Much of the Church celebrates All Saints’ Day on 1 November, which this year falls on this coming Sunday. We are having a foretaste this morning.
Such a celebration has been part of the life of the Church for a very long time. The idea is to remember and to honour those Christians who have lived the life of faith with particular distinction and to rejoice with them that they now have passed beyond the struggles of this life, gathered into the presence of God. The reading from the Revelation to John indicated by the Revised Common Lectionary provides a compelling image of such a gathering, sheltered and guided, with all tears finally wiped away. We should note that the multitude consists of those from all peoples and languages.
The celebration of All Saints’ Day preserves the lovely notion that there is a continuity between that gathering before the throne of God and the gathering of the Church around the world, even our gatherings here at Volmoed, that we somehow form one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Christ our Lord with them. Those who have been an example to the Church of virtuous and godly living continue to urge us on towards God. With so many witnesses in a great cloud all around us, as we read in the letter to the Hebrews (12:1), we too are encouraged to throw off everything that weighs us down and the sin that clings so closely, and run with resolution the race that lies ahead of us, our eyes fixed on Jesus.
I have been wondering what makes a saint. The apostle Paul in his New Testament letters seemed to use the word commonly translated saint to refer simply to members of the Church, who were then very much still in this life. Through the years, parts of the Church have devised quite elaborate systems for deciding who qualifies for the designation after they have passed from this life.
In the Gospel reading for last Sunday, Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, and famously responded with the twofold reply of loving God with one’s whole being and loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Those who somehow have fulfilled such a commandment with some consistency would surely qualify under any definition of sainthood I might devise.
Perhaps the Beatitudes we heard listed by Jesus at the start of his Sermon on the Mount could be understood as a description of a state of blessedness we might call sainthood. It is not a picture we necessarily find attractive at first glance.
I find it helpful to think of the Beatitudes as describing people who have become fully alive by learning to love God wholeheartedly, having been entranced by the beauty and goodness of God, revealed in all that God has made and in their own experience of the presence of God in their own lives. They have rid themselves of all that distracts from the desire to know more of God, and so have begun to see as God sees and to care about what God cares about.
Such people mourn over the spiritual poverty of the world and develop a hunger and thirst for all to be put right, for all people to come to know God as they do. They have become gentle and merciful makers of justice and peace who are often misunderstood and ill-used by the world around them. Still, they know themselves to be blessed, because they are children of God.
We, too, are children of such a loving God, we are assured by our reading from the First Letter of John. What we will be has not yet been revealed, we are told. What a wonderful thought: God is not finished with us yet. Our destiny is to become like God, to become saints in some way, as improbable as that might sometimes seem.
Thomas Merton put it this way:
“Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny. We are free beings and children of God. This means to say that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in [God’s] creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth. To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.Thomas Merton – New Seeds of Contemplation
“We do not know clearly beforehand what the result of this work will be. The secret of my full identity is hidden in God. [God] alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. But unless I desire this identity and work to find it with God and in God, the work will never be done.”
Who can help us in this work, I wonder? Well, the saints can, I hope, by joining their prayers with ours. There are those saints we read about in books, who share with us through the ages their experience of God and their compulsion to live in response to that experience, in the midst of the brokenness of this world. More humbly, perhaps, but no less significantly, there are those we have known in our own lives who have shared their faith in God with us and helped us to learn to love God and to love God’s people, which is to say everyone we meet.
I think we all have our own personal saints, and only some of them have a place in the Church’s calendar. The celebration of All Saints’ Day seems a fitting occasion to remember and honour and give thanks for all those who have helped us on our way towards God and towards our truest selves.
- Communion of Saints – https://catholiclife.diolc.org/2018/11/01/the-month-of-november-a-reminder-of-the-communion-of-saints/
- Sermon on the Mount – https://www.rainbowtoken.com/Sermon-on-the-Mount-The-Beatitudes.html
- The Beatitudes – https://pref-tech.com/leadership-lessons-from-the-beatitudes/