Feast of All Saints
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
1 John 3:1-3
Catholic tradition has always embraced a view of the Church that stretches from earth to heaven. Medieval theology spoke of three levels of the Church: the Church "triumphant"-those who are already in heaven; the Church "penitent"-the dead who are still under purification in purgatory on their way to heaven; and the Church "militant"-those of us still on earth struggling to overcome evil and awaiting the triumph of God’s grace in us. On this feast of "All Saints" we honor in a special way the church "triumphant" but also celebrate the bond that ties the entire church together in the "communion of saints"!
There is something very beautiful and comforting in the church’s strong and long-lasting faith. Despite so many indications to the contrary, we believe that our loved ones are gone but not absent. Yes, our loved ones-our spouse, our parents, our child, our friends–are "gone" into the mystery of death and we miss them whenever their memory crosses our mind and heart. But we also believe that they are not "absent"-but still mysteriously but genuinely present to us because death is not the last word about human destiny.
The Song of Songs declares that "love is stronger than death" (8:6) and that, in fact, summarizes the fundamental message of the gospel. The love we are speaking of is first of all God’s love for us. Paul the Apostle declares to the Christian community is Rome, God first loved us while we still sinners. We don’t earn God’s love; it is freely and lavishly given through Jesus Christ (see Romans 5:1-11). And it is because of that unbounded love of God for us that leads us to dare believe that our destiny is life unending.
And then there is our love for each other, and on this feast, our love for those who have died before us. This love, too, is stronger than death. Death has taken our dear ones from us but our love for them does not stop with death-our love endures, just as God’s love endures. And so we are in communion with them-part of the great communion of saints we celebrate this day.
The Scripture readings for the Feast of All Saints have this same exuberant quality. The Book of Revelation was written to Christian communities in western Asia Minor (present day Turkey) that were under the duress of Roman imperial rule. The author, John the Seer, writes to them to challenge them to remain strong in their faith and to not lose hope. In the first reading today we get a glimpse of the vision that John had of the multitudes of the saints in heaven, triumphant and joyful, praising and thanking God for the fullness of life they now enjoy.
And the second reading from the First Letter of John breaks out in praise of God’s love for us: "See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God." John speaks directly about love triumphing over death. Even though our future destiny is a mystery for us, we do know that we will "see God as he is." Here John evokes a very fundamental conviction of our Scriptures-that we, though human, have been created in the "image and likeness of God" (Genesis 1:26). We have the spark of the divine within us and that spark will never die. It is that share in the God’s own Spirit that enables us to respond to God with love and to share in God’s own life.
And finally in the gospel reading we hear the beatitudes that serve as the keynote for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, the Son of God who himself would triumph over the power of death, declares "blessed" those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek-the very people that society often tramples on or ignores. And Jesus also lifts up those qualities and virtues that lead to fullness of life: those who hunger and thirst for justice; the merciful; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted because of their faith. To all of these Jesus gives consolation and hope-God will not abandon them.
The feast of All Saints is a day of joy and of hope. Every human-including Jesus himself-has to wrestle with the mystery of death. But for the Christian, because we believe in a God who is a God of love and the source of all life, we live in hope.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.