Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30
On the coincidence of All Saints Sunday and Memorial day weekend….
But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
Tomorrow the President will lay a wreath at the tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, in a ceremony that will be repeated over and over by governors and even mayors all over the country. I remember places in my youth where this weekend serves also as a memorial for firefighters and police. Everyone decked in solemn colours, nationalist and patriotic melodies sung and played. WOmen and men will be honoured for their self-sacrifice in the name of service to their country, their people, their family and friends.
That is one way to read this weekend. A second way, certainly counter-cultural, radical notes that while many stood as patriots – I think here, especially, of the men and women who rushed to offer themselves for service after Pearl Harbour and in the dust cloud of 9/11 – most of them over the last 200-plus years, for all their humanity and love, were pressed into service, drafted or, in the case of many in the Union Army in the internecine conflict of the 19th Century, tricked.
Many who join the armed forces do so because they are offered no other choice in their poverty and lack of education or in their unemployment. Or because they were forced to join – again, because of their class or race preventing them other oportunities.
And in their death – for oil, nationalist conflict, racist imperialism – our culture turns them into propaganda. We call them martyrs and we hold their images and memory up before ourselves to stir ourselves to like-wise make sacrifices. To believe in something that is not real, to cover up the things that are.
And even 70 years later, we ask questions about Pearl Harbour and the motives of the allies and axis in WW2, the establishment of the Military Industrial Complex on the backs of Patriots, or the desires of the Founders to create a working-class nation to, essentially, work for the upper classes and enslave the natives.
But we call them martyrs.
Another reading sees them all as victims of sin: man’s inability to live in the love and peace offered to us by God causes the death of many who might be innocent or even sinful themselves. Regardless of the motive or intention, it is our fallen state for which they die. Rather than some heavenly good, it is only a human good – in our total depravity that’s all we can do.
And I want to accept all of these readings, from the patriot dream to the radical re-vision to the sinful fall. We are, really, all of those things in our daily lives. And I want to not deny that we are all of those things in our political lives and deaths. Adn I want to sing
Crimsoned with the blood of all your martyrs, O Christ, our God, your church cries out to you: Bestow your mercies on all humanity, and grant the world your lasting peace.
For the Church, however, there are Saints and Martyrs and Passion-bearers. These are not classes, or hierarchies of holiness ranked in a legalistic manner. Unlike the Western tradition, there’s no pattern or set of steps to follow to Sainthood. One is either glorified by the Church – with a feast day and hymnody – or one is not. And even when one is not, one may have a local cultus, a local tradition of veneration for, example, Fr Seraphim Rose or King Henry II of England, which may result in eventual glorification by a Church Body – as happened, eventually, to the entire family of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. These are categories in which we place our own sinful reality to relate to it, not ranking of “power” or “holiness” or “merit”.
It is this last category, Passion Bearer, on which I wish to focus this All Saints Sunday.
To be a passion bearer is to live out in one’s own life the faithfulness of Christ, and to meet one’s own death with the resignation and obedience that Christ embodied. One may not “die for one’s faith”, may not be wrestling with heretics or defending the local shrine. One might simply be walking along to the market or caught at school by a pair of crazed gunmen. One may be killed in apolitical action or die on your own bed of some disease or advanced years. One may give one’s life away in service, or some great act of bravery, or some act of common decency.
In the end while some of us are called to be Martyrs, witnesses for Christ in a real life and death sense, all of us are called to be Passion-Bearers, all of us are called to be Saints. In the end we follow a God who chose incarnation – becoming one of us in our flesh – to save us. And now nothing is common.
Here’s the most important, radical, revolutionary thing about Christianity: God has a navel. I don’t know if it was an “inney” or an “outey”. But he has one. More than that, he’s got a penis: and God is a he. In fact, God is one specific man, born in one specific place, among one specific people – although in a melting pot of about many cultures. Surrounding God was Egyptian, Roman, Alexandrian (Ptolemaic), Silk Road, Persian, Fertile Crescent Babylonian, and 5 or 6 that called them selves “Jewish” or “Hebrew”.
