All Saints

Commentary on Revelation 7:2-4,9-14, 1 John 3:1-3 and Matthew 5:1-12a

God’s holy Church rejoices that her children are one with the saints in lasting peace. (from Solemn Blessing for today)

As we come to the end of the Church year we celebrate this great feast of All Saints. It is important to emphasise from the beginning what we mean here by ‘saints’. Normally we apply the word to people of extraordinary holiness who have been canonised or beatified by the Church. Among them each one has their favourites: St Francis of Assisi, St Therese of Lisieux, St Anthony, St Joseph and so on.

But today’s feast uses the word in a much wider sense. It refers to all those baptised Christians who have died and are now with God in glory. It also certainly includes all non-Christians who lived a good life sincerely in accordance with the convictions of their conscience. We simply do not know how many people we are talking about, but it must be a very large number. Putting it the other way, there is no way we can decide which people have made an irrevocable choice of rejecting what is true and good and have chosen to be alienated from God forever. Hopefully, their number is much smaller.

There is a third group which we will remember tomorrow and they are those who have died but need still a process of purification before they can come face to face with the all-holy God.

The Gospel chosen for today’s feast is interesting. It gives us what we know as the Eight Beatitudes from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It is, in fact, a charter for holiness. When many people think of holiness they think of keeping the Ten Commandments and perhaps some other requirements of the Church like going to Mass on Sundays or fasting during Lent. What we often tend to forget is that the Ten Commandments really belong to the Old Testament and are part of the Jewish law. Of course, they are still valid and Jesus said clearly that he had not come to abolish the Jewish law but to fulfil it.

We might say that the Beatitudes are an example of that fulfilling. The Beatitudes go far beyond the Ten Commandments in what they expect of a follower of Christ, and yet the sad thing is that one hears of relatively few Christians saying that they base their lives on the Beatitudes. When we go to Confession it is the Ten Commandments we normally refer to and not the Beatitudes. And this is sad, because it is clear from their position in Matthew’s gospel that the Beatitudes have a central place. They are a kind of mission statement saying what kind of person the good Christian will be.

Let us look at them briefly, but first we need to clarify a few of the terms used. The word ‘blessed’ is sometimes translated ‘happy’. It might be more accurate to translate it as ‘fortunate’. In other words, people who have these qualities are really in an envious position. All of these beatitudes are indications that we belong to the ‘kingdom of heaven’. This is to be understood not as a place, still less as referring to life after death. It rather describes the kind of society that exists when we live according to these values – a place of truth and love, of compassion and justice, of peace, freedom and sharing.

The general message is that those are really blessed when they know their dependence on God and on their sisters and brothers; when they commit themselves totally to the Way that Christ invites them to follow.

The Gospel says that particularly blessed are:

  • Those who are poor in spirit. They are those who are aware of their basic poverty and fragility and of how much they need the help and support of God as opposed to those who foolishly claim independence and full control of their lives.
  • Those who are gentle: These are the people who reach out to others in care and compassion and tenderness, who constantly are aware of the needs of others.
  • Those who mourn: those who are in grief or sorrow for whatever reason will be assured of comfort from the loving community in Christ they have entered.
  • Those who hunger and thirst for what is right: Whatever the price, they will work that everyone will be given what is their due to live a life of dignity and self-respect. The price they may have to pay could be high, very high, even life itself.
  • Those who are merciful: They are the ones who extend compassion and forgiveness to all around them.
  • Those who are pure in heart: This does not refer to sexual purity, but rather to a simplicity and total absence of duplicity, of prejudice or bias. Not surprisingly, they are described as being able to see God. For such people, God’s presence is all too obvious in every person and experience.
  • Those who make peace – perhaps one of the most beautiful of the Beatitudes. These are people who help to break down the many barriers which divide people – whether it is class, occupation, race, religion, or anything that creates conflict between individuals or groups. Not surprisingly, these people are called “children of God”. God sent Jesus among us precisely to break down the barriers between God and his people and between people themselves.
  • Those who are persecuted in the cause of right: Persecution of itself is not a pleasant experience, and may result in loss of life. But blessed indeed are those who have the strength and courage to put the values of truth and love and justice for all above their own survival. Among the saints we most honour today are the martyrs, those who gave their lives in the defence of truth, love and justice.

This is the kind of Christian we are all called to be. It is these qualities which made the saints and which will make saints of us too. They go far beyond what is required by the Ten Commandments. If taken literally, the commandments can be kept and not with great difficulty. Many of them are expressed in the negative, “You shall NOT…” so we can observe them by doing nothing at all! “I have not killed anyone… I have not committed adultery… I have not stolen…” Does that make me a saint?

Being a Christian is a lot more than not doing things which are wrong. The Beatitudes are expressed in positive terms. They also express not just actions but attitudes. In a way, they can never be fully observed. No matter how well I try to observe them, I can always go further. They leave no room for smugness, the kind of smugness the Pharisees had in keeping the Law. The Beatitudes are a true and reliable recipe for sainthood.

“Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children,” the Second Reading reminds us today. Saints are not self-made people. They are people who have responded generously to the love of God showered on them. And the completion of that love is to be invited to share life with God forever in the life to come.

“What we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed,” the Reading also says. We do not know, and have no way of knowing what that future existence will be like, and it does not help very much to speculate. In fact, some of the conventional images of heaven are not terribly exciting! Kneeling on clouds playing harps for eternity – partly derived from a too literal reading of the book of Revelation – is not exactly a turn-on!

It is better to go along with St Paul who says that life face to face with God is something totally beyond our comprehension. Let us rather concentrate on the life we are leading now and let it be a good preparation for that future time.

Indeed, the First Reading from the book of Revelation presents an apocalyptic vision of those who have died in Christ. They are numbered at 144,000 – a number taken literally by some Christian sects. However, the number is clearly symbolical. It consists of the sacred number 12, squared and multiplied by another complete number, 1,000. It simply represents the total of all those who have died faithful to Christ their Lord. They represent “every nation, tribe and language” for access to Christ is open to all. They are dressed in white robes with palms in their hands. They are the robes of goodness and integrity. The palms of victory are a reference to the joyful Jewish feast of Tabernacles, for these are the ones invited to live in God’s tent or tabernacle.

Together with them are the angels, the 24 elders (perhaps representing the 12 patriarchs and the 12 Apostles) and the four living creatures (a very high rank of angels), all prostrate in adoration before the glory of God. The song they sing has been magnificently set to music by Handel in his “Messiah”. Praise, glory, wisdom, thanks, honour, power and strength are seven attributes of perfect praise.

And who are these people in white robes? “They are the people who have been through the great trial”, in other words, those who have been through persecution, particularly the persecution of Nero, which occurred about the time this book was written. And, paradoxically, “they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb”. It is the blood of Jesus Christ which brings salvation, but only to those who have united with him in sharing its effects. Many of them, of course, are martyrs and they have mingled their own blood with that of Jesus.

It is a picture of total victory, and the end of all the pains and sorrows they endured in this life. It is not a newspaper reporter’s description of heaven!

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 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” (Revelation 7:16-17).

Today is a day too for us to pray to them – both the canonised and the uncanonised – 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.

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