A Homily for the Celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints
October 31 / November 1
Revelation 7: 2-4, 9-14 / Psalm 24 / 1 John 3: 1-3 / Matthew 5:1-12a
We often have it so wrong when it comes to understanding the saints because we have placed them too often on too high of a pedestal. Sainthood is not achieved by doing everything right. Rather, it is a reality that happens by accident in the midst of a journey of longing, as our refrain for the Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 24) for today puts before us: “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.”
Saints are not the result of making a case in the canonization process. So many of whom who officially become “saints” are made so, because the case has already been made – through the witness of their lives. They are the people who are caught up, not in “arriving,” but in their “longing.” They long to see the face of God in the most ordinary and humble of things, right alongside the powerful and the paranormal. They are all of us, as St. John in the second reading reminds us. We are the “Beloved,” the “children of God.” In case we do not hear it clearly, it is restated: “Yet so we are.” The blessed fact that we are God’s children, holy and beloved, usually is realized not while we are doing something holy – but when others experience our holiness being lived out.
We do not seek it for ourselves. Others give testimony as to what they see in us. It is that “longing” thing again… the longing for the day, when “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” “Arriving” is not the end game. Abiding in the place of “longing” is where we must dwell – not to be rewarded as saints; rather, to lift up those who feel as though their lives have no dignity at all, who feel so far away from being the beloved themselves.
It begs the question when we see God for who and what God is – what will that look, feel, touch and taste like? We cannot even begin to imagine, but Matthew gives us a most uncomfortable tease as to what that is. Our holiness will be recognized and felt by the community of faith, not merely when it follows laws of “shall” and “shall nots” – meaning the Ten Commandments. It will be known, recognized and celebrated when we move in the opposite direction of the mainstream social contract, by aligning ourselves with the vision of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). While the Ten Commandments give us a starting direction for our lives as people of God, it is the creation of chaos – of disorder – this is the path of creating a “People of God” who are called to be “saints.” And the Beatitudes is chock full of such trouble making. It is not the mere following of laws and commandments – as important as they are – but it is incorporating all that is anti-culture, anti-social appropriateness that brings about the light of Christ. The moral order of the Ten Commandments is very often held high, not only in our storytelling of Moses coming down the mountain with tablets of stone but the fact that these commandments are re-created in stone on the lawns of courthouses and other political edifices, only go to prove their power more intensely.
But when have we ever seen the Beatitudes taught and honored in the same way? Are the Beatitudes ever mounted as a memorial to be gazed upon and contemplated – to be seen as the foundation for how we live our discipleship? I have never seen such a monument. The problem is, with the Beatitudes, there is not the same payoff, so to speak, by honoring them. There is no social advancement promised. What they do offer is a revelation of God’s tremendous grace, of God’s “brimming over the top” kind of love and honor. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preaches grace and blessedness, a “sainthood” achieved not by moving upward, but through the opposite vision, by going down. As Henri Nouwen once taught in one of his interviews, Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who help the poor,” Jesus says, “Blessed ARE the poor.” It is not by accident, I believe, that those who are at some point canonized saints, are seen prior to being “blessed.” Seeing life around you as a blessing – both in the dying and rising of the human spirit – is a step toward holiness.
At the very start, we are God’s beloved children – there is no prerequisite for receiving that posture from God. But if we truly accept this gift of being God’s “works of art,” we will then make the glorious and free choice to move downward. Sainthood is the confirming of a life that is committed to brokenness, not in achieving perfection. Humility, honesty, and living the “smaller” way is what lifts us up to experience and know the fullness of being God’s beloved ones.
I have a friend who belongs to a parish that when the larger community was asked to suggest possibilities for a new name for the community which was to be clustered together with a few other parishes, suggested not the name of one particular saint or figure, but rather, “The Church of the Beatitudes.” Her suggestion did not get any traction at all. The thing is, when you name a community after a person or patron, they should try to embody the charism of that patron. Maybe being named as a community of “Beatitudes” was too daunting to even consider. Very understandable. Because it is, very daunting indeed.
The choice and goal is not to become a saint, but to become a “Beatitudes People” and become as poor as we can and are called to be. This does not necessarily mean self-imposed poverty – though that certainly was the case for Francis, Clare, St. Therese of Lisieux and many others – but it does mean that we are called to fully associate with those on the margins. And as it was the case for these holy ones, they did not see their association with poverty and the poor to be a huge sacrifice – they saw and celebrated it as a marvelous and grace-filled gift! Their entire lives are seen as a canticle of thanksgiving, “rejoice and be glad!”
The conscious choice to be lowly; the conscious choice to be one with those who have no one else to be united to. The conscious choice to seek peace and to be peace when peace is very far away, indeed. The conscious choice to be a container of mercy when so many are imprisoned by their guilt and shame. The conscious choice to live out righteousness, knowing that persecution was always lurking around the corner. These choices may have frightened them at times, but never to the point of going back. They drank from the cup and longed to keep tasting and savoring it. They found freedom in such choices.
What about our choices? Are we “longing” enough in our lives? While it is so human and understandable to seek out comfort and resolution, those who we hold as saints are those who go directly into discomfort, dis-ease, and chaos. They long to go there, not because they are masochistic, but because they see the glory of the cross and the joy of the Risen Lord in the suffering faces of God’s children. One of our newest saints, Oscar Romero, understood this when he testified, “a bishop may die, but I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.” His suffering and eventual martyrdom was leaned into because he understood what needed to happen in order for his people to be consecrated into dignity and justice. There are so many well-known figures, not all Catholic, not canonized (and some will never be) who join Oscar in their life’s testimony: Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr; Dorothy Day, Harvey Milk, Sr. Dorothy Stang, Ceasar Chavez, Peter Maurin, Anne Frank, Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Mychal Judge, and so many others. These are all stunning examples of people who lived their life – “Beatitude People” – and inspire us all to do so – by seeking, aching, and “longing” to be holy, knowing that the reward was anything but a reward, but rather, a most holy suffering that lived out the Beatitudes in their every breath.
Beyond the wonderful refrain of our Responsorial Psalm today, the verses give more specific insight as to those who “long” to see God’s face; those who we think of saintly:
“Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord? or who may stand in his holy place?” (vs. 3)
Who? Those who lean into the disorder that the Beatitudes proclaim, those who “long” to see God’s face and know that the only way to be sought is the way of suffering and the desire to live as St. Therese Lisieux would say, the “little way.”
Yes, the psalm would affirm that:
“One … whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain.” (vs. 4) Or as the beautiful revised ICEL psalter has translated it: “Whoever has integrity; not chasing shadows, not living lies.”
And what is promised them? Verse 5 tells us that they “shall receive a blessing from the Lord…” In other words, their lives will be additional “beatitudes” – sources of blessing and honor for the dignity of serving God’s people, by becoming that very presence, that very sense of blessedness. And what is promised to us – the hope that what we do here in the midst of our earthly lives must be a true sacrament, a sign, a dress rehearsal so to speak, of what the reign of God promises to be eternally.
So let us “long” to see God’s face, together, as a “Beatitude People,” called to a most blessed cause: God’s cause. As the refrain of one of my songs prays boldly:
“God’s cause is the only concern of our hearts.
God’s cause is our cause.”
Song-Video: God’s Cause by David Haas
[DH: 10/31/15 – Revised 10/31/18. Refrain text for “God’s Cause” adapted by David Haas, from a teaching of Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger, Foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Copyright GIA Publications. Used with permission).