More than that, God had diapers. God also probably ran around half-naked urinating and defecating on the ground while adults might have looked and giggled in either embarrassment or parental joy as the child grew up. God had a neighbourhood. God had an older half-brother – and therefore probably suffered from some bullying and maybe even fights like, “Dad loved my mother more than yours.” God had grandparents who spoiled him. God had a mother who doted on him. God had a dad who – according to one reading – was not too highly respected in his community (as a man who worked with his hands). According to another reading God’s dad was quite well respected. God went through puberty and, I have no doubt, suffered from embarrassing erections under his robe, girls flirted with him, and his voice cracked. God had acne and, after a while, back hair.
If we say – with Paul – that in Jesus the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell, well then, the fullness of the Godhead liked (or didn’t like) to eat the lentils his mom cooked. The fullness of the Godhead liked (or didn’t like) to drink goat’s milk. The fullness of the Godhead liked (or didn’t like) to go to Torah school. The exact implication of “the fullness of the Godhead” is that God had a specific colour of hair, of eye, a specific tone of voice, a specific sort of body odour, and even a certain, rustic lack of bathing.
God stopped relieving himself on the ground and, eventually, grew to – like the rest of his culture – learn how to wipe his dirty butt with his left hand.
Nothing is common any more – and holiness can be found in any walk of life lived in a Godward direction. The last, the least, the lowest of our world has become the gateway to the holiest. The Saints are our greatest exemplars, the Church sings…
To you, creator of all things, the cosmos presents the saints as first fruits of creation. For their sake, O saviour, rich in mercy, preserve us all in holiness and peace through the Theotokos.
But the Passion-bearers, the women and men who met their life as Christ himself…
These are us.
My own Patron Saint, Raphael Hawaweeny, traveled around the US by trian and car and horse, meeting people where they were. He gave his life in the service of his people.
Tsar Nicholas is called a passion bearer because of his Christ-like countenance of the destruction of his empire and his eventual death. He was called of God to lead his people at a difficult time in history and did so to the best of his abilities. The religious devotion and piety of the family is well documented and not seriously contested.
Holy Orthodoxy does not draw boundaries around her saints, for along with the Tsar, the ROCOR has also canonised as Passion-Bearers*, all their servants who were killed with them, including Alexei Trupp, who was was Roman Catholic and Catherine Adolphovna Schneider, who was Lutheran!
We hold these all – and many others – to be holy men and women who lived their daily lives as best and as Christlike as they could.
What more could be asked of you or I than to do exactly this?
Let us praise the baptist and forerunner, with the apostles, prophets, and martyrs; let us hymn the hierarchs and all the martyred clergy, the Christ-like and ascetic men and women, and all the just, together with the legions of angels. With hymns of praise, let us crown them as we should, seeking a share in their glory at the hands of Christ, the saviour.
Our own war dead – both for us and against us – we may never know the real why of their death, but we can assume, I think, that they in their end, died honourable deaths seeking to “lay down their lives for their friends” as Jesus says.
Regardless of their faith – or lack of it – the acts of bravery, heroism and charity of which we read and hear so much at this time (and around July 4th) tell us enough to know of the sort of men and women we honour. Make no political claims about it, these people are little Christs among us.
But so are those teachers and shop clerks, those letter carriers and public servants, lawyers and perhaps even elected leaders that stand among us, giving their selves in service in a world that is where the admixture of “good” and “evil” result in most of us having to run on blind faith if we are to make any action at all.
Doing the best we have with what we have..
In Book ONe of Lord of the Rings, Frodo says, “I wish it need not have happened in my time,”… and Gandalf agrees. “…So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
We are called to meet the day to day world as Christ would, do bear his Passion in our Lives. Come, let us partake of food for the journey. And then do so.
*Added after more research: Since the reunion of ROCOR with the Moscow Patriarchate, some saints are “making it” onto the reunited church’s calendar. Sadly it seems as though Sts Alexei and Catherine are not on the new list – but neither are they “decommissioned” as there is no way to do that. And while we’re on the topic, St Isaac the Syrian was a member of the (non-Orthodox) Nestorian Church.