Last week we celebrated our annual patronal festival of All Saints, or All Hallows as it was traditionally, which actually falls on November 1st and hence the evening before is All Hallows Eve or Hallowe’en.
And just as Halloween recalls the spooky darkness, and indeed the more serious presence of evil in our world, so All Saints recalls the light. Jesus said he was the Light of the World and every time we gather here, we re-commit to walking in that light.
And just as we might need inspiration from others for our Halloween celebrations so also it’s rather easier to walk in the light if you can see for yourself the example of others who’ve gone before.
This week, and for the next couple of Sundays before we get to Advent and turn our thoughts towards Christmas, we’re going to be hearing about three saints. A Saint has been defined as someone who has lived a life of ‘heroic’ virtue – that is, they have done extraordinary virtuous things with readiness and over a period of time. They’ve truly walked in the light of Christ.
You see, Jesus calls us to raise our eyes above and beyond the day-to-day and to have a bigger vision, a vision of a world where the darkness of evil is banished and God’s path of love prevails. A vision of heaven, to be sure, but a vision also of a better world now – together making what Jesus calls the kingdom of God. And the saints show us how we can make that bigger difference in the world and grow that kingdom.
So to this week’s saint, and it’s a woman who lived long ago in the seventh century – Frideswide – she has a statue down there in the nave. She’s a local saint, and the patron saint of Oxford.
Frideswide, or originally, Frithuswith, was a saxon princess who became a nun who chose to spend her life dedicated to God and to prayer for the world. She’s remembered for successfully running away from a prince who wanted to marry her – Algar of Leicester pursued her even though she was a nun who had taken a vow of celibacy and refused him. She prayed for God to protect her, and God struck the prince blind. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the prince begged forgiveness and she granted it, after which his sight was restored. She founded a monastery in Oxford, and that eventually became our present cathedral – and I think next year we’ll have to organise a parish visit to see her shrine which is now the focus of a modern pilgrimage.
Frideswide’s name means ‘strong peace’ and, as I say, she dedicated herself to a life of prayer for others – that’s what monks and nuns do, monasteries are like powerhouses of prayers for the rest of us, and we have monks and nuns in the church of England too. She is celebrated as a saint because of her prayerfulness, which sometimes led to others being healed, and because of her dedication to following God’s path – that is, to walking in the light – especially in times of adversity.
That trust in God is an example we can all follow, I think. But though down the centuries monks and nuns, and indeed all Christians, have prayed for a better present world, they and we also pray for more than that.
We have always looked forward to a time when Jesus will return and reveal the fulness of God’s glory to the whole earth. We don’t know when this will be – in the early church they assumed it would be soon, but clearly it didn’t happen so we continue to look for it. When Jesus comes, as the church teaches, there will be what is called the ‘general resurrection’. It’s what Jesus was talking about in that rather odd reading we just heard about marriage, and it’s what we mean when we affirm our belief in the ‘resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’ when we say the creed.
That’s when wars will cease, and sorrow and tears will be no more, and strong peace will reign. Time itself will end, and we shall all experience what the saints who’ve gone before us already experience – the full glory of heaven where the only relationship that matters is our relationship with God. We won’t be hanging about on a cloud with a harp, but we will be in a state of joyful, loving bliss where we know God fully and are fully known.
Now that’s what I call a big vision!
So of course we want to do all we can to bring about peace and joy and justice in the meantime – to walk in that light Christ has shown us. In Saint Frideswide’s time, Christianity was spreading in our country and she and many other Christians were showing the pagan world a better way to live. She challenged the assumed power of men in a powerful way and struck something of a blow for equality even in the seventh century. We might assume that women then were downtrodden, but she was far from the first powerful and effective Christian woman, and many have followed - yet even so, inequality remains one of the great injustices of our own time.
And as we ourselves journey in the light of Christ, we have all sorts of opportunities in this community of ours to share the inclusive love of God, to stand up for those who are oppressed, and to give a voice to people who are suffering from poverty, from sickness of mind or body, or from violence at home or elsewhere.
Frideswide lived a life of heroic virtue. We may not quite be able to match that, but we can all manage to grow in what are called the theological virtues of faith, and hope, and love – that is, to place our trust in God, to commit to building the kingdom, and to love our neighbours and our enemies.
Imagine a world where faith, hope and love were widely visible in society – where kindness, patience and humility prevail over envy, anger and pride? Wouldn’t it look rather different? How might High Wycombe look? How might Ukraine look? Or the Migrant Centres near the south coast? Or the Church? Or even our simple day-to-day transactions like buying things in shops or commenting on social media?
Well, it’s only possible with the help of God – we are too prone to failure and falling short to do it without regular prayer and a continuing and growing relationship with God. That’s why we gather as a Christian community – to ask for that help, and to share the journey as we walk in the light of Christ, just as Frideswide did all those years ago.
Please pray with me…
Sovereign God, who called Frideswide to be a leader among her people and gave her grace to be their servant, help us, following our Saviour Christ in the path of humble service, to see his kingdom set forward on earth and to enjoy its fulness in heaven. Through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Derek Lancaster, LLM