In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is the feast of All Saints. The word “saint” comes from the Latin word “sanctus,” which means “holy.” The traditional English name for this feast was “All Hallows,” from the native English word “hallow,” also meaning “holy,” as in the Lord’s Prayer, where we say, “Hallowed be thy name,” meaning, “may your name be holy.” This traditional, English form, “All Hallows,” survives most familiarly in our word for the evening preceding All Hallows Day – namely, “All Hallows Eve” or “Halloween.”
Be that as it may, this feast, always on November 1, is a major feast day – a “Solemnity” as Catholics now say – in the life of the Church. A feast so big that it supersedes the normal Sunday liturgical celebration in those years when November 1st falls on a Sunday, as it does today.
So what’s different about today? (“Why is this night different from all other nights?”) What are we supposed to notice today? Today we remember that we are not alone in our practice of the faith – that we are, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses,” fellow disciples of the Lord Jesus. We are part of a community, part of a FAMILY – one that is even more real than our biological family; and our ties to THIS family are even more binding, even if they are harder to see.
Think about it. The eternal Son of God came down from heaven. He took flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary. He became a human. He became one of us. (How awesome is this mystery!) And he said that everyone who is faithful to God becomes a member of his family. Jesus said: “[W]hoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister…” (Matthew 12.50). Doing the will of God, in the power of God’s Son, acting in FAITH, means that we become siblings of God’s only Son. And this is what enables us to call God, “Our Father.” God is not automatically “our Father.” He becomes our Father when we become the adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus, who is God’s only Son.
But the point of this day, All Saints, is to remember that we are not alone in this. I am not God’s only Son. That’s Jesus. But by becoming Jesus’ brother, not only do I receive God as my Father, but I receive Mary as my mother, and I receive an enormous family – brothers and sisters stretching all around the world, and all down through the centuries. “All Saints” become my siblings, my family. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children…” (Mark 10.29f).
That’s why we venerate the saints. That’s why we remember them liturgically (why we have special services with special prayers for them) – why we celebrate the mass, day by day, here at this church, on the anniversaries of their “heavenly birthdays.” Its why we put all that information about their lives, their deaths, where their bodies are buried and so forth, in the leaflet every Sunday. So that we can get to know the family from whom we are estranged apart from Jesus. This coming week we are going to celebrate St. Charles Borromeo, and Ss. Elizabeth and Zachariah, for example.
But it didn’t take long in the history of the Church for there to be just too many saints for each of them to be commemorated on the calendar. After all, there are only 365 days each year. So “All Saints” became the day on which we remember them all together – and to remember the fact that there are lots of saints who were never famous, who lived humble, anonymous lives, otherwise officially unrecognized by the Church. I suspect my grandmother was one, and I suspect you’ve known a few too – Christians whose lives were tied so closely to Jesus that they became unnaturally pure, holy, suffused with joy and peace, heroically virtuous. I think I have known a few. Today we remember and honor all of them.
But as I said, we don’t just remember and honor them, but we are also here to remember that THEY HAVE A CLAIM ON US. That’s what being part of a family means. If the mere fact remains a mere fact, if it doesn’t carry over in any practical way into our lives, if it doesn’t CHANGE anything, then in a sense its pointless. What difference does it make if you are a Rockefeller or a Hunt or a Plantagenet, if those family associations don’t change anything about your life?
The saints of God – our brothers and sisters down through the centuries – have come from every conceivable background, and lived every conceivable kind of life. There are saints who had been doctors, nurses, businessmen, kings and queens, soldiers, paupers, homeless people, butchers, farmers, and amateur radio operators. There are saints who had been thieves and brigands and adulterers and murderers. There are even some who were priests. What ties them together is a decision at some point in their lives to follow Jesus, to do the will of God, to the exclusion of everything else, no matter what – a decision to put God FIRST in their lives. The reason the Church commends them to us – to get to know them – is because we are bound to emulate them, to live lives worthy of our being part of this family.
This idea is radically at odds with modernity. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas said that Americans are those people who refuse to have any story other than the story they CHOOSE FOR THEMSELVES out of the condition of having no story. But that approach is radically at odds with Christianity. Because we are Christians, we have a story. Narrated first by the life and death of Jesus, and recapitulated in the lives of all his saints down the years. THAT story is our story.
I want to leave you with the words – on point – of a contemporary blogger (Rod Dreher):
“If you are a Christian and there is an area of your life that you have not submitted to the tradition, then you are not who you think you are. All of life is a struggle to surrender to God; those who do it most successfully we call saints.
“If you are a husband or a wife, then you must be so as a Christian — that is, not as a husband or a wife who happens also to be a Christian, but as a Christian husband, a Christian wife, in a Christian marriage. If you are a writer, you must be a Christian writer, even if you never write a thing about religion; the experience of living with the mind of Christ must inform everything you write. If you are an electrician, you must be a Christian electrician. No, there is not a Christian way to wire a building, but you must do the work you are called to do in the awareness that you are doing it in [the] sight of God, and as His servant, and as part of a Christian community to which you must be accountable.”
I remember hearing years ago an interview with one of the artisans building the National Cathedral. He was going to great efforts to carve intricate little filigrees and things all over the far side of a carving that was to be way up in the vaults of the ceiling. The interviewer was puzzled and asked him why he was putting so much effort into the reverse side of a distant carving that no one would ever see. The artisan responded: “God will see it.”
That’s what it means to be a saint. And that’s the pattern of decision-making and action that is worthy of a member of God’s family. Every action, every decision, every choice, undertaken in the awareness that God sees it, that it ought to be welling-pleasing to him. This is the duty laid on us by our family’s tradition. We are responsible for receiving, absorbing it, contending with it – and we are responsible for handing it on.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.