Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12a
The Feast of All Saints is a holy day of the Church honouring all saints, known and unknown. While we have information about many saints, whom we honour on specific days, there are many unknown or unsung saints, who may have been forgotten, or never been specifically honoured. On All Saints Day, we celebrate these saints of the Lord, and ask for their prayers and intercessions. The whole concept of All Saints Day is tied in with the concept of the Communion of Saints. This is the belief that all of God’s people, on heaven, earth, and in the state of purification, are connected in a communion. In other words, Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that the saints of God are just as alive like any human person and are constantly interceding on our behalf. The Gospel chosen for today’s feast gives us the Eight Beatitudes which form the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It is in fact a charter for holiness. Jesus proclaims that those believers who are currently in dire situations will ultimately share in the blessedness of God. The First Reading from the book of Revelation presents an apocalyptic vision of those who have died in Christ. They represent every nation, tribe and language and now stand before God and give thanks to him for the gift of salvation. The Second Reading from the First Letter of John reminds us of the great love of God who has chosen to call us His children and now enables us to be his saints.
The Church has always honoured those early witnesses to the Christian faith who have died in the Lord. The word witness in Greek language means martyr. During the first three hundred years Christians were severely persecuted, often suffering torture and bloody death because they were faithful to their belief in Jesus. The early history of the Church is filled with stories of the heroic faith of these chosen witnesses to Christ. The stories of these saints, of all ages and all states in life, whose fidelity and courage led to their sanctity or holiness has become model for every Christian throughout history. Many of those martyrs who were especially holy people, whose names and stories were known were later canonized or sanctified to be an example for us. But there have been thousands of early Christian martyrs whose names are known only to God and throughout the history of the Church there have been countless others who really are saints, and who are with God in heaven. Their names are not on the list of canonized saints in the church. They are especially remembered today on this feast day.
This feast originated as a feast of All Martyrs, sometime in the 4th century. At first it was celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. It came to be observed on May 13 when Pope St. Boniface IV in the 7th century restored and rebuilt for use as a Christian church an ancient Roman temple to “all gods”, the Pantheon. The pope re-buried the bones of many martyrs there, and dedicated this Church to the Mother of God and all the Holy Martyrs on May 13, 610. About a hundred years later, Pope Gregory III consecrated a new chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to all saints not just to the martyrs on November the first. A century later Pope Gregory IV extended the celebration of All Saints to November first for the entire Church as a holy day of obligation. The feast of All Saints achieved great prominence in the ninth century, in the reign of the Byzantine Emperor, Leo VI, the Wise, as he was called who built a church and dedicated it to All Saints.
The First Reading taken from the Book of Revelation tells us that there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. As the reading begins John sees another angel approaching with the seal of God. With the seal he identifies the loyal servants. They cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” These were the martyrs, they who have come out of the great ordeal and made clean whom we remember today. John also sees a vision of the court of heaven. Around the throe and the Lamb stand those who enjoy salvation, the people who remained loyal to God through their suffering and hardship. Their white robe and palm in hand testify victory. The Second Reading from the First Letter of John reminds us of the great love of God who has chosen to call us His children. During our sanctification through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ. When we allow God’s love to take hold of our lives, when we say a heartfelt yes to God, we become more and more like God. It only remains for God to finish the transformation by revealing himself totally to us in eternal glory. John tells us that when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
The Gospel of today Matthew portrays Jesus as he begins his Sermon on the Mount with a series of nine Beatitudes. In a religious context beatitude is a statement in the indicative mood beginning with a form of the adjective Blessed, declaring certain people to be in a privileged, fortunate circumstance. As a form of speech Beatitudes are found in the OT wisdom literature and prophesy. The beatitudes of Jesus are the prophetic pronouncements aimed at those who are presently in dire circumstances but who will be vindicated at the final coming of God’s Kingdom. All of the beatitudes express a conviction that those who believe in and are committed to the coming and already present Kingdom of God will experience a radical transformation that can only be captured by the word blessed. The confidence behind this faith in radical change is based on the authority of the one making the proclamation: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Therefore, believers are not those who expect instant gratification as the immediate result of faith. They are the committed followers of Jesus who can fully grasp the present circumstance with an eschatological conviction of the future fulfillment of the Kingdom.
Each of the Beatitude starts with the word ‘blessed’ which is sometimes translated ‘happy’. It is more accurate to translate it as ‘fortunate’ or in other words, people who have these qualities are persons who belong to the ‘kingdom of heaven’. These describe a situation or describe the kind of society that exists when we live according to these values, namely a place of truth and love, of compassion and justice, of peace, freedom and sharing, qualities which emanate from God himself. Blessed are those who are poor in spirit. They are those who are aware of their basic poverty and in need the help and support of God. Blessed are those who are gentle who reach out to others in care and compassion and tenderness. There are those blessed who mourn or those in grief or sorrow who will be assured of comfort from the loving community in Christ. Those who hunger and thirst for what is right and work for it and they will be given what are their due to live a life of dignity and self-respect. Those who are merciful will have compassion and forgiveness all around them. Blessed are those pure in heart and they will be able to see God. The peace makers are blessed as they are the ones who will be called the children of God. Finally those who are persecuted in the cause of right are blessed and will rejoice because reward is great in heaven. There is an implicit contrast between the various kingdoms of the earth and the ultimate Kingdom of God. The power of ultimate transformation belongs only to the kingdom of God in spite of how things may appear. This is the vision Jesus wanted to proclaim to his disciples and to the Church. Contrary to what might be seen, those who have the faith and courage to follow Jesus are blessed both now and in the age to come.
