All Saints is a way of life, not a look to the past
All Saints Day – Matthew 5:1-12a
All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, Feast of All Saints,or Solemnity of All Saints, is a Christian festival celebrated in honour of all the saints, known and unknown. In Western Christianity, it is celebrated on 1 November, with the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrating it on the first Sunday after Pentecost and some Oriental Orthodox churches on the first Friday after Easter. Originally the celebrations were held on May 13 and it was known as Feast of All Holy Martyrs. But in 837 AD the date was changed to November 1 by Pope Gregory IV , who also changed the name of the holiday to Feast of All Saints.
The Anglican liturgical guide “Times and Seasons” says this :
“All Saints’ Day celebrates men and women in whose lives the Church as a whole has seen the grace of God powerfully at work. It is an opportunity to give thanks for that grace, and for the wonderful ends to which it shapes a human life; it is a time to be encouraged by the example of the saints and to recall that sanctity, that mysterious way in which we grow as Christians, may grow in the ordinary circumstances, as well as the extraordinary crises, of human living.”
Who is a saint ? What do they look like ? have you ever met one ?
For some people a saint is someone of extraordinary holiness who have been canonised or beatified by the Church : St Francis of Assisi, St Therese of Lisieux, St John the Baptist and so on. These are the exceptional ones, and their lives feel to us, unreachable.
For others it is defined by some as those who have been baptised into the faith of Christ, or somewhat narrower, as those who made heartfelt commitment to Christ in their lives and became “born again”. Others have a much more inclusive view and would include all non-Christians who lived a good life sincerely in accordance with the convictions of their conscience and beliefs and held to moral laws that accorded with what we know of God’s love, mercy, justice and holiness.
We simply do not know precisely who we are talking about. Putting it the other way, although we may all have an opinion, there is no way we can decide which people have made an irrevocable choice of rejecting God. As for me, I believe that in all things God will be both loving and just, and I also believe, as Jesus believed, that this life is not the end. So the saints of God we remember on All Saint’s Sunday are those who are in eternity with God.
Matthew 5. 1-12
The Gospel chosen for today’s feast is interesting. It gives us what we know as the Eight Beatitudes from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It is, in fact, a description of what sainthood, in the broadest sense looks like. It is, if you like, a pen picture, less a set of rules but more a model for living that emulates the loving heart of God. It is positive rather than negative, not things that “thou shalt not do”, but a set of pictures that says “thou shalt be”.
Sainthood is thus something we are, and gradually become, rather than a legalistic list of things we do, or do not do.
The life of sainthood is ordinary, everyday human life, a day by day growing process in partnership with the Holy Spirit. Peter puts it like this in 2 Peter 1.
3 His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.
When Jesus came to describing “sainthood”, he was always passionate about going way beyond the literal adherence to the Ten Commandments, or to Torah. Jesus said clearly that he had not come to abolish the Jewish law but to fulfill it. We might say that the Beatitudes are an example of that, going far beyond the Ten Commandments.
The sad thing is that one hears of relatively few Christians saying that they base their lives on the Beatitudes. A Catholic writer that I came across this week said this: “ When we go to Confession it is the Ten Commandments we normally refer to and not the Beatitudes. And this is sad because it is clear from their position in Matthew’s gospel that the Beatitudes have a central place. They are a kind of mission statement saying what kind of person the good Christian will be.”
Let us look at the Beatitudes as a blueprint for sainthood.
The word ‘blessed’ is sometimes translated ‘happy’ or even “fortunate” – it is “a good place to be”, we might say. In other words, people who have these qualities are really in a good place because they are near or in the ‘kingdom of heaven’ and God both sees and looks kindly upon them.
This is to be understood not as a place, still less as referring to life after death, or at least not just those things. It rather describes the kind of society that exists when we live according to these values as “saints” – a place of truth and love, of compassion and justice, of peace, freedom and sharing.
The Gospel says that particularly blessed are:
a. Those who are poor in spirit. They are those who are aware of their basic poverty and fragility and of how much they need the help and support of God as opposed to those who foolishly claim independence and full control of their lives.
b. Those who are gentle: These are the people who reach out to others in care and compassion and tenderness, who constantly are aware of the needs of others.
c. Those who mourn: those who are in grief or sorrow for whatever reason will be assured of comfort from the loving community in Christ they have entered.
d. Those who hunger and thirst for what is right: Whatever the price, they will work that everyone will be given what is their due to live a life of dignity and self-respect. The price they may have to pay could be high, very high, even life itself, witnessed to by the fact that All Saints Day as originally the Feast of All Holy Martyrs.
e. Those who are merciful: They are the ones who extend compassion and forgiveness to all around them. There is so much vengeance and retribution around at the moment.
f. Those who are pure in heart: This does not refer to sexual purity but rather to a simplicity and total absence of duplicity, of prejudice or bias. Those who are faithful in what they say, witness and promise. Not surprisingly, they are described as being able to see God. For such people God’s presence is all too obvious in every person and experience.
g. Those who make peace: Perhaps one of the most beautiful of the Beatitudes. These are people who help to break down the many barriers which divide people – whether it is class, occupation, race, religion or anything that creates conflict between individuals or groups. Not surprisingly, these people are called “children of God”. God sent Jesus among us precisely to break down the barriers between God and his people and between people themselves.
h. Those who are persecuted in the cause of right: Persecution of itself is not a pleasant experience and may result in loss of life. But blessed indeed are those who have the strength and courage to put the values of truth and love and justice for all above their own survival. Among the saints we most honour today are the martyrs, those who gave their lives in the defence of truth, love and justice.
This is the kind of person we are all called to be. They go far beyond what is required by the Ten Commandments. If taken literally, the commandments can be kept and not with great difficulty. Many of them are expressed in the negative. The Beatitudes, as a blueprint for daily living, are profound because they present the life of a Christian as a lot more than not doing things which are wrong. The Beatitudes are expressed in positive terms. They also express not just actions but attitudes. It is not just what you do and don’t do, but the state of the heart that governs those choices.
The key to the renewal of the church of God in the western countries of the post-reformation era which we see such steep decline, is not in clever technical innovation, social media ad website s. Though that may help. It is not in innovative worship, though that will help. I believe the key is living the beatitudes. I believe we will attract people in the same way as the early church attracted them, if we simply love them. Expect nothing of them, certainly do not expect them to be like us but just exhibit those qualities that Jesus described as blessed.