Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints. While is isn’t a feast that is celebrated well in many churches, including mine, it really ought to be one of the most exciting commemorations in the calendar. For it is nothing less than the celebration of the countless ways the Holy Spirit has worked in the lives of men and women through the centuries. And in this, it is the fulfillment of the promise of Pentecost: At Pentecost we are offered the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Today we celebrate those ordinary men and women who accepted that Gift and let it transform them and the world around them in extraordinary ways.
This is exciting. This is true.
And yet, it’s hard to feel like celebrating today.
As I write this, the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit with full force, and many jurisdictions around the world are locking down again in a repeat of those dark Lenten days of March. And, we are just two days away from a divisive American Presidential election whose results will almost certainly be delayed, contentious and contested, and which will reverberate one way or the other across the Western world. Meanwhile, lost in all this, the threats of climate change march on: 2020 has seen unprecedented fires on three continents and a new record for most named tropical storms.
Anxiety and tempers are running high. Patience and calm are running low. We are grieving. We are fearful. The needs of the world around us are overwhelming.
What does it mean to be be a Saint in this context? What does it look like to bear witness to the surprising new, resurrection life of Easter and the ever-greening, liberating power of the Holy Spirit today?
What does it mean to celebrate all that the Holy Spirit has done over the millennia in a world in which so little has changed?
This tension — this heart-ache really — is nothing new. Indeed, it seems to be built into the Christian life. We grieve and we celebrate. We take up our cross daily and find new life. We live simultaneously in the difficult ‘now’ and the glorious ‘not yet’.
This tension is described in today’s first reading, which records a vision of the Communion of Saints from the book of Revelation:
There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7.9ff)
This is among the most powerful images in our Scriptures: God’s numberless children from all over the earth gathered together in triumphant praise of God. But, this isn’t the whole story. The vision continues:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? … These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
The Saints here have been through the wringer, what the text calls “the great ordeal.” Now, in recent centuries, some Christians have turned this into a proper noun, The Great Tribulation, and believe that it refers to a specific future event that will usher in the end of the world. But, I think it’s a far fairer — and traditional — reading of the text to understand it as the general state of affairs of the world. Life on an Earth polluted by Sin will always be a tribulation. The Saints are those who have managed to run the gauntlet of this life faithfully, without losing heart or hope.
The Saints are those who have lived the ‘not yet’ of God’s Kingdom in the midst of the ‘now’ of Empire.
And so, what does it mean to be a Saint — to be holy — today? It means what it has always meant for all of the Saints throughout history: It means to tell and live out the story of Jesus amidst the great ordeals and tribulations of our lives.
Nowhere is the content of this holiness made more clear for us than in the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in chapters 5-7 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. And so it is no accident that the Gospel reading for this All Saints Day is the Beatitudes (5.1-12), which introduce and summarize these teachings:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
So then, what does it mean to be a Saint today? It means humility. It means longing for God’s righteous justice. It means mercy. It means having hearts refined through repentance. It means being agents of peace. And, because the world’s darkness cannot stand God’s Light, it means being reviled in the world, yet confident that God’s welcome is greater than the world’s opposition.
Today we remember all of those countless Saints who have done just this. We remember the Apostles, like Peter, James, and John, who gave up everything to follow Jesus. We remember the Marys, who tended to Jesus’ body when those same Apostles were cowering in fear. We remember the martyrs, like Polycarp and Justin, Perpetua and Felicity, who refused to bow to the false gods of Empire. We remember the unnamed Christians who nursed the people of Rome during a plague. We remember bishops like John Chrysostom, who sold off the Church’s gold to buy food for the hungry. We remember Augustine of Hippo, who encouraged the faithful as they watched their world collapse. We remember Francis of Assisi, who gave up his comfort and wealth so that nothing could distract him from God. We remember John of the Cross, who found God even in the midst of the desolation of persecution and false imprisonment. We remember Maria Skobtsova, who ran a safe house for refugees fleeing the Nazis and was killed at Ravensbruck. We remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who dreamed of God’s justice rolling through his country like a mighty river. We remember Olga Michael of Kwethluk, who gave generously to the poor even in her own poverty and gave comfort to those living with sexual traumas. We remember Bishop Oscar Romero, who was killed for standing with the poor against the oppression of the wealthy. We remember Fr. Alexander Men, who was murdered the morning after speaking out against the rising tide of nationalism in the Russian Church.
We remember all of these and the countless thousands like them, known and unknown, who have run with perseverance the race marked out for them. Together these form a great cloud of witnesses, praying for us and cheering us on, as we take our turn running the gauntlet of life.
Today we remember these ordinary men and women who accepted the Gift of the Holy Spirit and let it transform them and the world around them in extraordinary ways. And, today we remember that we too are called to do exactly the same thing.
It feels daunting, but if they could do it, we can too.
Yes, the needs of the world are great; but our God is greater.
Yes, our present fears are big; but our present actions are bigger.
Yes, our anxieties for the future are powerful; but our hope for the future is even more powerful.
It’s our turn. And we are not alone.