If you have ever been to Rome you will know that one building, apart from the Vatican, worth visiting is the Parthenon. Its erection was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus who lived up to the time Jesus was 14 years old. After it burned down, it was rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian (of Roman Wall fame here in Northumbria) in 126 AD.
It’s a circular building with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns under a pediment. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to a rotunda which is under a concrete dome with a central opening to the sky. Some 2,000 years after it was built, this dome is still the world’s largest un-reinforced concrete dome. It is one of the best preserved of all ancient Rome buildings. (Wikipedia)
When the Parthenon was built it was dedicated by the Romans to all their gods. However, since the 7th century it has been used as a church, dedicated to St Mary and the Martyrs, informally known in Rome as Santa Maria Rotonda. The niches and alcoves in the building that once housed images of Roman gods are now occupied by statues of Christian saints.
Today’s feast of All Saints began initially in Rome as a commemoration of the Christian martyrs there to whom, with Our Lady, the Parthenon is now dedicated. The names of these martyrs were either unknown or unrecorded so they could not be included by name on the day of their martyrdom. They were not, in the language the Church uses today, “canonized” or officially declared to be saints. Hence, this feast to honour them.
Here in the British Isles it is known that about 100 years after the Parthenon was rebuilt churches were already celebrating the feast of All Saints on 1 November, as we still do today. This was officially the date of the Celtic festival of the dead and it is likely that the Church may have taken over this festival and made it its own.
In the Church now we have fewer images of saints than in times past. The images we do have – as in this and other churches – are those of better known women and men who led heroic Christian lives and, in many cases, were martyrs. Although very few housewives or ‘ordinary’ people like ourselves are mentioned, the names we do have are people we believe who followed the guidelines for living, as laid down by Jesus, for a good life. They followed the way of life summed up in the Beatitudes listed in today’s Gospel.
Each of the Beatitudes falls into two parts. The first part describes the present condition the followers of Jesus were enduring; and the second part promises the future blessing or reward to come for them. These beatitudes were originally addressed not to all people indiscriminately but to those who had left everything to follow Jesus. Such people were ‘poor in spirit’, totally dependent on God to provide for them. And if, for example, they were merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and hungering for justice and right, Jesus promised they would be truly blessed or honoured by God. They were already part of God’s kingdom here on earth but now they were promised future blessings.
For us today, and in union with the whole Church, we are honouring all the saints of heaven – known and unknown to us – whose lives have been examples of faith and love throughout the ages, the ordinary people like ourselves who have lived the values of the Beatitudes.
In honouring those saints who are not individually recognised throughout the year, we take the opportunity today to remember with gratitude the people you and I have known down the years, now dead, who were not particularly pious but were absolute ‘saints’ in their patience, kindness, support and love of us in hundreds of ways. They are examples and models of faith that, hopefully, inspire us with the resilience and perseverance we need in these COVID and wearying times. May God reward them for their goodness to us and others, and may their faith and love live on in our hearts.
Holy Name, Jesmond
1 November 2020