The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
All Saint's Day
Welcome to the Murphy family, and their wider families, the Murphys and the Whitneys and others here with us, friends and family alike. This is a big group!
Today we’re baptizing Kenley Murphy, daughter of Ashley and Mike Murphy. Ashley, Kenley’s mother, grew up here at St. James, along with her sisters, Rachel and Alison. Her husband Mike is a lifelong Episcopalian; his mom is here with us on Sundays when she’s in town. Two years ago we baptized Teagan, Ashley and Mike’s first child. In fact, Teagan was one of the first babies I baptized here, so I’m especially fond of her, and all them. Again, welcome.
Today is All Saints Day. This is one of the four principal days in the church year for baptisms. Of course we baptize on other days as well, but this one of the feasts when Christians all over the world together baptize into the church their newest saints. And I do mean to use that word, saint. Today we’re making a new little Christian saint.
Saints for us, of course, are those people who have lived exemplary lives. We have a calendar of saints; we commemorate them on Wednesdays at our morning Eucharist. Saints like Anselm of Canterbury, theologian. St Francis of Assisi. St. Jerome, Latin historian and scholar, and, not to be missed, our St. James, as well as Saints Andrew, Peter, John and all of the apostles. More recently named saints are Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. We share these and many more with our Roman Catholic neighbors. But some are unique to us as Anglicans: St. George Herbert, English priest and poet. Julia Chester Emery, an American Episcopalian who founded the United Thank Offering–and a member of St. James the Less, buried (in fact) right out here in our own graveyard.
Those are all “saints” in the sense that most of us think of saints. People way up here, at a height we’ll never reach or even come close. But there’s an older definition of saint, one that goes all the way back to the beginning of our tradition, before the Gospels were even written. The apostle Paul used the word “saint” in his letters to mean any and all Christians who were baptized into the faith. “Saints in Christ,” was how he addressed his readers in the Epistle to the Ephesians. It was probably what Christians were called before anyone thought to give them the name “Christians.” Saints not because we’ve done incredible things, though many of us have and will, I hope, but simply because God in his infinite and incomprehensible grace made us saints in his church the moment we were baptized.
That’s what being a saint meant in the earliest sense of that word in our tradition, and still today. We’re part of the Communion of Saints because God saw fit, for whatever reason, to make us so. If we really grasped that deep in our being, perhaps we would have the strength and courage to act more like those great saints we celebrate in our church calendar.
Including ourselves into this heavenly assembly of saints–or as we say at the Eucharist, “joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”–also reminds us on this day that we are part of something much larger than us as individuals, us as members of our families, of St. James, us as Episcopalians and even Anglicans worldwide. We’re part of a body of Christians all over the world, and on All Saints’ Day especially, that means the living and the dead.
In a moment, just after little Kenley is baptized, I will anoint her with oil. That oil was consecrated by the Bishop of New York, who himself was consecrated by other bishops, who were consecrated in turn by bishops before them and back it goes, unbroken, all the way two thousand years to our Lord’s choosing of the disciples. That little drop of oil that we all received as a cross on our foreheads is a symbol of our initiation into something vast and ancient of which we are a part. A small, but in God’s eyes, important part, of this Communion of Saints.
On our altar stairs, etched into the marble, is an inscription. Unfortunately it’s slightly covered by the red carpet so you can only see a bit of it. But look at it (what you can see of it) when you come forward for Communion. It reads:
“In Memory of Many Saints (top step)
(next step) Blessed are the Dead who Die in the Lord
(next step) May Light Perpetual shine upon them
(and last step) Because I live ye shall live also.”
A former parishioner, Jean Ellis, took that inscription and wrote a poem about it. I found it in the 1949 Parish Messenger and it’s titled “For All Saints Day, November 1 1949″ (that was, by the way, the 100th year of our founding as a parish). I’ll close with this lovely reminder of this vast and varied Communion we belong to as children of God.
Dear “Many Saints” who built our altar here,
Whose high example helps us year by year,
Today we join your memory to recall,
And thank you, for our church; each stone within its wall,
Each pew where you knelt too, each window dear,
And this blest altar, which brings God so near.
I never knew you when you served Saint James’,
To me at first you were but aged names,
Graven on bronze or marble, glinting dim on glass,
But you grow clearer as the sacred seasons pass,
And I think how you too bedecked with holly, frames,
You, Easter lilies brought, you shared our aims
To build a perfect church upon this holy hill–
Your part is played, and now we must fulfill
Our share, extend these walls, so that our sons
Be better taught–perhaps they’ll be the ones
To raise the finished tower! But until
That day, dear “Many Saints,” inspire us still.
– (parishioner and saint) Jean Ellis