Monday, 24 October 2011

For All the Saints

Although I'm a soi-disant pretty orthodox Christian, I've got a bit of a soft spot for what some call folk religion.  By which I mean what Wikipedia describes as "those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside the strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion".  Before anyone starts looking in Google for the web-address of the present-day Inquisition, let me say that although my youth was decidedly Steeleye Spanny, I'm not tempted to dance between bonfires or around maypoles, to find myself in a stone circle at dawn on the summer solstice, or wear willow around my hat. What I mean by folk religion is the way in which the practice of the Christian faith has become interwoven with local custom, culture and life experience, and particularly with the natural world and the seasons of the year.

Next Tuesday 1 November is All Saints' Day; Wednesday is All Souls' Day.  On Sunday, I and many others will be singing "For all the saints who from their labours rest" to Vaughan Williams's stirring Sine Nomine.  We will give thanks for the lives of those men and women who, throughout Christian history, have dared to risk everything for love of their Lord, and who we believe now rejoice in His closer presence.  We will recall their examples of courage, steadfastness and faith and pray that we might "win with them the victor's crown of gold".  On All Souls' Day we remember before God all the faithful departed (including those who weren't saints - or perhaps were, but have never been acknowledged as such) and commend them to God's safe keeping.  On the 11th, we remember those who have died in conflict.  It's easy to see why November is sometimes called the Month of Remembrance.  There is a mild, and ever-so-slightly melancholy, sense of foreboding abroad at this time of year: the clocks go back, night falls early and suddenly, and we become more particularly conscious of the cycle of the seasons and the approaching darkness.  We remember those who have gone before; we call to that part of the Church which worships with us, but invisibly, above; and we draw our metaphorical coats more tightly about us, and prepare for the cold.

31 October was the beginning of the Celtic festival of Samhain, or New Year, which marked the end of the harvest and the lighter half of the year, and which was celebrated with bonfires and celebrations of the dead.  The Christian festival of All Saints may have been fixed on 1 November as early as the 8th century, perhaps partly to ingest and appropriate extant pagan practices; and it's not too difficult to see how we have ended up celebrating the Communion of Saints at the same time as others are indulging in the silly, if harmless, nonsense of modern Hallowe'en.  It may be that it is natural for our thoughts to tend in this way around now.  Indeed, perhaps this coming weekend is a natural turning-point in the progress of the year; a point at which, subconsciously and reluctantly, we turn away from summer and towards winter.  Perhaps, in atavistic empathy with our ancestors, we become more aware of our need of God's grace to see us through the leaner, hungrier part of the year.  

We Christians have to face what lies ahead with hope.  The winter may not hold the dangers which it did for our forebears: most of us in the West know we will be tolerably warm and well-fed; we do not, on the whole, fear deadly infection like those of only a few generations ago.  But we are fearful of the darkness of a world order which, rather suddenly, seems out of kilter and somehow more than usually provisional.  We need to remind ourselves, at All Saints' Tide especially, that, in due course, the spring will return, and all manner of things shall be well.

O ALMIGHTY God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Book of Common Prayer: Collect for All Saints' Day)

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