A reflection on the Sunday readings for November 1, 2020
All Saints’ Day has a very long and interesting history. While the exact origin of this feast is unclear, historians believe that it began organically at the end of the Christian persecution in the Roman Empire, around the year 312. Not only did the conversion of Constantine bring respite to the Christians but it also gave them the opportunity to look back and honor the martyrs and exemplars of faith who had gone before. The Church had a growing desire to honor the great number of martyrs, especially those who were killed during the long and brutal Diocletian persecution (303-311 AD). If the early Church wanted to commemorate each of these martyrs individually, there would not be enough days in the calendar year. Therefore, a common feast day for all saints, therefore, seemed appropriate, if not inevitable.
The earliest mentions of the Feast of All Saints are found in the preaching of St. Ephrem (d. 373) and St. John Chrysostom (d. 407). On May 13, 609, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs and in this way also established the formal celebration of All Saints. Later, in the mid-eighth century, Pope Gregory III made the Feast of All Saints a holy day and fixed November 1 as the date for the celebration. Today, the meaning of the feast is expanded to include all those who have entered heaven. It includes all the saints in the Church’s official cannon and those who are not. It is a feast of all believers who stand face-to-face with God in heaven. Among them are people from our own families, our own parish, our towns and neighborhoods, our relatives, and our friends.
This feast is both a celebration and invitation. What is the deeper meaning of this feast, and what are its practical implications?
A celebration of God’s Love
“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are” (1 Jn 3:1-3).
First and foremost, the Feast of All Saints is a celebration of God’s love—a love that makes us “children of God.” We can say that the Feast of All Saints is the culmination of the history of salvation. The vision that John describes in today first reading—of many people standing before the throne of God crying out, “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the lamb”—is precisely how salvation history is meant to conclude. Salvation, from the Christian perspective, is an act of supreme love by God, who is love (1 Jn 4:8). It is accomplished in and through the life of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. In and through Christ, the Son, we are adopted as God’s sons and daughters – God’s beloved children. On the Feast of All Saints we celebrate this reality. The feast, however, is also an invitation. It is an invitation to live our newfound identity as children of God. We are not an aimless people wandering through life without an identity or destiny. Christ is our identity, our life on earth is a pilgrimage, and our destiny is eternal life with God and with our brother and sisters.
God’s People All
John’s vision in the book of Revelation is very relevant for our times. He saw a great multitude which no one could count “from every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Rev 7:9). The idea that in the first century, at a time of brutal persecution, John would see a vision of heaven with people from every nation, race, people, and tongue is very intriguing. In his vision, heaven mirrors the earth—or should we say, earth mirrors heaven. How terribly narrow our vision has to be if we imagine a world that excludes, rejects, oppresses, and kills people because they are different than us. Racism, culture wars, ethnic cleansing, as well as every form of discrimination against people because of their nationality, race, culture, or language is not just a crime against humanity, but an offense against God and heaven. This is why I consider Pope Francis’s call for social friendship and fraternity in Fratelli Tutti to be truly prophetic. Francis says, “Social friendship and universal fraternity call for an acknowledgement of the worth of every human person, always and everywhere” (FT 106). He calls not simply for a new social order, his is a call to be God’s universal people. The Feast of All Saints is a celebration of the universal nature of God’s people, both in heaven and on earth. It is also is an invitation to envision an earth that mirrors the universality of God’s heaven. May we not be found wanting in this regard. More importantly, may we not be guilty of destroying God’s vision of a universal heaven and earth.
The Beatitudes: The Life of Saints
A beautiful and profound aspect of the Feast of All Saints is that it celebrates all those who are God’s presence, and not merely of those who the Church has officially canonized as saints. This includes us! We may not enjoy the beatific vision now, but we have the privilege and opportunity to be in the Real Presence of Christ. In fact, every Eucharist is a celebration of saints. Often, we only think of saints as extraordinary people with extraordinary virtues and superhuman heroism. The gospel way of looking at saints is just a little different. Sainthood is not a trophy we set out to accomplish. We don’t become saints at the end of our lives. We live the life of saints in the here and now. This doesn’t necessarily mean we have to do heroic things. As Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
The Beatitudes are precisely the way of saints—the “little way” to become a saint. To be poor in spirit, the ability to mourn with other, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be peacemakers, and to be willing to pay the price for righteousness—this is the life of the saints. If this Mass is a celebration of saints, then this upcoming week is God’s invitation to live the life of saints no matter where we find ourselves. No matter what happens this week, let us live out the beatitudes! If we can do that, we are well on the way to sainthood.
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