The November Gospel

The Gospel through the Year


Bonfires, football, leaves,saints and bishops

The leaves falling on  Remembrance Sunday, the clocks  going back, long dark evenings, cold nights and days, speak of death, of frailty and mortality. Yet the shops look ahead to Christmas: cakes, puddings, pies and presents have to be made or bought.

The Church Year takes us in November, to the season  of the Saints. Long before Guy Fawkes, long before the Gospel was proclaimed in our land,  bonfires were lit and feasts held as the year moved from autumn into winter. Winter was a time of cold and fear. Bonfires and feasting  helped stave off chilly hunger and spoke of the returning sun. Food and drink was offered to the souls of the dead. The year turns.

When Pope Gregory the Great sent St. Augustine to England to proclaim the Gospel he wisely advised that rather than trying to stamp out the memory of holy places and ancient pagan ceremonies the Church should “baptise” them. So ancient places of worship became the site for Christian Churches. The Church Year  became a  celebration of the Gospel  revealing Christ’s glory through nature’s times and seasons. 

The “soul month” of November speaks of the Christian hope of resurrection and eternal life. We celebrate All Saints Day. We celebrate all Christian souls who down the centuries have striven, failed, and striven again to lead lives of prayer, service and holiness.  All Souls Day affirms that in Christ all the faithful departed are held in the love of God until the fullness of God’s Redemption brings about a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21) when God brings this present creation into its promised fullness in Christ’s love.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews  pictures an amphitheatre or football stadium! Perhaps  “the Stadium of Light” and  “St. James’s Park “are more aptly named than we recognise ? In  Hebrews we are on the pitch. This is “not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important” for we are playing to the glory of God and for the defeat of evil. The old Prayer Book says we are “the Church   Militant”. We fight with the weapons of worship, scripture, sacraments, prayer and love against all that mars and destroys humanity in ourselves and others. As every day we set out to  “play for Christ” we are not alone. It can feel like that. At work, at school, out shopping, on the metro it can feel as if we are the only Christian soul -and not a  very good one at that.  Our culture is so deeply secularised, so over-busy, so cynical and cold, so overtaken by consumerism and selfishness that it can feel at times that , as Elijah said long ago, “I even I only am left”(1 Kings 18.22). Over a coffee, or in the pub someone can come out with something deeply non-Christian. How do we respond? Do we simply keep silent- and feel afterwards that we have failed our Lord, run away like the disciples in Gethsemane? It can feel as if we are far out on a wing with several of the opposition bearing down on us  and none to support us.

We are not alone. Hebrews puts it like this: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”  (Heb.12.1f.) . We are not alone because we are part of the whole Church Militant. Every day in our own little church, in our Cathedral, in thousands of other churches, worship is offered, prayers are said, simple souls strive to be formed more fully into Christ. We are not alone because “we are surrounded by a great a cloud of witnesses” : the saints. Some saints ( and we are all “called to be saints” 1 Cor.1.2) are  great spiritual warriors, most simply  ordinary people who have offered their lives to Christ and sought to live His life in their own as they get on with the daily work of prayer, cooking, looking after the baby, caring for an elderly mum, coping with a difficult boss, trying simply to be good. We are not alone. We believe in the Communion of Saints. Those who now rest in Christ know how hard it can be to “run with perseverance the race set before us”, and  how often they failed.  Yet they have won the victory—because every time they fell, they gave  themselves afresh to Christ who has won the victory over evil and sin. That is why we pray. We commit ourselves over and again to Christ in penitence for past failure and in sure hope for the            future. Through  baptism, through scripture, through prayer, through the Eucharist, we are  filled with hope. We are not alone because all the holy ones of God, great and small, offer prayer to Christ- our prayers with theirs : “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.”(Rev.8.4)

November is a “dead” month. Leaves fall from the trees. But they are not wasted. Taken into the earth they become new, rich soil to give fresh life for another Spring and Summer. “Gather up the scraps”, orders Jesus at the end of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. “nothing must be wasted.” With God nothing is ever wasted.

The November saint, St. Martin knows that. Taken off into the Imperial Army, by orders of his father, Martin serves twenty five years as a Roman legionary. He has already discovered his vocation to be a priest and  monk. That must wait. But “nothing is wasted”. Those twenty five years imbue him with a deep personal discipline and iron will for God; he trains as a medical orderly and so later can take pastoral responsibility for the mentally ill. Only the Church showed any care to the mentally ill  back then. Martin comes to regard a twenty mile march with heavy kit as a mere stroll. It is  perfect training to travel across Gaul preaching Christ, teaching the disciplines of community prayer. “Nothing is wasted”.

The leaves moulder, the poppies fall, we stand in silence. Advent is just round the corner, a time of mystery and hope, a time to celebrate the first Creation in Christ “through whom all things are made” (John 1.3, Col 1.16), a time to look forward to God’s new creation in Christ : “Behold, I tell you good news, a Saviour has been born for you.”, a time to look forward to God’s new creation through  Christ : “ a new heaven and a new earth”, a new beginning, light in the darkness. Christ the King, through his death and resurrection, brings in God’s  Kingdom of Love, Truth and Justice—a Kingdom which we seek to serve and for which we pray daily: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” 

This year, 2015, on the very last day of November, 30th, St. Andrew’s Day, many of us, from throughout our Diocese, will gather in York Minster,  the Mother Church of the whole  Northern Province, to be part of the  consecration of Christine our new Bishop. The full Minster, seating 2000+,  will be a witness that we are not alone, that Christ’s Church is still “militant”, rediscovering our calling to be the holy, prayerful people of God. For everyone who travels to York on 30th November there are many who, because of work or family or age or  illness, cannot be physically present but will hold Bp. Christine in prayer, hold our diocese in prayer, as we discover afresh  that we are a living, prayerful holy people of God.

York Minster is itself a witness to the “great cloud of witnesses” who surround us. There, in 627,  Bp. Paulinus baptised King Edwin of  Northumbria within a tiny wooden structure inside the royal palace which had been formed out of York’s great legionary fortress. Day by day since then - often through difficult times when it must have felt that Christ’s  Gospel and Church had been defeated - faithful souls have managed to cling on to the daily discipline of worship,  prayer and witness. When Edwin was killed and Paulinus had to flee to keep others safe, James the Deacon continued the work and worship of the Minster, hiding out in the woods near Catterick. A little later God sent Aidan, then Cuthbert, then Chad and Wilfred who himself established great churches at Ripon and Hexham and brought a relic of Saint Andrew there to be a focus of prayer and inspiration.

Today we and Bishop Christine are part of the story of Gods’ Redemption and Renewal in Christ. St. Andrew, a Galilean fisherman, was a disciple of John the Baptist called by Christ to be a “fisher of men”. Tradition tells us he travelled, after the Resurrection, to the shores of the Black Sea to proclaim Christ’s Gospel, to evangelise, to show people the promise of the fullness of life in Christ through worship, prayer and service to others in Christ’s Name. On 30th November we pray for Bp. Christine, for the mission of our cathedral and diocese, for the mission of our own little parish church. We  give thanks that we are “surrounded by a  great a cloud of witnesses”. We commit ourselves, each and every one of us, to  run with fresh and renewed  perseverance “the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”