Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24:1-6; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
Every year on the first of November we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. In our worship, we consciously join ourselves to the saints in heaven. We put into practice our faith in the communion of saints.
Why do we honour all of the saints? In the early days of the Church, martyrs were remembered on the anniversary of their death. The first three centuries were times of persecution for Christians. The number of martyrs increased dramatically during that time. The number of free days in the calendar decreased rapidly. Finally in the fourth century, one day in the year was set aside to commemorate all the saints who couldn't be fit into the calendar. The important saints continued to have a day set aside for their remembrance. The lesser saints became part of the "communion of saints" that was remembered on All Saints Day.
There is another aspect to the celebration, for this day is a reminder to us that we are all called to be saints of God. All Saintstide is a reminder to us of our call to holiness. Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic theologian, commented that "the Church in Heaven is all saints, but the Church on earth is all sorts". There are all sorts of us in the Church of God. All sorts of denominations. All sorts of theologies. All sorts of liturgies. All sorts of personalities. And we are all, all sorts of us, called to be the saints of God. We people of God are all sorts of saints.
That is probably the most difficult thing for any of us to accept. We do not like to think of ourselves as being holy. Somehow that is not cool. Besides, are we not supposed to be humble? It is probably okay once in a while on a Sunday to actually be seen praying. But to recognize our call to be a saint! That is asking too much. Why, we might have to change the way we live our lives. We might have to acknowledge that we are Christians. We might have to admit to our friends that we follow Christ. We might have to acknowledge our sense of community, our sense of belonging to the body of Christ. We might have to make a commitment. We might have to live up to the promises of our baptism.
That is the very reason it is so important to celebrate the lives of the saints of God. Thoughts about the saints arouse within us a longing to be with God and to share in their company. Awareness of the saints hopefully awakens within us the urge to live in the company of all the saints who have heard the call to absolute love and responded with enthusiastic faith. When we remember the saints in heaven, it enthuses us to practice the virtues that we see in their lives and to be filled with the life of Jesus just as they were. Recalling the saints reminds us of our ultimate destiny and our need for Christian living here on earth.
So today we remember all those Christians who have lived before us. We celebrate that we are surrounded by a community of believers, those from every age who have served Christ and who have lived the life of faith. We celebrate that we are on that same path of becoming.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing, it is irresistible.” So how do we come to the place where it becomes irresistivle to us and we accept our call to holiness?
It begins, I suspect, with discovering that even the greatest of saints was a real person. Learning about their lives should convince us that they were real people with real struggles. It should convince us of their humanity. What does it mean to be one of God's saints? Mother Teresa who died in 1996 was often referred to as a living saint. In 1982, during a visit to San Francisco to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis of Assisi, the diminutive nun was asked how it feels to be called "a living saint."
"Possibly, people see Jesus in me," she replied. "But we can see Jesus in each other. Holiness is meant for all people."
It doesn’t take a genius to know that she was a saintly person. Her work amongst the poorest of the poor shows a dedication to the gospel that is so rarely seen. But that puts sanctity, holiness, out of reach of most of us. Perhaps we need to begin with what it does not mean. It does not mean that we are perfect. Our Christian life is a journey towards holiness. We, like the saints of old, have come through ordeals – through grief, loss, unemployment, sickness, pain, suffering. Yet we struggle to keep the faith. We struggle against the indifference of the world. When we are in the midst of pain and suffering, it is easy to feel as if we are alone. But the wonder of it all is that we aren’t. We are part of that great community, the communion of the saints. Those who have given loyal service to God. Those who have faithfully witnessed to the Gospel truth.
We are called like those who witnessed the raising of Lazarus, to see the glory of God. It is a kind of seeing by which we are able to understand more clearly than ever before what the purpose of life is. It may be coming to an understanding of evil or sin. Such revelations transform us so that we are never again the same person.
Often, the transformation of our lives happens in strange and unexpected ways. The stone is rolled back. Like Lazarus, we step out of the cave into sunlight so bright that the world can barely be recognized for what we thought it was. We discover God's way of looking at life. Weeds and flowers become one and the same; our successes and failures, crying babies and crotchety old people, sumptuous banquets and dry bread, all become transformed by God’s grace.
Like Lazarus, we are brought to new life by the death and resurrection of Christ. Our membership in the communion of saints unbinds us to do God's work in the world. We help one another to remove the things that bind us and keep us from living God's life to the fullest. We accept our place in the communion of the saints of God. We fulfill in our lives the commitment to our baptismal promises.
Through baptism we become children of God, joint heirs with Christ. We are adopted into the family of God. Because we are joint heirs with Christ, we also share in the resurrection. In this way, the family of God extends beyond faithful Christians on earth, but also to the blessed in heaven. This is what makes the communion of the saints truly universal: it spans history, geography, nationality, race, and all other temporal barriers we might erect.
It is a humbling, yet awe inspiring thought to know that when we worship God in the Eucharist, we are joining our worship with every Christian in heaven and on earth from the beginning of time until the present day. May we know that no matter what happens we are Saints. And no one can take that away from us. May we live as the saints we are called to be. Amen.
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