Friday, 03 December 2021

Saints days remind us of life in heaven

HOW many of us lie on a beach in the month of August watching the children building sand-castles, playing beach cricket or teenagers messing about on surf-boards and think of a great saints’ day in church?

Similarly, how many of us go to a midweek mass on a saint’s day at church, either before or after work, and think of that day as a festival and a public holiday?

The word “holiday” comes from the words “holy day.” In many cultures the link is more obvious than it is in our society.

In many European countries you will find that the great saints’ days are also public holidays, a little like our bank holidays. Businesses close down. Often there will be a fair or a carnival.

In Britain we tend to organise things differently. Long-established fairs, such as the St Giles’ Fair in Oxford, may still fall on or about their traditional church festival.

However, we do not need to look very far into our past to see something closer to the European model. In many towns the great fairs used to be held on the
pre-Reformation saints’ days: St George, the local saints, the feasts of Our Lady’s Assumption and her Immaculate Conception.

The dates of these holy days continued for centuries after the upheavals of the Reformation. Civic calendars and the people’s collective memory perpetuated the ecclesiastical festival.

The Catholic Church and the Church of England have calendars with saints’ days by the score. July and August can be particularly busy.

The church reminds us that we are part of the body of Christ which has its existence not just here and now but across the world and across the centuries.

We are not divorced from the Christian witnesses of another century, however distant it may seem to us, or another continent, however far away. If we take seriously the truth that the body of Christ is made up of all Christians then we need to have the widest possible gaze.

Most societies have traditions concerning telling the tales of their heroes. The church does the same. Once a year we remember the heroes of the faith at the altar of God. For some, such as St Peter or St Paul, there will be biblical readings which tell their stories.

Other saints often have to be content with the words “Little is known about St X ...” Sometimes we keep the feasts of early saints and martyrs about whom only one thing is known: that they witnessed to Christ, often to the point of death. Surely this is the way they would have had it, not drawing attention to themselves, but to their witness for Jesus.

If we are serious about his claim that Christians are “all in it together” then we have an obvious duty to pray for each other. So observing saints’ days reminds us that we ask the saints to pray for us from their place in heaven. In the life of heaven all is prayer.

Nothing will get in the way of that direct communication with God which we can find crowded out by so many worldly complications. The vast majority of saints’ days fall on or about the day the saint died, his or her “birthday” in heaven. What is most important is their present life in the glory of heaven rather than their birth into this world long ago.

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