The saints we celebrate today are not just the ones who have been officially canonised but all those who have gone to God’s presence after death. Although we recognise and appreciate the great heroes of faith and devotion, today reminds us of the many ‘hidden’ lives of those who are saved by Jesus, and guided by the Holy Spirit. We are meant to join them in our own time.
Revelation / Apocalypse 7:2-4, 9-14
The Greek word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘Revelation’ – with the sense of ‘unveiling of secrets’. ‘Apocalyptic’ is a word used by scholars to describe a kind of writing popular around the time of Jesus, but which has since dropped out of use – making it harder for modern people to understand. The message in apocalyptic writings is always one of encouragement for Jews or Christians living in difficult times, often under persecution. It assures them that God is in control, despite all hardships, and they will come out victorious in the end. While evil people seem active and in control, their power is limited and will not last.
The style is visionary and not to be taken literally. As St Paul wrote, what God has in store for our afterlife is wonderful beyond any of our imagining. The ‘John’ who names himself as the writer of this book uses the image of a great court scene like that of a powerful earthly emperor, with God the Father on a throne and Jesus appearing as the ‘Lamb of God’, a title given him in the Gospel of John.
After a threat of coming punishment ‘devastating the land’, the John who presents himself as the author of the book, hears of a pause to tell of those who will be saved from destruction. It begins with all the twelve tribes of Israel, the chosen people of the Older Testament; this selection leaves out the naming of the tribes, and just gives the total multiple of the twelve. Next come a gathering from all other parts of the world, and this is a number ‘impossible to count’. This suits today’s feast: there are countless saints we celebrate, most of whose lives are unknown to history but which we also celebrate. I think of departed family and friends as among them.
White robes were given to the newly baptised as symbolic of new birth from sinfulness; here we have the startling image of clothes washed white in in the blood of the Jesus’ death through which we rise to the new life in the sacrament of baptism. The palms they carry are a sign of victory celebrations.
The times we live in are as dangerous and frightening and all around the globe as those of the Roman persecution at the time when John was writing – with a pandemic, famines, continual outbreaks of war and violence and now the global effects of climate change. That means the message of trust and encouragement is as pertinent today as it was when this was written. Although Revelation can be a puzzling book to read, there are a number of consoling and inspiring passages, meant to encourage all those who hold to Christ through all problems, even persecution.
Psalm 23/24 1-6
The psalm with its view of those who ‘stand in the holy place’ and are rewarded with the vision of God is another example of ‘all saints’.
1 John 3:1-3
This letter shows close resemblances to the gospel of John, but may have been written by a different author of the ‘school’ of John the evangelist. The theme of this Letter is love, both the love ‘lavished’ on us by God and the love we respond with, as followers of Jesus loving God, and loving others. The saints we celebrate are examples of ‘God’s children’ who see God ‘as he really is.’ John here is writing to the living, for all of us are also called to be ‘saints’ and join the throngs of those in heaven, as in the first reading.
These are some of the most familiar Bible verses. In today’s liturgy they celebrate all those who have lived according to Jesus’ picture of those who belong to the Dominion or ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. The form of the eight blessings is a set out as a hymn in Hebrew poetic style. (The last lines are not part of that poem, but added because of their theme of martyrdom fits with the 8th blessing.) These are often called the ‘Beatitudes’ from the Latin word used to translate the Greek makairos which opens every line of the poem. This is not so easy to translate into English, as our words have differing connotations. The basic meaning is ‘those who are called happy’.
Because the words are familiar, we may not reflect on the radical nature of what the Kingdom of Heaven is. It is a striking view that opposes the views of the world, with its emphasis on wealth, ‘celebrity’, power and self-seeking. The ‘poor’ include those in daily poverty, unable to even scrape a living and reduced to begging, and ‘in spirit’ also means ‘having no righteousness of our own’ (St Paul) but relying on God for every grace. The ‘gentle’ turn us from how we relate to God, to how we relate to other people – not judging or exploiting, but considering their needs. Those who mourn may have personal losses, but the idea also includes ‘mourning’ over the pain and wickedness of the world around us, and that leads to ‘hungering and thirsting’ that all may be put right, in our lives and for everyone in the world. While we need to be aware of wrongdoing wherever it is and call it out and resist, our response to sinners should not be to condemn, but show the mercy that God has shown us. Another aspect of this is ‘making peace’ – seeking reconciliation, acting non-violently. The Hebrew idea of ‘peace’ takes in more than absence of war, and includes general well-being and happiness.
‘Pure in heart’ meant more than the outward ‘ritual’ purity of the old Law, and can also be understood as ‘singleness of mind’ – those who attentive to God and not distracted by riches, selfishness or ‘cares of the world’ (Mark 4:19). History has shown that those who live by these guidelines will not always be welcomed, but if persecution comes for that reason, that too is something to be ‘called happy’ about. All the rewards promised seem both for this life – there is a deep inner happiness if we live in this way – but also they look towards the final fulfilment of life everlasting, among the saints of our feast today. The last line echoes the first, indicating the end of the poem.
The texts are both a comfort of knowing that God is in charge, and a challenge to live out the description of those called who are ‘called happy.