From the earliest of days the church has honoured with great respect the memory of the dead and, according to the Book of Maccabees “because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins” she offers her suffrages for them. The Church has always believed that the apostles and Christ’s martyrs, who gave the supreme witness of faith and charity by the shedding of their blood, are closely united with us in Christ; she has always venerated them, together with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy angels, with a special love, and has asked for the help of their intercession. Soon others were added to these who had chosen to imitate more closely the virginity and poverty of Christ, and still others for their outstanding practice of the Christian virtues was recommended to the pious devotion and imitation of the faithful. When we celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice we are closely united with the saints in heaven through the worship of God done in the Church. In the canon we say when in the fellowship of communion we honour the glorious Mary ever virgin, St Joseph, the holy apostles and martyrs and all the saints.
When we think about holiness, many of us tend to think that only extraordinary people are holy people. Perhaps that’s a way of defending against the idea that God asking us to be holy too. Or we think that the holy people are those special ones in monasteries and convents, gliding silently around in cloistered gardens while reading their prayer books, with little birds fluttering around St. Francis of Assisi and the like. That however, is not the way God sees it. The Book of Revelations tells us that a large number, innumerable, all of them clothed in the white robes manifesting sanctity and victory. The church teaches us that God’s call for holiness is universal. Everyone is called to live in God’s love and make His love real in the lives of those around them. Holiness isn’t something that is distant and far removed from us. On the contrary, it is near and close at hand. For holiness isn’t some strange way of living. However remarkable Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s life was, she continued to live in the streets among the teeming populace of Calcutta. Holiness means living whole lives in integrity and truth while being close with God.
In his Homily Pope Benedict XVI says that the real meaning of this Solemnity is looking at the shining example of the Saints to reawaken within us the great longing to be like them; happy to live near God, in his light, in the great family of God’s friends. Being a Saint means living close to God, to live in his family. And this is the vocation of us all, vigorously reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council and solemnly proposed today for our attention. We too can be holy says the Holy Father, first of all by listening to Jesus and then to follow him without losing heart when faced with difficulties. Jesus tells us that if anyone wishes to serves him, he must follow him; and where he is, there shall his servant be also; if any one serves him, the Father will honour him. The Church’s experience shows that every form of holiness, even if it follows different paths, always passes through the Way of the Cross, the way of self-denial. The Saints’ biographies describe men and women who, docile to the divine plan, sometimes faced unspeakable trials and suffering, persecution and martyrdom. They persevered in their commitment and their names are written in the book of life and Heaven is their eternal dwelling-place.
Today’s feast is first of all an occasion for great thanksgiving. It is altogether reasonable to think that many of our family, relatives and friends who have gone before us are being celebrated today. We will be with our parents, our grandparents, as well as those members of our families who sacrificed their own comfort and resources in order that we might have our Catholic Faith. They are the nuns and teachers who taught us about Jesus Christ, about the Sacraments and the life of God we receive in Mass and Holy Communion. They are our friends who supported us in our choices to do what is decent, what is good, what is pure, and what is noble and best. They are priests who inspired us, prayed for us, and prayed with us. They are people who lived down the street and dropped everything to come and help us, and to care for us when we were sick, or when we were in trouble. We look forward to the day when we, too, can be with them experiencing the same total happiness when “they will never hunger or thirst again”; when “sun and scorching wind will never plague them, because the Lamb who is at the heart of the throne will be their shepherd and will guide them to the springs of living water; and God will wipe away all tears from their eyes” Today is a day too for us to pray to them – both the canonized and the not canonized and ask them to pray on our behalf that we may live our lives in faithfulness so that we, too, may experience the same reward. The Pontiff further says that the example of the Saints encourages us to follow in their same footsteps and to experience the joy of those who trust in God, for the one true cause of sorrow and unhappiness for men and women is to live far from him. The Beatitudes show us the spiritual features of Jesus and thus express his mystery, the mystery of his death and Resurrection, of his passion and of the joy of his Resurrection.
Ultimately, Holiness means that you reveal the truth of yourself to them, that you don’t hide who you really are and what you are really doing. Holiness and complete love are two aspects of the same reality. Holiness means that you are open and exposed to God. It means that you can listen to what God wants to say to you. God has a Word for us: He has something He wants to say to us. Holiness, living holistically with God means that you give God time in which you ask Him for things that you need, a time in which He can ask you for what He wants of you. Holiness involves what we are doing right now, namely joining together in Christ’s family of faith to share His loving Presence here in a holistic common union that we share with Christ. This is All Saints Day, a special day each year when we place in our vision what God has in mind for us and recognize that we are called to be a part of that vast multitude of holy ones whose numbers are so great they cannot be counted.
A hermit was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. “Master, I wish to become your disciple,” said the man. “Why?” replied the hermit. The young man thought for a moment and said, “Because I want to find God.” The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under water. After holding him there for a minute, with him kicking and struggling to free himself, the master finally pulled him up out of the river. The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. “Tell me, what you wanted most of all when you were under water.” “Air!” answered the man. “Very well,” said the master. “Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”
Fr. Eugene Lobo S.J. Rome