It’s All Holy
November 5, 2017
Jennifer Garrison Brownell
How do we remember those who have died, those we want everyone to remember? Often with big monuments, impressive statues, large and long walls. But not always.
This week, I heard for the first time about Crossbones Cemetary in London.
For hundreds of year, this tiny and unassuming site was an unconsecrated burial ground for paupers, prisoners, and “single women.”
At the time prostitutes were known as the ‘Winchester Geese’ as they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work in one of the area’s many brothels. Let it sink in for a moment that the women were overseen by a church hierarchy that refused to bless them with the most basic of religious rites – a burial on consecrated ground.
Over 15,000 people too poor to afford burial were buried at crossbones, many of them children under a year old. The graveyard itself fell into disuse after 1853, at which point it was said to be absolutely full of remains, with one body thrown on top of another. When the site was set for development in the 1990’s, 142 bodies were disinterred, among them the young woman mentioned above. The ribbons attached to the memorial gates of the site record the parish records for some of the people buried at the site. Today, a bronze plaque on the gates reads “The Outcast Dead,” surrounded by thousands of ribbons, photos, jewelry, and gin bottles.
One visitor to the site says “The most moving part of the garden though, for me, was the shrine behind the gates. A statue of the Virgin Mary tenderly cradles a goose, surrounded by flowers and tokens, and by broken chains. For many people, the statue also represents the Goddess, and it is typical of the inclusivity of Crossbones that, if you look, you will find symbols of many faiths. The principle here is divine love, whatever form it comes in.”
Each month, there is a vigil for the forgotten dead which attracts both regulars and tourists – they read poems, sing songs, hold hands, say the names of those who have died and then (this is London after all) share a swig from a common bottle of gin.
John Crow, a local poet and community organizer, begins the vigil, welcoming attendees with the words, ‘although we are not perfect we are complete’.
We are, as the reading from Revelation reminds us with its multitudes dressed in white worshipping God, part of something much larger than ourselves. But in that same passage in which God towers above the saints on a throne (a mighty King) God also, as tender as any mother, wipes a tear from each individual, precious, important eye. So we are part of a crowd and also, not perfect but complete, we are beloved and blessed, as individuals too.
Today is all Saints Day, which is a day to remember and rejoice for those who have gone before. The dictionary tells us that a saint is a “certain persons of exceptional holiness” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/saint, but really aren’t we all, in god’s eyes, exceptional? What is holiness, after all, but persistence, continuing to reach out to God, to search, to answer God’s call. Not perfect, as John Crow says, but complete Maybe, that’s why some of us prefer another title for this day, All Souls’ Day.
That’s what the scripture we heard today reminds us. That we are, each of us, a blessing. We know the beatitudes (latin for Blessings), as that lovely scripture is called, so well that it can actually be harder to hear it. Each time we hear it again, though, we are invited to hear that those who we would least expect are blessed, are people of exceptional holiness.
In his translation of the Bible called The Message, Eugene Peterson
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule.”
Not many of us would describe ourselves as “meek,” but all of us have, at one time or another, been at the end of our rope.
What Jesus is saying in these lovely verses is that each one of us has a blessed life, a sainted life, a life of exceptional holiness, of not perfectness but completeness. What Jesus says in the beatitudes is just this – it is not the gorgeous, the powerful or the good smelling who have blessings – it is all of us, it is you and me. The very ordinariness of our everyday lives is what makes us so precious to God, and, if we stop to think about it, to each other.
In reflecting on her career as an ordained minister, Methodist minister Mary Cartledgehayes says: “To breathe, to laugh, to curse, to praise, to weep, to sit in the midst of perfect order, to stand in the center of perfect chaos, to break bread, to eat three strawberries, to touch a piano’s keys, to kiss a lover’s skin, to birth, to baptize, to bless, to bury, to live, to die – either it is all holy, or none of it is holy. And this is what I know.
It is all holy.”
To see read more about Crossbones (including references to many of the quotes in this sermon) and to see pictures, check out: