SOLEMNITY OF ALL SAINTS
Sr Philomena McGuinness SSL shares some thoughts on the Feast of All Saints and the readings chosen for the Mass of that day.
In the times of great persecution of the early Church, there were so many martyrs that it was impossible to commemorate each one on an individual day. Eventually, when the Church was given an old Roman Temple dedicated to “all the gods”, the Pantheon became became a place to honour “All the Saints” and today’s feast was born.
The entire collection of Roman gods was called the ‘Pantheon’ and in ancient times, you could worship any of the gods whose statues were located in the niches of the building. The Pantheon was converted into a Catholic Church in 609 A.D. and dedicated to Our Lady and all the Martyrs.
On this feast of All Saints, we honour in a special way all the holy men and women who in their day-to-day lives have been challenged by the Gospel and have lived it generously.
First Reading The Book of the Apocalypse 7:2-4, 9-14
A vision of the faithful followers of Christ rejoicing in his presence in the heavenly kingdom.
The Book of Revelation was written for Christians who were being persecuted for their faith towards the end of the first century. It is built on the promise that, after persecution, those who are faithful to God and to Christ will be delivered and gathered into the peace of God’s presence. At the time of writing, the persecuting force from which they were to be delivered was the might of the Roman Empire with its immorality, its materialism and above all, its demands that all its subjects should worship the Emperor as God.. All would have to cry ‘Caesar is Lord.’
Many Christian churches of Asia (a Roman province in the south-west region of Turkey) were under threat; the Christians there needed encouragement. A number of them had become martyrs; others would soon be killed and many of them were harassed by local authorities or even put in prison. The whole Book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) is a powerful message for persecuted Christians of the late first century for whom the great test was whether they would accept the standards of the Empire or remain faithful to the demanding standards of Christianity in a hostile world.
In today’s extract, after witnessing visions of the cosmic upheaval as the moon turns to blood and creation is clothed in darkness, the seer, John, hears the divine voice mandating the destroying angel to wait until a group of people are claimed as God’s own. He then has a first vision of an angel coming from the east, holding the seal of the living God and putting the seal on the foreheads of the Lord’ servants, that is, those who are ‘saved’.
Their number is 144,000, a symbolic number that should not be taken literally. It is not the exact number of those who will enter heaven. It refers to those members of the tribes of Israel who were faithful to the Covenant and benefit from God’s saving activity in the past through events like the Exodus and the return from exile. For the Jewish people this number signified completion: it meant twelve thousand people assigned to each of the twelve tribal units.
After this first vision, the second vision moves to the heavenly throne. It describes a great multitude that no one can count, of those saved by the blood of the Lamb, which is an image of Christ. These come from every nation, race, people and tongue. They all stand before God and in front of the Lamb; wearing white robes symbolising joy and innocence and holding palm branches in their hands as a sign of victory. They share in the victory that Christ has won over the powers of evil by his death on the cross.
Words of praise and victory are spoken and sung by a huge assembly. They are happily celebrating a heavenly Feast of Tabernacles (the most joyous of Jewish feasts.)
An interpreting elder confirms that that the victorious are those who have come triumphantly through tribulation and have not apostatised under threat of persecution.
- Do I connive at and approve standards of behaviour that are built on a morality far from that of Christ? More pressingly, do I accept those standards for myself?
- The aim of the Apocalypse is to strengthen its audience’s commitment in the face of rejection and persecution. It attempts to bolster faith by assuring that everything has its place in the plan of God and that a final triumph is certain.
- In the late first century, people are already beginning to see more clearly that the Church is a community in which the dignity and value of each person is recognised as a child of God, without distinction of race, colour, sex or status.
- The heavenly court is an international assembly of ordinary people who have been faithful to God; real people whose struggles and frustrations come to a merciful end in the peace of God’s house. Dare I let myself hope for such a finale, the unity of all mankind, nations, tribes, peoples, languages?
Second Reading 1 John 3:1-3
In his love for us, God has made his children and destined us one day to see him as he is.
In this passage John invites his readers to be attentive to the fact that even in this life; they are really and truly children of God. As Christian believers we belong to God because they have been adopted in Christ. We are God’s children and in case there should be any doubt about it, John adds: ‘and this is what we are.’ We have been born to a new life and share, mysteriously but really, in the life of God. Therefore, we can be sure that each one of us is loved by the Father.
If the unbelieving world does not recognise the true status of Christians, it is because the world doesn’t recognise God either. John means by this that it has failed to recognise Jesus.
We have to await the coming of the Lord, to see him ‘as he is’ before we can arrive at full appreciation of our own identity, our own Christian reality – and only then, will we see clearly that our future state will be like the glorified state of Jesus.
