All Saints’ Day 2013 – All Saints church, Nottingham
Jesus’ teachings on blessedness, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and the Poor Clares
Sermon by Rev Christopher Harrison
Many of you may not be very familiar with the composer Tomas Luis de Victoria, whose music – sung by St Peter’s choir – lies at the heart of our celebration of All Saints’ Day this morning. Victoria was born in Avila, in Spain, in 1548 – the city known for its great saint Teresa. He was a chorister in the cathedral at Avila, and at the age of 17 went to study for the priesthood at the Catholic Church’s German College in Rome. But his musical interests and abilities came to dominate his life, and his compositions soon became very well known. At the age of 37 he came back to Spain, where he became the chaplain and chapelmaster at the Royal Convent for the Barefoot nuns of St Clare in Madrid. Today setting by Victoria of the words of the mass has been said to be ‘one of the most perfect ever written’ (Tovey). It combines joy and exuberance with simplicity, and is relatively brief.
All Saints’ Day is traditionally the festival in the Church’s year when all those who have lived a Christian life here on earth and have reached heaven are commemorated and celebrated. This means not only the saints who have been named specifically by the Church, but all those whose lives have been lived in accordance with the ways of Christ. These are sometimes described as the Church Triumphant – the communion of all the saints in heaven – contrasted with the Church Militant – the Church here on earth, the community of Christians still on their way to their eternal destination in heaven. In some Protestant churches, however, All Saints’ Day tends to be a celebration of all Christians both on earth and in heaven. At All Saints’ tide, then, we think about and give thanks for all those who gone before us in the way of faith. This means all those who have led holy lives – for that, at its heart – is what the idea of sainthood really means; those who have dedicated their lives to God, those who have done their best to follow the ways of Christ. In this context, I’m glad of the opportunity to mention and describe the priest and composer Tomas Luis de Victoria this morning; for he gives us a glimpse of how someone in a very different time from our own, and in a very different historical setting, devoted his life to God. Victoria combined the role of a clergyman with that of a musician – no doubt not the first to do so, and certainly not the last. But think for a moment also about the place where he served from the time of his return from Rome to Spain in 1585. The Royal Convent of the Barefoot Nuns of St Clare in Madrid was dedicated to a woman who had created a massive stir in the Catholic Church when, in the early 1200s, at the age of 18, she left her family to follow Saint Francis of Assisi. She founded a new order of nuns, who in time became known as the Poor Clares. Their rule of life followed the way of simplicity and poverty which had become characteristic of St Francis’ order of monks, and was especially severe and demanding in what it required of its sisters. She stipulated that their convents should not be wealthy or own property, and the sisters should live on the alms provided by local people. As time went on, however, and the number of convents of the Poor Clares spread around Europe, tensions arose regarding those in the Order who were more relaxed about the St Clare’s ban on the ownership of property, and those who wanted to remain true to the strictness of her original intention. The convent of the Poor Clares in Madrid, where Tomas Luis de Victoria served, was actually quite rich, because of all the money that had been given to it over the years. But over the years, since the money was not allowed to be spent on or by the nuns, it gradually became poorer. (It still exists, although the number of nuns is now few, and the original convent is now a national monument).
This little bit of history isn’t a digression. For it reminds us that trying to live a holy life – like the many nuns over the years who have followed in the footsteps of St Clare of Assisi – can be quite complex, especially where matters of money and wealth are concerned. Jesus regularly told his followers to give away their money and help the poor. But those who benefit from such generosity, whether individual people, or churches, or other organisations, still have to decide how best to use the money they receive – especially if and when they start to become wealthy, like the Royal Convent of Poor Clares in Madrid.
When we ask what living a good Christian life - living a life, in other words, of holiness - should involve, we can’t do much better than looking at the teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and in particular the so-called Beatitudes, which form our gospel reading for today. The word ‘Beatitude’ refers to the state of being blessed or supremely happy; it is about true happiness, not just pleasure. I should mention that there are some subtle but quite important differences between the descriptions of blessedness contained in St Matthew’s gospel compared with the gospel of St Luke; we need somehow to hold both of these interpretations together as we seek the real meaning of blessedness as taught by Jesus. So, for example, Jesus tells us that there is the blessedness which arises from being ‘poor in spirit’ (or simply ‘poor’, as in St Luke); this is about knowing our need of God, our dependence on God; being aware of our spiritual shortcomings and the need for God’s grace to help make up for these. He then describes the blessedness that is associated with mourning, or being sorrowful. This is a difficult one, as it suggests, at first sight, that mourning and being sorrowful are somehow good. However, it’s more to do with the loving, caring, and renewing touch of God which can sustain us and support us in times of loss and grief, as well as helping us to be more able to help others in their times of sadness. Then there is blessedness which comes from gentleness, meekness, and humility; and the blessedness which comes when we have a forgiving, merciful, accepting, non-judgemental attitude towards those around us. Jesus also describes the blessedness that comes when we have a passion for righteousness; for seeing justice prevail between individuals, and within communities and nations. Then there is the blessedness of a pure heart – a heart made pure by integrity of life, simplicity of living, a clear conscience. Jesus then talks of the blessedness of those who seek to bring about peace and reconciliation, both among those around them and in the world at large; and the blessedness of those who are prepared to suffer for their faith and their Christian values, the supreme example being of course Christ himself.
In setting out this framework for life, Jesus was going against those who saw blessedness as being to do with wealth and riches, status and worldly success, and positions of power and authority over others. His teachings about blessedness were not totally new; they drew upon strands of thinking in earlier Jewish society, which we see at various points in the Old Testament. They did, however, present a considerable challenge to many people, and that’s why they caused many people to oppose Jesus as well as drawing to him a large following from among those who were unhappy with the society and religion of that time.
But what does this all mean for us in the Church today? If the teachings about blessedness contained in the Beatitudes all seem rather beyond us, if they come across as being for real saints and holy people rather than ordinary people like you and me, what should we do? I suggest you remember this; which is that each of the sayings is in some way about ‘letting go’, and the blessedness which comes from being able to let go. Letting go of an excessive desire for material things; letting go of the wish to get our own back when we have been wronged; letting go of those for whom we mourn; letting go of anger and resentment; and so on. Not always easy; indeed sometimes very difficult. But each of us can somehow, in our own way, aim to do this. If we do so, we begin to find that our trust and faith in God become, little by little, more and more rooted in our own experiences. His grace – renewing, comforting, consoling, strengthening, and reviving – enters our lives more fully. And God’s faithfulness and love for us are revealed to us as not just words, but as the truth - and absolute reality - that they are. Amen.