FEAST OF ALL SAINTSNovember 1, 2020
Rev. 7: 2-4, 9-14; Psalm 24; I John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
By: Jude Siciliano, OP
I am a college sophomore attending Mass on the feast of All Saints at our University chapel. I hear the assigned Scriptures for the day and I am puzzled. I wish I could say my confusion was about a profound theological issue. But I’m 19 years old, not the age when I, or my classmates, pondered serious spiritual, or theological questions. After hearing the reading from the Book of Revelations I’m confused by the response to the question put by the elder about the identity of the innumerable people dressed in white robes: "from every nation, race, people and tongue."
The elder answers his own question: "These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress, they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb." There is the source of my question: how can you wash robes in blood and have them come out white? It was not until years later that I decided to satisfy the quandary the reading raised in my sophomore mind.
Revelation presents us with several visions of the heavenly court. Earlier (chapter 4) it gave a vision of God sitting on a throne, surrounded by 24 elders. They are beholding the image of the slain Lamb of God, who has "power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing" (5:12).
In today’s reading a vast number of people have joined the audience, "From every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (v. 9). It is a white-robed throng holding palm branches. Their white robes are given them because they were martyred. Their palm branches are celebratory, signs of a feast. They are innumerable and the language that identifies them is apocalyptic, "These are the ones who survived the time of great distress."
That is how their robes were washed in the blood of the Lamb. They were martyred during the great persecutions for their faith in the Lamb of God. Now these "witnesses" (that’s what "martyrs" means) are saved from pain, hunger, thirst and persecution. Are they the people Jesus describes in the Beatitudes who, despite present afflictions for their faith in him, "will be comforted… will inherit the earth...will be satisfied, etc."?
Originally, All Saints Day celebrated those who had died as martyrs in persecutions. In the early church, and some churches today, "saints" was the name for Christians (Cor. 1:2; 14:33). Today we remember, celebrate, and assure one another, "See what God can do among ordinary people! Just as they are saints, so shall we be." Correction – "So are we now! Praise God!"
If we are in church today (or, possibly live streaming) what will we see? Of course, the Book of the Scriptures catches our attention during the first part of the Mass. After hearing God’s Word we turn to the altar and the bread and wine we will offer for consecration. But, as our eyes turn towards the altar, perhaps our gaze will fall on the images of the saints that surround us in statutes, paintings and mosaics on the walls.
There they are, those Beatitude people described in today’s gospel: once poor in spirit, mourning, lowly, justice-seekers, persecuted, martyred for their faith, merciful, peacemakers – God’s children whose lives reflected the animating and faith-sustaining presence of the Spirit. After such reminders of God’s great works in the lives of the saints, we have reason to give thanks. The presider will introduce the Eucharistic Prayer, "Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God." And we will respond, "It is right and just." True enough, but there is more to include in our thanks, more saints, not from the past. but those who are among us now. Who are they? How do their lives reflect the holiness of God? Thank you God for their witness to your presence among us, doing what you have done through your Son and his saints through the ages.
On my desk I have a reminder of God’s active and inclusive Spirit. It is Robert Ellsberg’s book, "All Saints" (New York: Crossroad, 1998). Ellsberg includes biographical sketches of those named saints by the Catholic Church. He also includes Christians from other denominations, as well as Muslims, Jews and even those without membership in any faith tradition. It is what the Book of Revelation reminds us today: "After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue."
The feast of All Saints is a feast of the Holy Spirit. The second person of the Trinity took flesh to save us. The third person, the Holy Spirit, is God acting among us, bringing God’s plan for us humans to fulfillment. The Spirit works in many ways, but one sign of the Spirit’s presence is the creation of a community of life. The Spirit is God’s communication of grace, pouring the life of God into us limited humans, who often go astray, forming us into a people who are enabled to walk in God’s ways.
As the visionary of the Book of Revelation tells us today: "After this I had a vision of a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue." The Spirit links all humans through the universal love of God. How do saints come about? Through the limitless work of the Spirit. Where and when does this happen? In every land and every age. Through the Spirit we are, even now, being united to God and connected to one another. I like the tradition in some churches and denominations that begins prayer by greeting the gathered community with, "Good morning saints!"
And isn’t that what we celebrate today, the Spirit’s ongoing work of grace that forms us into a holy community, a community of saints?
"Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship"
The Catholic bishops of the United States once again offer to the Catholic faithful their teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics.
Click here for a link to this Sunday's readings:
Rev. 7: 2-4, 9-14; Psalm 24; I John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12