Morning Prayer: Ps. 7o, 71 | Gen. 23:1-20 | John 6:60-71
Evening Prayer: Ps. 74 | Heb. 11:32-12:2
A brief note on the Gospel reading: in his marvelous The Stripping of the Altars, on late medieval and early modern traditional religion in England, Eamon Duffy notes that the liturgical piety of pre-Reformation English Christians was so powerful that it reshaped even how they viewed events in Scripture. Thus, to use a particularly appropriate example given Tuesday’s celebration of the Presentation/Candlemas, images of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple and meeting Simeon and Anna would often be depicted as Candlemas processions: just as late medieval English Christians would process around their churches, candles in hand on Candlemas Day, so too were Simeon and Anna shown carrying candles. For me, growing up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in a congregation that usually worshiped using Divine Service II from Lutheran Worship, it’s hard not to hear Peter’s response to Jesus’ question about whether he and the rest of the apostles wish to leave Jesus in the tones of the Alleluia Verse I sang week after week before the Gospel reading was announced: Alleluia. Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia, alleluia. There is something powerful about the way in which liturgy, repeated week after week, sinks into your bones, and the way in which the use of Scripture in liturgy shapes our understanding or experience of Scripture.
The image of the “great cloud of witnesses” from the Letter to the Hebrews is one of my most favorite ones to use to ponder the saints and the Church Triumphant more broadly. Of course, the witnesses to which the letter writer refers are not Christian saints but rather the Old Testament worthies who kept the faith without receiving their reward until the coming of Christ (Heb. 11:39-40). But if you’ll permit me to use the reference to refer to Christians past as well, the letter-writer gives us an important part of a theology of sanctity. Growing up in a more-or-less broad church Lutheran congregation, I didn’t have much exposure to the notion of saints as a child, beyond a vague worry that their excessive veneration by Catholics may have threatened those same Catholics’ eternal salvation (I was both a rather pious and a rather anxious child, as this story suggests). It was through later exposure to Catholicism through the Catholic Worker movement, my discovery of high-church Episcopalianism, and my academic work in monasticism and medieval theology that I found myself encountering these strange creatures and indeed being enjoined to ask for their prayers! I’ve spent some amount of time reflecting on saints and sanctity and would like to spend more; this seems like a good time to do so.
With no further ado: for the letter-writer to the Hebrews, an important function of the “great cloud of witnesses” is to inspire. Now, one need not believe, say, that the saints intercede for us to God to agree: at the most basic level, the examples of the heroes of faith of the Hebrew Bible, of the New Testament, and of the Church challenge us to, like them, “lay aside every weight…and…run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The letter-writer seems to believe that these examples are helpful in ways that the example of Christ or non-narrative moral or theological commands or injunctions are not. I tend to agree: following the recent retrieval of virtue ethics, I agree that the most compelling account of the moral life is in terms of narrative rather than abstract laws or commands, and saints can seem approachable in ways that the formidable moral perfection of Christ sometimes does not (although, I should add, that in seeking to emulate the saints we really are seeking to emulate Christ, insofar as what we emulate about the saints is indeed their following of, and even union with, God in Christ). More on this to follow.