Solemnity of All Saints
All Saints Day is a beautiful feast celebrating the call to holiness open to all the daughters and sons of God—those already wrapped in God’s loving embrace and those of us still on the road. Paul the Apostle frequently referred to his fellow Christians as “saints” or “holy ones.” The Greek word he used is hagios—meaning to be holy or saintly—the same word in fact is used of God, the “all holy one.” Paul applied this title to all Christians, not just the ones that seemed to be the most pious or well-behaved.
This call to holiness reaches deep into the Scriptures. In Leviticus (19:2) God summons Moses to tell the people: “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy”—a command that rings down through the entirety of the Bible. The notion of humans imitating the holiness of God is something distinctive about our Jewish heritage and our Christian faith. Most ancient religions did not correlate the worship of their gods with the values that ought to guide their lives of their devotees. They hoped that homage to their gods would protect them from harm and lead to prosperity, but they did not derive their code of conduct from the example of their gods. In fact, some of the behavior of the ancient gods of the Middle East and in Greek mythology was not to be imitated!
For the Bible, however, the “holiness” of God referred to the awesome beauty and power of God and God’s astounding tender love and mercy towards God’s people. One of the earliest acclamations about God is found in Exodus 34:6 as Moses encounters God at Sinai: “The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in love and fidelity.” God’s steadfast mercy, fidelity, and abiding love define what “holiness” means and set a pattern for the way we are to live our lives. Astoundingly, as Genesis (1:16) affirms, the God of Israel creates humans in the divine “image and likeness”—we are endowed with a God-given capacity for holiness.
For Christian faith, God’s holiness is embodied in the person of Jesus. In his very being and in the manner of his own life, Jesus revealed God to us. As Pope Francis has repeatedly said, “Jesus is the human face of the Father’s mercy.” God’s Old Testament command to “be holy as I the Lord your God am holy” becomes for Christians equivalent to Jesus’ call to his disciples, “Come, follow me.” In striving to live as Jesus lived we find the path to holiness.
That is the spirit of today’s readings. The first reading from Revelation is typical of the dramatic and vast canvas of this visionary New Testament book. Standing before the throne of God and the Lamb (the exalted Christ) “a great multitude which no one could count from every nation, race, people and tongue” cries out in exaltation, praising God and the Risen Jesus. The Responsorial Psalm 24 also exults in God’s beauty and power: “The Lord’s are the earth and its fullness; the world and those who dwell in it.” And our response expresses the longing we are to experience as we, too, strive for a life of goodness, a life of holiness: “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face!”
The reading from the First Letter of John underscores the link between God’s love and the quality of our lives: “Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.” John will affirm over and over: to be a child of God is to love as God loves, the central command of Jesus’ teaching.
And, finally, in the gospel passage from Matthew we hear Jesus’ beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount, a summation of the values and commitments that lead to authentic holiness, and, in fact, reflect Jesus’ own manner of life: Comfort for the poor, for those who mourn, and for the meek; Blessing on those committed to mercy, to peacemaking, to justice even at the cost of persecution.
At this tense and fractious moment in our history, this Christian vision of what authentic human life can be is balm for our souls. God calls all of us to be holy as God is holy!
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.