A Sermon from Sherborne
Holy Days and Holidays
A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 26 August 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
In the Church Calendar, this week is a week of saints’ days. Tomorrow is the Feast of St Monica, the mother of St Augustine of Hippo, whose own Feast Day is on Tuesday. Together they are reminders of the North Africa of the fourth Christian century, where the Christian Gospel had blazed like a wildfire, only to be violently uprooted by the Muslim conquest of the seventh century onwards. Augustine was a powerful transmitter of the understanding of Paul the Apostle that our salvation is solely by the grace of God, received through our faith in Jesus Christ. Augustine was therefore a vital connection between the New Testament and reformers such as Martin Luther, who cut through all the barriers erected between the faithful and their salvation by the institutional Church.
On Wednesday we remember the beheading of St John the Baptist. Stephen is always known as the first Christian martyr, but John was Christ’s forerunner in his message, his ministry and his death. On hearing of his arrest, Jesus immediately took up John’s call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent, and believe the Good News.”
Thursday, and we remember John Bunyan. That’s a bit of grace on the Church of England’s part, as Bunyan was no great friend of the Established Church – but also a bit of grace on his part, as the Established Church made life pretty difficult for him, confining him in Bedford gaol for some years. He went on to write Pilgrim’s Progress, to which I often return for its account of how the great burden of sin and guilt which we all carry was loosed from off the back of Christian. It is a parable totally up to date for our modern age.
Friday, and it is the Feast of St Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, the “holy isle” off the coast of Northumbria. That is still on my “wish list” to visit – a place inspired by the Celtic monastic tradition, with its sense of God as very close, very near, and caring especially for the humble and poor. Aidan died on 31 August 651. Then Saturday 1 September, and Giles of Provence, who died about 60 years later. He and Aidan would have got on well. Giles founded a monastery in France at a kind of cross-roads for pilgrims going either to Santiago de Compostella or to the Holy Land, and was remembered especially for his care of the wounded and the crippled, and especially lepers. He is the patron saint of those afflicted with leprosy.
Holy days. From those two words we get our single word “holidays”. The original holidays were just that – holy days. It was my colleague Lesley McCreadie, back from a holiday in France, who told me how that most secular state grinds to a halt on 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Holy days of old still shape the holidays of today.
But if holy days were the feasts of saints, who or what are saints? That has a number of answers. Today in the Roman Catholic Church, the canonisation of saints is strictly controlled by the ecclesiastical institution. There are all sorts of tests, trials and protocols before anyone can be declared a saint. And, to be honest, for every test, trial and protocol, I find the good man or woman in question carried further and further beyond my own world of experience. Gradually they begin to join the array of other plaster-cast saints down the centuries who are so far from me that I cannot quite see their relevance. Perhaps, for me, they have been made so heavenly-minded that they are no longer of any earthly good.
It was not always like this. Centuries ago there was no special route to sainthood. Everything depended on how people were remembered by those who knew them best. A personal saint of mine, Gordon Rupp – Methodist Minister and a Cambridge Professor of Ecclesiastical History – discovered this lovely fragment about an unknown saint in Manchester:
A poor woman, that lived about ten miles from Manchester, hearing some say, ‘We have been there and found the Lord,’ told it to a neighbour and said ‘I wish I could go to Manchester and find the Lord!’ Her neighbour said, ‘Why do you not go?’ She said, ‘O dear child, I have no shoes.’ Her neighbour said, ‘I will lend you mine.’ She came to Manchester on a Sunday and knew not where to go. Seeing a gentleman in the market-place she went to him and asked, ‘Where is it that people go to find the Lord?’ He answered, ‘Come and I will show you.’ He brought her to the preaching house and said, ‘Go in there.’ Thomas Wolfenden came to her and asked her what she wanted. She said, ‘Is this the place where people find the Lord?’ He went and called John Norris, one of the leaders, who took her in and placed her near the middle and advised her to look at none but the preacher. She took his advice and about the middle of the sermon cried out, ‘Glory to God, I have found the Lord!’ which she repeated over and over, being filled with joy unspeakable.
Rupp comments, ‘That is how, in the eighteenth century, on borrowed shoes and hobbling ten miles, the saints came marching in.’ And so they have marched ever since a wandering preacher in the first century took his seat on the hillside overlooking Lake Galilee, to address the multitudes who had flocked to him. And all those dear, ordinary people from village and town and city, who hung upon his words and followed him – they are the saints we celebrate today, saints from every century and every continent under the sun. Some of them are known to us through the scriptures. Most of them have left little or no record, or survive in only a simple epitaph, like Chione, a fourth-century peasant woman from the long-vanished world of Christian Anatolia, whose little memorial stone reads simply Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much. Or John Duck, from my old parish of Wroughton, who died in the year of the Great Fire of London and whose headstone near the church porch tells us that he lived well to die never, and died well to live ever.
These are the saints, who surround us as a great cloud of witnesses. Sherborne has had many of them, and not just those who made their mark on history like Bishop Aldhelm and Bishop Wulfsin, but ordinary townsfolk who kept the lamp of faith burning brightly in this place for generation after generation. For example, there was Marren Laurence, who on 27 May 1649 was voted by the Brethren of the Almshouse 6s 8d a year ‘for her service in the time of sickness’ – a reference to one of the many plagues which beset the town in the seventeenth century. A few years later, at the time of the Great Plague which reached Sherborne at the end of 1665, the resident physician Nathaniel Highmore won the praise of the Vicar for his devotion to duty at a time when many of the well-to-do were fleeing the town. But we need not look back into history for glimpses of the saints living out their faith in the service of those around them: I see them at work all the time. Some of them are sitting in front of me now.