Moreover, our present relationship with God is only the beginning. Being children of God is a source of hope, but it also demands a response from us. Meanwhile, we must be close se to God in prayer, show the qualities of God in our actions – his generosity, forgiveness and openness – and live as witnesses to the love of Christ.
- In the presence of Christ, our eyes will be opened, and we shall then truly understand what God has worked in us. What are the elements you look forward to in heaven?
- Who are the saints who have played a part in your life? In what ways does my sainthood manifest itself?
- How are we supposed to behave as we wait to meet Christ ‘as he really is’? We will be told that in the Beatitudes!
Gospel Matthew 5:1-12
Jesus speaks about the qualities he wishes to see in his disciples. He makes wonderful promises to those who try to follow him.
The familiar Beatitudes are the Gospel reading today. They are the qualities that are to mark the followers of Jesus. They are a summary of the teaching of Jesus Christ. Many have recognised in them a portrait of Jesus himself.
One of the things Jesus is doing in this Gospel is enunciating a set of values that would be foundational in his kingdom he was putting in place. The important ones are poverty of spirit, gentleness, forgiveness, a hunger for justice, a passion for peace, a readiness to suffer in his name. These are very much at variance with pagan or worldly values such as pride, vindictiveness, belligerence, aggrandisement and war.
But more than enunciating a set of values, Jesus is describing (1) the stuff of which saints are made, (2) the characteristics of those who desire to participate in the life that Jesus would live and for which he would die and (3) the kind of people who would be citizens of his kingdom.
The Beatitudes are the qualities that are to mark the followers of Jesus.
Lord, teach me to live your way!
- We see here the interior landscape of Jesus: poor in spirit, gentle, merciful, hungry for justice, pure in heart, a peacemaker – yet prepared to grieve and to suffer persecution in the cause of right. For most of the Beatitudes, there are gospel incidents in which Jesus sums them up: like the entry into Jerusalem as the gentle king on a donkey, or the love he shows in his welcome to sinners, or his bringing peace to those tortured by disease or contempt, or his purity of heart in his single-minded preoccupation with his Father’s will, and finally his acceptance of persecution for what he knew to be right. Any Christian may suddenly find him/herself face with similar challenges.
- Each of the ‘blesseds’ is a statement about something important in the Christian life. They are an ideal on how to live and how to find God close to us. We might ask for the grace today to live by this vision of life, which was at the root of how Jesus lived.
- If the qualities of the Beatitudes are not appreciated in our world, it is because the Kingdom of God is still to be established on this earth. This is why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your Kingdom come.” (Mt. 6:10)
- Today we rejoice in all the saints of the Church, all the saints in our lives and what is saintly in each of us. We thank God for all the holy and women who gone before us and those still among us today, who have enriched the Church and the world with their quiet witness to the Gospel, people whose lives are unheralded and whose names are unknown. And if you feel thanked in the process, don’t feel confused!!
- Today’s feast includes all the saints who were never canonised: mothers and fathers who stayed faithful to one another and their families; single men and women who did good ‘unseen’; those who found God through the pain they endured; all those who never thought of themselves as holy but whose goodness was clear to those to them. Do I belong there?
- We belong to a community that has a history of goodness and fidelity to the Gospel. We are related to those who went before us, those who linked their belief to those who went before them. We are part of a chain of holiness. We belong to the sanctified brethren.
- We have our ancestors in faith who are blessed in heaven ‘a huge number, impossible to count of people from every nation, tribe and language.’ (Rev 7:9). And among them are counted people who know and love us. Today we salute them.
- We are a small part of a marvellous company of believers who struggle into holiness. The saints serve as models for us precisely because they were sinners like the rest of us. They inspire us. The only question is the extent to which we respond. They show us what we are capable of. Their standards and values are pointing in the direction we are to go. We feel their strength helping us and supporting us. This great company of witnesses spur us on to victory, to share their prize of everlasting glory.
- The annual celebration of ‘All Saints’ reminds us that the saints are not all alike. There are many different kinds of saints. It also reminds that the saints are not just those whose names are on some official list somewhere. Many saints, perhaps most saints, are not known to us by name.
- Finally, this feast reminds us that, to the extent that the life of Christ is still with us, we are all saints!! The only question is the extent to which we try to live a godly life as God’s children.
Think of those who have been through it before you,
Lord, you have given us many friends in heaven.
Today we are grateful for the lives
of so many people of every age, church and century
who have done their best to live
in the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We ask for the ability to emulate them
and for fortitude in the face of the challenges
that face us in that mission.
In your goodness, give us fellowship with them
and unending joy in your Kingdom. Amen
Keep our faces turned towards you, Lord.