Feast of All Saints – Fr. Rick Sherman
November 1, 2020
Rev. 7:2-4, 9-14; Ps. 24; 1 Jn. 3:1-3; Mt. 5:1-12
Annual Collection for the Navajo Holiday Assistance – today
I will start today’s homily with a somewhat extended reading from the Feast of All Saints from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who was an abbot of a Cistercian monastery and doctor of the Church. He lived from 1090-1153.
“Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honors when their heavenly Father honors them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them?
The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.
Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins.
In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.
Come, brothers, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us.
We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.
When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory. Until then we see him, not as he is, but as he became for our sake. He is our head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins.
As members of that head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed to live in luxury; his purple robes are a mockery rather than an honor. When Christ comes again, his death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and his glorified members will shine in splendor with him, when he forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to himself, its head.
Therefore, we should aim at attaining this glory with a wholehearted and prudent desire. That we may rightly hope and strive for such blessedness, we must above all seek the prayers of the saints. Thus, what is beyond our own powers to obtain will be granted through their intercession.”
This excerpt from a sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the importance of devotion to the blessed and the intercession of the saints as a stimulus to hope (Sermo 2: Opera omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 5 , 364-368) is used in the Roman Office of Readings for the Feast (Solemnity) of All Saints on November 1. The accompanying biblical reading is taken from Revelation 5:1-4.
Fr. Rick’s homily begins: First and most important today is to simply recall that the saints in heaven are real and they are powerful intercessors. They have gone before us and now see things as they really are.
The first reading today from Revelation tells us, “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.”
So, what was the time of great distress? John’s writings, the Johannine Literature, include the Gospel of John, 1 John, 2 John, and Revelation. Scholars put the writings at around +/- 90 AD.
This was a time of the great martyrdoms under the Roman emperors Nero and Domitian in the 60’s into the 80’s. So clearly, this must have been very ‘distressing’ to say the least. The martyrs especially were the ones dressed in white robes washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.
There was also much distress within and among the new and fledgling Christian communities. In especially the First Letter of John he indicates a great deal of hostility within the community. The strong emphasis on the need to love one another came largely out of the hate and vitriol that existed in the communities. Recall that for a couple hundred years at that time the Greeks, Romans and Jews had all found themselves in the same place sharing the good and the bad from their cultures and their histories. The birthing of the Church and indeed much of Western Civilization did not happen smoothly or quickly. This all factored into the ‘great distress’.
By the AD 90’s there would have been a fairly complex mixture of gentiles (non-Jews) from the Greek and Roman cultures, many former Jews who had converted or were in the process thereof, trying to coexist in these communities. These are all people with long histories, much of it encompassing great conflict. As we discussed a few weeks ago, in the time of Jesus there was much conflict in the Jewish communities which largely led to their further vulnerability and ultimately the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. Add to that the various heresies (Gnosticism for example; Google it from a Catholic encyclopedia) that grew up within and among the communities which disputed the very nature of God, of Jesus and the timing of the End Times.
It’s likely that the early Christians expected the time of Triumph and fulfillment to occur shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the AD 90s it had already been over 60 years since the resurrection. The End Times seemed long past due. All this waiting, the dissension, fear and confusion made for a great breeding ground for the heretics who would offer an easier, more ‘reasonable’ alternative to the demands of true discipleship. Despite the optimism, radical sharing, rejoicing and singing depicted in the Acts of the Apostles right after the coming of the Holy Spirit, the decades moving forward revealed many of the weak ‘gaskets’ and alliances that existed. Much had to be worked out.
So how does all this speak to our times? Well, we can certainly see signs of internal conflict all around us. In our families, our Church our nation, certainly in our government. It seems we have to be especially careful these days to not even mention politics for fear someone in the family or community might be on the other side. We now have, not just different ideological perspectives, we now have heresies that promise simple answers in these days of extreme complexity, fear and confusion. Rather than yearn for a deeper relationship with Christ and a share in His glory as St. Bernard proclaims, we instead yearn for clarity and simplicity and quick solutions with the minimal amount of pain. We yearn with our anemic little human hearts rather than the passion of Jesus Christ and the saints.
Of course we continue with many of the same external threats we have had for the past century in the world of constant shifting alliances with the world’s other ‘heretics’. Now we fear not just the devastation from explosives, but perhaps more insidious is the cyber threat; people who can dismantle our computer and power grid system, or to just keep us concerned with the possibility of such a disruption.
Amidst it all we have the promise of the eternal presence of God and all the angels and all the saints who can see things as they really are; who do not share our confusion and fear. Today’s solemnity reminds us of this ‘other worldly’ presence of the people in heaven who also yearn for us to join them. These are True Elders who are much wiser than ourselves.
The second reading today from the First Letter of John says of the heavenly realm: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.”
God and the saints and the angels are looking down on us and know that our sense of power and control is but an illusion. We are helpless against ourselves and each other without the personal intervention of God. The good news is that God is always with us. God knew before we were born that we would be facing the complexities of our times and He has prepared us in the many decades of our lives to respond effectively with faithfulness and integrity. Hopefully we have been paying attention.
All of us are very familiar with today’s gospel about the Sermon on the Mount. Even most non-Christians would recall hearing different allusions to these teachings if they have been living in the United States. These teachings are the antidote to the hostility and complexity of our times.
Again, the First Letter of John tells us that we will be like God, and see Him as He really is. Well, what is God like? How do we be like Him? The gospel tells us that God, Jesus, is meek, merciful, mourning, clean of heart, who hungers and thirsts for real righteousness. All this among a diluded and frightened peoples who know mostly about division and dominance. Despite the fact that most Americans when polled still profess to be Christians, we do not seem to have the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount among us. This was likely not a particularly welcome message in first century Palestine either. The Greeks, Romans and Jews all had fiercely warrior cultures and also many levels of sophistication and goodness among them. Blessed are they who mourn? The meek and merciful? Clean of heart? Gulp.
Like the folks of first century Palestine, we too live in a truly dynamic and world-changing age. Thank God we have more than just each other.
This week might be a good time to start, every day, googling the ‘Saint of the Day’ and be inspired by the strong faith lives who kept the world moving forward. At least one of those saints is reaching out to us, personally, to be our guide and our surety.