I’m excited that the formal beginning of our ministry together will be joined to our celebration of the feast of All Saints this coming Sunday. As many of you know, All Saints' is one of the principal feasts of the church year, a day adorned with beautiful prayers and hymns. At its heart, the feast celebrates the transforming power of Christ’s resurrection, revealed in the lives of our brothers and sisters across time and space, “the lights of the world in their generations.”
It’s notable that a feast so centered on the church’s life began with the consecration of one particular church building, Saint Mary and the Martyrs in Rome, consecrated for Christian worship in 609. You probably know this particular church much better by its pagan name, the Pantheon. If you have been to Rome, you may have been inside it to catch a glimpse of its glorious dome, which has served as a model for many more buildings of its kind, including the Jefferson Memorial in our own backyard.
When the Pantheon was completed by the Roman emperor Hadrian in the second century, its dome was twice as big as any that had ever been built before, still the largest masonry dome ever constructed. It was a monument to the Roman genius for engineering, intended to rival the great pyramids. The wide expanse echoed the vault of the heavens, appropriate for its dedication to all the gods of Rome.
There were quite a few of them that needed to be remembered, as Saint Augustine recalled in one of the more lighthearted passages in The City of God. As part of a lengthy catalog starting at the very beginning of life, he noted that the pagans of his time “commend the children to the goddess Ops when they were being born; to the god Vaticanus in their birth-cry; to the goddess Cunina when lying cradled; to the goddess Rimina when nursing; to the god Statilinus when standing; to the goddess Adeona when coming; to Abeona when going away; to the goddess Mens that they might have a good mind,” and so on (IV.21).
Lots of gods to invoke meant lots of gods to anger if they were forgotten. For all its splendor, the Pantheon also witnesses to the dark fear of retribution at the heart of paganisms old and new. The sacrifices offered there were intended to appease the gods whomever they might be, to ward off their vengeful power. The wide dome served as a kind of umbrella policy for the ancient city, which could never run afoul of any divinity no matter how obscure. Like the “altar to an unknown god” that Saint Paul discovered in Athens (Acts 17:23), the Pantheon evokes a world in which gods are greedy for offerings, jealous of privileges, ready to turn on humans at the slightest provocation.
When Pope Boniface IV consecrated the temple as Christian church, he was dedicating it to the worship of the one true God, who rules over the expanse of time and space. The pope ordered the pagan statues removed. He put in their place 28 cartfuls of the remains of Christians from the catacombs, victims of imperial persecution . The building’s dome would still evoke the many on earth; not many gods, but Mary and the many martyrs, whose lives of holiness display the power of God’s grace.
The true God is not greedy or vengeful, but abundant in mercy, filling people of every race and condition with strength to bear witness to His glory. In place of fear, there is bountiful joy of the resurrection, victorious over death.
The feast, originally celebrated once a year in this one church, gradually spread out from Rome. It was shifted from May to November, and came to celebrate not just Mary and the martyrs, but saints of all kinds, whose diversity of gifts and vocations continue to inspire and strengthen us. The feast celebrates kings and monks, theologians and servants of the poor, artists and teachers, missionaries and scientists, as well as millions unknown to history, whose lives of simple holiness bear witness to the Holy Spirit’s power to make all things new.
We do not ward off the saints by our sacrifices. Instead, we welcome their guidance and rejoice in their prayers, in “one communion and fellowship” established by our Lord’s resurrection. They were like us, and yet God used them to do marvelous things, so that we might follow after them. “For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I aim to be one, too.”
In the days and months to come, I look forward to getting to know you, the people of Saint Francis Church, those “called to be saints.” (Rom 1:7). I want to hear your stories, to learn how God has called you into this congregation, to share your lives with one another, and to serve Him together. I will also begin to share my story with you. Together, I hope we will talk about opportunities present around us now and dreams for the future.
You’ll be able to meet me and my family at both services on Sunday, and during the reception after the 9:15 service that bids farewell to Father Jess and welcomes me into my new role, I will speak very briefly about my life and vocation. The next Sunday, November 13, during the Adult Education time, Pastor Allison and I will both talk about some of the spiritual influences and experiences that have formed us, and there will be an open time for you ask us questions.
I’ve met many of you already: those on the search committee and vestry who discerned this call from God; those who have helped to renovate the rectory into such a beautiful new home for me and my family; those who have brought us meals and sent notes of welcome. But there are hundreds more of you to meet, many more stories to learn. It’s an exciting prospect for me and I hope for you as well.
I hope to meet with each of you in the coming months. My goal is to talk face-to-face with each parish member over the next year, preferably in your home or workplace, a place that is significant to you. The transition committee is also coordinating several get-acquainted social gatherings each month for the next few months. I will also set aside several slots each week for home or workplace visits. Our family also plans to host a number of events at the rectory, both as a way of getting to know you, and as a way of continuing to deepen relationships in coming months and years.
We live together in just one small part of that great expanse symbolized by the Pantheon’s dome. But even here, I’m sure there is a diversity of gifts, holiness revealed in many ways. May our Lord, the “King of saints” (Rev. 15:3), bind us together in His grace as we begin this new life together in this wonderful parish.