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This coming week is the feast of All Saints, which has a particular poignancy in Wakefield as our cathedral bears this dedication. Readers of this article are also likely to know that one of the most popular hymns sung on All Saints’ Day, For all the Saints, was written by the first bishop of Wakefield, William Walsham How – but I shan’t steal your preacher’s thunder by talking about that in this article.
The question I want to ask is: how did the feast come about? To find the answer to this we have to look to the eternal city, where we see Christianity moving from a religion whose followers were put to death for their faith, to a religion whose hierarchy occupied a prominent place in public life. This transition enabled the church to exhume the relics of the white-robed army of martyrs, whose bones lay entrenched in subterranean crypts (as visitors to any of Rome’s catacombs will know), and to place them in places of honour in the city, most especially the building known as the Pantheon.
The Pantheon is so-called because it was dedicated to all (pan-) the old Roman gods (-theon). But in 609, Pope Boniface, attended by a huge crowd, took, in eighteen chariots, the bones of the martyrs and installed them in the pagan temple, cleansing it of its former idolatry and dedicating it to the Virgin Mary and all the Roman martyrs. A grand and impressive sight this must have been! But the important thing is whose bones are there, because the answer is that we simply don’t know.
And herein we find the meaning of why we keep All Saints’ Day, because we don’t have a list of all of those followers of Jesus Christ who have lived saintly lives and died saintly deaths, for the faith, throughout the years – they are simply anonymous. They will have been men and women, young and old, slave and free, from all across the parts of the world where the Gospel would have spread, and from every walk of life. They do not have their names inscribed in marble, and yet, their bones lie close to the altar in the Pantheon, even as their souls adore the Lord in his heavenly court – surely this is ‘the better part, which cannot be taken away from’ them?
In many places, though less so in our Church of England, relics still adorn altars, not always encased in golden reliquaries, but simply hidden in the altar stone. This reminds us that the saints are part of the family, that they are close to us, and closer still when we celebrate the Holy Communion, in which, as the Prayer Book reminds us, we are surrounded by ‘the Angels and Archangels, and … all the company of heaven’, lauding and magnifying God’s glorious name together.
May God richly bless our cathedral church and community as it celebrates this coming feast, and may we heed the example of the anonymous faithful ones who have gone before us, to be close to Jesus ourselves, to give our lives to him, and to do so in company with them, who already see him face to face.
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