Revelation 7: 9-17, Matthew 5: 1-12
The tradition of All Saints Day, which we celebrate today, traces its history back to the sixth century. At that time Pope Boniface consecrated the Pantheon at Rome as a place of solemn remembrance and thanksgiving for the life and witness of so many hundreds and hundreds of Christians who were martyred there during the first three centuries of the church.
All Saints Day became a comforting tradition. Do you remember the Latin etymology for the English word “comfort”? com + fortis: com = with; fortis = fortitude or strength. All Saints Day: a day to comfort us, to strengthen us, so we can faithfully meet the challenges at hand in our own lifetime by our embracing the companionship of the saints.
No matter our age, we have an innate need for heroes, for models, for people to look up to and emulate, to show us the way. We have a need to be able to look into the face of another person, to watch them, to listen to them, to see how they go about thinking and talking and living and believing, to remember them, and to be able to say to ourselves, “When I grow up, I want to become like her,” or “If he can do it, so can I…” However old we are, we never grow out of this need for “heroic people” in our life who mentor us, encourage us, sometimes push us, affirm us, assure us.
Today, in the tradition of the church, we are reminded of the heroes of our faith, those whom the church has come to call “saints,” that is, the holy ones. These are women and men, the memory of whose lives help make our own lifetime seem possible and passable. What about for you? Are there particular saints of the church, these heroes of the faith, to whom you are especially drawn? If so, why is that? The reason might be quite fascinating. If you are drawn to some particular saints, it’s probably because of the time in which they lived, or what they faced in their lifetime, or where they worked, or what they said, or how they prayed… There are reasons why we may be attracted to particular people, and there are reasons why we may be attracted to particular saints. But I would say it’s two-sided. We may be attracted to particular saints because they are attracted to us, this “thin divide” between earth and heaven, between this life and the next.
The most ancient of the church’s creeds, the Apostles’ Creed, affirms that “we believe in the communion of saints” (that’s our communion with the saints), the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” (1) There’s something real about the communication between this world and the world to come, a kind of communion between saints and souls and sinners that spans the gulf of time. It is not just we who are praying, but we are being prayed for by a great cloud of heroic witnesses, some of whom, I believe, are attracted to us, individually, who have our name and who’ve got our number, and who remember us. It’s a wonderful thing to be remembered. I think we are remembered by the saints.
Many years ago, when I first learned about the church’s tradition of saints, I was not in any way comforted. I felt quite intimidated. I imagined this “great cloud of witnesses” in the heavens looking down on me and on my buddies, and it seemed more like hell than like heaven. You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: the saints are watching. Yikes to that! But that has changed. In the ensuing years I’ve been around a lot of children, and my perspective has changed considerably. Those of you who are parents or godparents, aunts or uncles, children’s teachers or coaches will surely know this: You look on a child, what he or she is doing or saying, or not doing or not saying, whether they are shy, or are acting out, whether they are crying or performing or laughing or singing or even being naughty… and as you look upon a child you will likely have deep understanding, a compassion, maybe a sense of pride or amazement, sometimes even a glimmer of what they could grow up to be. You don’t judge them harshly, even if they’re acting poorly; you judge them with love. That’s now my sense of this “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us. (2) We all are the children, the children of God, and the saints, this great cloud of witnesses, understand us, and look upon us with the desire to do anything they could to help us. In this lifetime we are running the race that is set before us – that’s New Testament language – and I just imagine all the saints shouting out from the sidelines with cheers and encouragement into our own soul… and meanwhile whispering into Jesus’ ears words of pride and praise about you: “Isn’t he something!?” “Isn’t she just amazing!?” And it’s true. (3)
If you are in a time of cheer just now, where your life is full of hope, a sense of wellbeing and provision, where gratitude and praise is on your lips, where there is light in your soul, how wonderful. You have a foretaste of the joy of heaven, your soul echoing the songs praise sung in the heavens by “this multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne of God rejoicing.” (4) If, on the other hand, you are in a dark night of the soul where pain, despair, fear, and loss are your companions, how very sad. Presume that your dark night is the eve of the dawning of a new day. The dawn will come. However life is for you now, you are not alone. You are being carried on the wings of the prayers of angels and archangels and all of the company of heaven, and of those who have gone before you in this life, those who are looking out for you. The saints are those who have survived the “ordeal” of this life, those who can give witness, already, that the eternal promise we hear in the Book of Revelation is true:
“[You] will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike [you], nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [your] shepherd, and he will guide [you] to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes.” (5)
The saints remind us that in the best of times and in the worst of times, life is possible and passable, and that we are not left alone. Today we remember all the saints, and they remember all of us.
- See the Apostles’ Creed in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 96.
- Hebrews 12:1-3 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
- “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.” (1 Corinthians 9.24) “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4.7). Also, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)
- Paraphrased from Revelation 7:9.
- Paraphrased from Revelation 7:16-17.
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