at the Advent Procession , these words:
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light.
Altar lights, of course, are a multi-faceted symbol. They adorn the Holy Table as a sign of holiness,
God is light and in him there is no darkness as all.
They recall Jesus the Light of the world, the Light that shines in the darkness, and that the darkness cannot comprehend. They act as a signal that divine service is taking place or is about to take place. But as today we are remembering a distinguished ministry, they remind us of the cost of our Christian and priestly vocation. For in giving light a candle is consumed. Costly self-offering is the vocation of those called to follow the one who took up his Cross. But the result is light. And indeed a candle flame is vulnerable, as is our human frailty, but the result is light. And a candle burns as a sign of hope - as I think Mother Teresa said, ‘it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness'.
If today is about light, it is because it is about hope. I never tire of saying that hope in the New Testament is a strong word, a big word. It's never merely wishful thinking, aspiration, optimism. Rather, as our funeral service says, Christian hope is ‘sure and certain', or as 1 Peter describes it, it is ‘a living hope', because it is founded on Christ, and his rising from the dead. How fitting that our Gospel reading should take us to Bethany, and to Christ the Resurrection and the Life. In John's Gospel, this moving and beautifully written narrative of human loss, grief, and tears, anticipates Easter. As with so much in the 4th Gospel it brings the future into the present. Lazarus, who as his grieving sister Martha said, would indeed rise at the Last Day - well, in John the Last Day is brought into the present, not because Jesus will be the Resurrection and the Life on Easter Day, but because he is the Resurrection and the Life now. The raising of Lazarus is the pledge that our beloved dead already share the risen life of Christ.
And this Eucharist is a proclamation of the dying and rising of Jesus; it is about his abiding Presence; only the living Christ can feed us with his Body and his Blood, as he stands among us in his risen power. But the Christ who stands among us is the exalted and glorified Christ, a Christ no longer constrained by the limitations of a physical body. That is why the Collect speaks of his ‘mystical body'. All faithful Christians are mystically joined to Christ through faith and baptism; Christ the head, his people his body. Once joined, they can never be separated from him, in this world or the next. And I love that phrase in the collect, we are ‘knit together' in one communion and fellowship. The verb speaks of inseparability. Just as the consecrated elements, this ‘medicine of immortality', are the pledge of our absolute union with Christ; our union is so close, so indivisible that we eat his flesh and drink his blood. It is the same food that sustained Wilfrid, and all Christ's servants back through time. No wonder, therefore, we join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, for here at this moment heaven and earth are truly one.
And so in a few minutes we will dedicate and light these altar candles before us in memory of Wilfrid Tymms. May they be signs to us of light and hope that in Christ's light we may see light, the light of his grace today, the light of his glory hereafter. Amen.