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Saints and Heroes 27 December 2016

Posted by Dr Moose in Faith, Life, Ponderings, Theology.
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I might regret admitting this, but I don’t know what to do. It’s the middle of the Christmas holidays, the weather is crisp and clear, the house is filled with still-sleeping family (at 1010!) and although I want to write am a bit lost as to what. I’ve written in the journal, and should probably attack some role-playing games material but am lacking the inspiration and drive (the same could be said about why I’m not doing the washing up.)

My social media feeds indicate not only the news of the life and death of those who’ve shaped our lives, such as George Michael, gone at 53, but all the more prosaic things too, such as the folks who’ve gone back to work already (and I’m almost, almost jealous. I love what I do and do what I love in my vocation as a University Chaplain). 190px-san_juan_evangelista_por_francisco_pachecoHowever, one thing that I was reminded of this morning is the number of saints’ days that fall in the Christmas season, certainly in the immediate days after Christmas Day. Despite being an ordained priest and deacon in the Church of England I don’t think of myself as especially religious. I wasn’t brought up immersed in church and it’s traditions and ways, which means that they aren’t ingrained patterns in the way that they are for some. If I were to revert to childhood patterns for Christmas it would mean no church attendance and Christmas presents opened as soon as possible in the morning, and Sundays would simply be late breakfasts and some sort of activity after, whether that was visiting grandparents, going ice-skating, playing hockey, whatever. The patterns of the institution that is the church wouldn’t get a look-in. Even when I ran a parish the combination of the bishop’s standing instructions (that clergy should endeavour to take time off after Christmas) and the pragmatism that knows full-well that no-one would show up meant that I didn’t even attempt to do special Holy Communions for the Saints’ Days the following week. The only way they’d get a mention would be when they fell on a Sunday.

Yesterday was St Stephen’s Day, recognising the first Christian martyr in the early church (as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles). Stephen was a deacon, a servant of the community, whose faith and action challenged the very forces who’d conspired to send Jesus to the Cross. The carol about good King Wenceslas looking out “on the feast of Stephen” picks up on the need for faith to be lived out and make a difference.

Today the Church celebrates the faithful life of St John the Evangelist, the author of the fourth Gospel, the fourth Biblical pen-portrait of Jesus. His book is notable for the conceptual approach and awareness of symbolism and deeper meanings in the life and work of Christ, while he traditionally lived a long, faithful and hard-working life devoted to his faith (and entrusted with looking after Jesus’ human mother, Mary).

Tomorrow is possibly one of the most pertinent of all saints days,  whether for our own troubled times, or for all time. Holy Innocents remembers the disturbing and unpalatable episode in the infancy of Jesus where mad King Herod, tipped off about the birth of a new king by the “Wise Men” (who we meet at Epiphany and give rise to much of or Christmas present-giving traditions) decides to protect his throne by slaughtering all the infant boys in the region. On Holy Innocents we are reminded of those who suffer through no fault or faith of their own, the collateral damage in the Gospel story, and by extension we can apply the same to all innocents in our wider conflicts.

Thursday marks a peculiarly English saint and martyr, Thomas à Becket, who was killed on December 29th 1170 for holding fast to what his faith and Church expected rather than his King, and so becoming an annoying nuisance to be suitably disposed of by an impetuous underling.

In sixteen years ordained ministry I’ve never held or led a public service to celebrate the lives of all these saints en bloc, and barely at all for any except Holy Innocents. It makes me wonder how well- or little-known such days are now. I’d expect that for those of a certain age, added to those of a certain upbringing that there’d be an awareness, but among the general populace, no.

But it’s not that we don’t know about exemplars and paragons. We have plenty of them, whether the media-celebrities whose rich lifestyles dazzle us with opulence and opportunity, (and ample product marketing opportunities), visionary thinkers and leaders who at personal cost and through the commitment to their goals have reached the public eye and even the occasional individual who is genuinely motivated by a faith to better the lot of those most in need. We still have a need for heroes and saints, still being fed us by institutions bigger than we are. Some of these figures possess global reach, and in our media-conscious age there are many who delight in pointing out how these role-models have, to use an old Biblical term, feet of clay; failings, foibles and sometimes distinctly unpleasant personal attitudes, intermixed with any good that they may do. We know rather little about Stephen, but I’m sure that he was imperfect. John the Evangelist and his brother James were referred to as the Sons of Thunder, implying a volatile temperament, and on one occasion, when confronted with a village that would not welcome the visit of Jesus and his band of followers seemed to think that Jesus should call down fire from heaven upon them, in the tradition of the great Old Testament prophets! Thomas à Becket, likewise, was not above statecraft, cunning and the like, all of which might appear less than compatible with a saintly individual. The only innocents of our batch are those who never had the chance to act as anything other than dependent infants.

To be an example doesn’t excuse behaviour that is less than ideal, but neither does it preclude it. The saints and martyrs of Christian tradition were thoroughly human, with the same capacity as anyone else. They are remembered and venerated for elevating their faith, and all that went with it, above their other concerns. Heroes, especially in the Greek tradition, all have their flaws. It will be interesting to see how the stories now leaking out into the media about the acts of generosity and human concern of the late George Michael will impact upon his legacy in popular culture. (And in pure, un-referenced speculation I find myself wondering how much of the Christian faith, as mediated through the Greek Orthodox tradition, might have informed the values and practises of him through his childhood years…)

But as I draw my ramblings to a close, a thought, or perhaps a reminder. For all those we are drawn to, those contemporary heroes and paragons, there are many closer to us, our fathers and mothers, those around us, faithful in the small circles of acquaintance, and local areas, making a difference way beyond their apparent significance. Some of them will no doubt feature in the New Years Honours List. And, of course, it goes beyond them too, as each one of us has the same potential to put aside our selfish priorities and motivations and instead rise to those of our faith, morals, philosophies and belief systems. To steal and transform a line from another hero who left us this year, “We can be heroes”, and not just for one day.

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