We are privileged to be here this evening, not simply to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but to do so accompanied by the fine music of the English recusant composer William Byrd and in this striking and beautiful church. Byrd himself knew, through his own experience, the precious value of the Most Holy Eucharist. His three settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, for three, four, and five voices, are stark works for individual voices designed to be sung in clandestine gatherings of the Catholic faithful during a dark period of English history. Members of his family were fined for their refusal to attend Protestant worship and many of his compositions draw parallels between the struggles of the Catholic remnant in Protestant England and the People of Israel in captivity and bondage, desperate for the safety of the Promised Land; a land where they might worship the Lord God unhindered. He lived, too, surrounded by the courageous witness of many for the faith. The sacrifice of thousands of men and women for the Catholic faith is as much a harrowing reminder of the potential cost of our baptismal promises, as it is an inspiration for us that, if we are faithful, the reward of abiding in the Lord’s eternal presence is real. As we honour those martyrs of the faith, together with countless other men and women whose lives have been lived in faithful obedience to Christ, we are reminded of the great gift of the Eucharistic sacrifice that sustained them, and we come to offer that supreme act of worship once more here and now as we plead the intercession of those who rejoice to enjoy the beatific vision.
Our minds and our hearts are aided in this act of love by external signs. First, by the architecture of this building; not simply a gathering space for Christian worship but an icon through which we see more clearly the very nature of what it is we are here to do. The words of Saint John the Divine given to us once more in the epistle of this Mass recall the apostle’s vision of heaven. We are shown the Church triumphant; the holy ones standing before the throne in the presence of the Lamb. The saints—those whose baptismal garments have been purified and restored with the splendour of grace—are rightly clad, in the words of today’s Magnificat antiphon, amicti stolis albis, in robes of white. And they offer their worship to the Lamb; the one to whom Saint John the Baptist directs us too, as he proclaims of Christ, Ecce Agnus Dei!
As we look around this church we see these heavenly characters in earthly form. We see the throne of the altar with the Lamb seated in the tabernacle in its midst. We see the saints depicted in stained glass and wall paintings, united to the very fabric and structure of the church. And we see the starry firmament above and the glassy sea below, all pointing us beyond the ‘here and now’ of this physical space to the eternal worship of heaven. Here, then, in the offering of our ritual praise and cultic prayer to God we are most vividly the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, united as those dwelling here below with those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. Through the grace of our baptism we ourselves have been equipped to join with the heavenly company in their hymn of praise, united to Christ and incorporated into his life. By living in that communion now, returning to the fold when we fail, and learning the vocabulary of heavenly worship in our worship here in earth, we train ourselves for the eternal banquet of the world to come.
The saints that surround us in paint and in glass though are not static figures. They are engaging in what we might call perfect ‘active participation’, as they give their complete selves as holocaust offerings—wholly consumed in the worship of Almighty God. Just as in their earthly lives by confessing the faith, consecrating themselves, and even shedding their blood, so now in their heavenly life they are caught up entirely in the life of Christ and the perfect worship of the Most Holy Trinity. They are, in the words of the Offertory Antiphon, ‘in the hands of God, beyond the reach of their tormentors’ malice’. And as we acknowledge their heavenly presence and seek their intercession we are inspired to follow them in this life, in order that we might join them in the next.
That role of theirs as intercessors is active also. The prayers they offer to Christ on our behalf are not mild petitions, but strong pleadings made in the certain knowledge that they will be heard and answered. Their heavenly assistance aids us in coming closer to the life that Christ desires for us as individuals, and so it is also intrinsically linked to the mission of the Church, called as it is—as we are—to sanctify the world. The words from the Book of Wisdom that crown the High Altar, Spiritus Domini replevit orbem terrarum—the Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world—remind us of this fact. It is through the apostolic life of the Church, first entrusted to the twelve and now entrusted to their successors in the episcopal office, that this all-consuming fire of love is spread through our midst. It is the saints whom we celebrate today who in their lives communicated the saving gospel of Christ by their words and actions, and who now empower us to continue in that mission. Just as they are depicted around us with crowns of flame, bearing the gospel to every corner of the earth, so we are called to this place to be nourished, sanctified, and sent out as ambassadors of the life of beatitude to which all men are called. It is a cliché but true that Ite missa est is not for us an ending but every time a new beginning of mission and evangelical zeal.
If this building speaks to us of the vision of heaven to which we are called then the sacred music which fills it this evening does so with the same fervour and conviction. Goethe wrote that architecture is frozen music, and if that is so then we can also say that music is liquid architecture. The ordering of sound, so perfectly achieved in the tones of Gregorian chant and the interweaving lines of polyphony, points us to the reality of God’s coming-amongst-us in the event of the incarnation. Out of the chaos of noise emerges the cosmos of God’s redemptive love, with art and architecture taking on form and substance that points beyond the things of this world and to the next. The resultant harmony is not merely soothing to the ears, but illustrative of a profound Christian truth. As the lives of even the saints (in the words of John Milton) ‘jarred against nature’s chime’ by their inclination to sin, in giving themselves entirely to God that dissonance is resolved in the harmony of the ‘celestial concert’ to which they now lend their voices. As we hear the arches and shapes of the music in our worship we are called to reflect on that unity, that perfect communion with Christ which the saints now enjoy, and to summon the courage to return to what Milton went on to call, ‘That undisturbed song of pure consent’, given to us in the grace lavished upon our lives at the sacred font.
That is the challenge of the call to holiness which the Church presents to us once more in this joyful feast of all the saints. It is the summons to begin to live now, in preparation for what is to come. It is the clarion call to sanctity and purification of ourselves now, in readiness for the perfect holiness required of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The historical example of the lives of the saints is part of that appeal, but so also is the reality of the eternal union with Almighty God which those countless men and women now enjoy, and which through this supreme act of Christian worship we are blessed to catch a fleeting glance.
As we here below behold that vision of heaven ‘through a glass darkly’ in our worship and in the fulfillment of the lives of the saints who now enjoy the vision of God ‘as he really is’, may we be renewed in the grace of our baptismal vocation. Following their example may our hearts be stirred to courageously and fervently give our lives to Christ and his will, whatever may be the cost. And may we seek to glimpse heaven not only in our participation in the Church’s sacred rites here on earth, but by striving to embody—as liturgical beings, we might say—the life that this supreme act of worship betrays, that our whole selves may in this life echo the worship of the next, that we may come one day to be counted among the great cloud of witness and add our voices to their unending hymn of praise: ‘Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and strength’ be to our God, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.