Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12a
The feast of All Saints is a holy day on which the church glorifies God for all his saints, known and unknown. It is celebrated on November first in the West, since Pope Gregory IV ordered its church-wide observance in the year 837. All Saints’ Day has been observed by the Church as an occasion to celebrate in a special way all its saints, past and present, whatever their country of origin, their race, or their denomination, and whether they are known to us personally or not. On this day we remember the saints, who may have been forgotten, or never been specifically honored. But they are holy persons whose examples we aim to follow and their life we imitate and at the same time 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. We celebrate the lives of ordinary men and women of every time and place who lived in an extraordinary way in faithfulness to the message of the gospel. These men and women have been teachers and preachers; they are founders of religious orders and scholars. They are married persons, missionaries, and martyrs. They come from all walks of life and from various parts of the globe. They are ours and they belong to us. They show us how to live faithfully the Beatitudes that Jesus once again teaches us in today’s gospel. In 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. These saintly men and women are indeed blessed and holy and we ought to follow in their footsteps.
The origin of this feast lies in the common commemorations of martyrs who died in groups or whose names were unknown, which were held on various days in different parts of the Church. However, over time these celebrations came to include not only the martyrs but all saints. The purpose of the feast is said to be twofold. As the prayer of the Mass states, “the merits of all the saints are venerated in common by this one celebration,” because a very large number of martyrs and other saints could not be accorded the honor of a special festival since the days of the year would not suffice for all these individual celebrations. The second purpose was given by Pope Urban IV: Any negligence, omission, and irreverence committed in the celebration of the saints” feasts throughout the year is to be atoned for by the faithful, and thus due honor may still be offered to these saints. This celebration of the feast of all saints reminds us of the fact that they are present, interceding on our behalf as we are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and now are a great role model for us as we strive to live out our faith. In the New Testament, sainthood is a status which church members enjoy because of their consecration to God through Christ’s saving work, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not a status towards which they work or concentrate their efforts. It is a status that is immediate upon their acceptance of Christ and the salvation that he has offered. Later on the term was applied to people who, by their character, life, and conduct, showed conspicuous marks of their consecration to God, or of the influence of the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. In the second century A. D. the names of saints began to be included in the liturgical calendars of the churches.
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 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.
All the Readings of today’s solemnity refer, in different ways, to the Kingdom of Heaven. 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. “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” Here 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. 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 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. Here we have two imaginative visions – the life of the Christian on this earth and the assembly of the Kingdom of Heaven. Those ‘marked with the seal’ on earth, those identified as Christian, appear to be protected by God in the midst of great turbulence. The second vision is of Heaven, with particular emphasis on those wearing white robes, those who ‘have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb’. These are men and women who have become one with Christ in their earthly lives and have been transformed by remaining firm in ‘the time of great distress’. They now stand around the throne of God and the Lamb and they are the people who remained loyal to God through their suffering and hardship. Their white robe and palm in hand testify victory.
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. In this Gospel passage 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. These beatitudes are Our Lord’s clear and paradoxical teaching on the right dispositions towards this life, for any person who aspires to attain the Kingdom of Heaven. They refer to signs and dispositions we would probably consider unfortunate, but that, from a Christian perspective, are reassuring.
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. They are told to be spiritually detached from goods and possessions and place their trust in the divine. 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.
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 the words of the Gospel they are spiritually detached from goods and possessions, merciful, just and pure of heart, peace makers, just, humble and God-like persons. They suffered for Christ and offered their life to him.
Today’s feast is first of all an occasion for great thanksgiving. Ultimately, it is our feast since all of us are called to be saints. 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. Pope Benedict XVI 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.
We all must have heard the story of a little boy who wanted to meet God. He knew it would be a long journey. So one day he got up early and packed his bag with some biscuits, chocolates and soft drinks and set out on his journey without telling anyone. He had walked a short distance and reached a garden and found an old woman sitting quietly and feeding pigeons. The boy went and sat next to her and kept watching her action. Then he felt hungry and took out a biscuit and was about to eat. But he looked at the old woman and shared some with her. She willingly accepted it and gave him a bright smile. He too smiled. He shared his chocolates and drink and each time she gave her a smile better than previous one. They shared no word with each other. Evening approached and the boy was tired and wanted to return home. He had but taken a few steps, he turned back and gave a hug to the old woman who hugged in return giving the biggest smile ever. The boy reached home and the mother asked him why he looked so happy. The boy said: “Mom I had lunch with God today.” Before she could say anything he added, “Look mom, She had the most beautiful smile I have ever seen.” The Old Woman too reached home and her son asked her why she looked so happy. She responded saying, “Look son I had lunch with God today and I did not know he was so young.”
Fr. Eugene Lobo S.J. Rome