Nov 1, 2019: Solemnity of All Saints (ABC)

Introduction

Today we celebrate the memory of all the baptized who have gone before us and whose lives were virtuous.  We keep the memory of all these, not just those who have been made models of virtue through the process of canonization.

The Feast of All Saints began in the early centuries as the “Feast of All Holy Martyrs,” a remembrance of martyrs whose names were not known and who therefore did not have their own festivities. It was introduced in Rome on May 13, 610 by Pope Bonifice IV, when the Roman Emperor, Phocas, made a gift of the ancient pagan temple of the Pantheon to the Church. Initially celebrated on May 13, it was transferred to November 1 for the universal Church by Pope Gregory IV in 835, and by then it included all the saints.

The reason for the new date may have been a practical one. It seems that so many pilgrims came to Rome for the feast that it was moved to the fall when more food would be available after the harvest.

1st Reading – Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14

I, John, saw another angel come up from the East,
holding the seal of the living God.
He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels
who were given power to damage the land and the sea,
“Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees
until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”
I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal,
one hundred and forty-four thousand marked
from every tribe of the children of Israel.

After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne,
and from the Lamb.”

All the angels stood around the throne
and around the elders and the four living creatures.
They prostrated themselves before the throne,
worshiped God, and exclaimed:

“Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor, power, and might
be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me,
“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”
I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.”
He said to me,
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”

The Apocalypse, or Revelation to John, is the last book of the Bible and one of the most difficult to understand.  It is filled with unfamiliar and extravagant symbolism borrowed extensively from the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel.  Symbolism is a chief characteristic of apocalyptic literature, which enjoyed wide popularity in both Jewish and Christian circles from about 200 BC to 200 AD.  This genre is unfamiliar to us because we don’t have this kind of writing now, any more than ancient writers knew about comic strips or westerns.

St. John wrote Revelation around 95 AD, while he was in exile on the rocky island of Patmos, a Roman penal colony.

In today’s reading, John relates two apocalyptic visions that were granted to him.  Although they differ, when placed together, the second adds dimension to the first.  Both visions depict vast assemblies of the righteous, or saints.  They are simultaneously a warning, an assurance, and a promise.

I, John, saw another angel come up from the East, holding the seal of the living God.

The first vision pictures the People of God on earth placed under God’s protection against coming adversity.  It’s important to understand the vision in the context of how Jewish thinkers understood the world at the time the book was written.  They thought of the earth as flat, resting on the sea, and square.  Picturesquely, at the earth’s four corners awaiting God’s command as his agents were winds of potential destruction — especially the dreaded Sirocco, the blast of hot air from the southeast that destroyed vegetation.

In the East was the protecting angel.  The East, is, first of all, the source of light and the direction from which the Messiah was expected to come.

The seal was probably a signet ring, used to mark official documents or important possessions.  Those who are marked with the seal of the living God are his possessions and under his protection.

He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea, “Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”

The signing angel commands the destroying angels to desist so that the vast assembly can be sealed with the seal of God, and presumably be spared from the cataclysm.

This is similar to Ezekiel 9:4-6, where a sign was placed on the foreheads of some of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, protecting them from the disastrous fate of the city.

I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the children of Israel.

The number 144,000 is clearly a symbolic number, not an actual one.  It is the number twelve squared and then multiplied by one thousand.  In Hebrew numerology, the number twelve is a symbol of perfection.  The second twelve represents the original tribes of Israel.  One thousand is a very large number; multiplying by one thousand implies that the number is impossible to count.

This number, then, symbolizes the ideal Israel: Israel as it was meant to be, in all its perfection, symmetry, and completeness.

After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,

The second vision begins, set in the divine throne room in heaven.

Note the universality of this second multitude: every nation, race, people, and tongue.  This is probably an allusion to the countless descendants promised to Abraham (Genesis 15:5; Hebrews 11:12), and certainly an acknowledgment that Christ came to save the entire world.

wearing white robes

The wearing of white symbolizes purity — a life cleansed from sin — along with holiness and victory (see Revelation 3:5).

and holding palm branches in their hands.  

Conquerors used to hold palms as a symbol of their triumph.  The faithful servants of God are represented as victors, having fought the good fight of faith and finished their course.

The word phoinix, translated as “palm,” occurs only two times in the New Testament: here, and in the story of Palm Sunday in the Gospel of John (12:13).

They cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.”

The multitude acknowledges that victory was not won by their own merits, but comes as a blessing from God through the agency of the Lamb.

All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders

Revelation 4:4 describes twenty-four elders wearing white garments and gold crowns.  Later, Revelation 21:12-14 describes them as being the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Christ.

and the four living creatures.

Revelation 4:7 depicts these four living creatures as resembling a lion, a calf, a human, and an eagle.  They symbolize, respectively, what is noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in all of creation.

They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed: “Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever.

The angels, elders, and four living creatures represent all of creation.  They pay homage to God and to the Lamb with a traditional song of praise, many of which are found throughout Revelation.  In fact, Revelation has more hymns than the rest of the New Testament combined.

Amen.”

Their exclamation of praise begins and ends with “amen,” which means “so be it!” or “it is true!”

Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

The elder asks a question, not for his own information, but to prompt John to consider the question, for his instruction.  Jesus taught in a similar way when he asked the apostles in Mark 8:28-29, “Who do people say that I am?”

I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.”

John tacitly acknowledges his own ignorance; he knows that even the lowest saint in heaven knows more than any apostle in the world.

He said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;

The answer employs two themes from ancient Israel’s tradition.  The first is the eschatological concept of the great tribulation (thlípsis) that will precede the dawning age of fulfillment.

Revelation was written as resistance literature to meet a crisis, namely, ruthless persecution of the early church by the Roman authorities.  This oppression was most likely seen in the context of thlípsis. 

Despite its being written to address a specific crisis, Revelation remains valid and meaningful for Christians of all time.  In the face of any apparently insuperable evil, all Christians are called to trust in Jesus’ promise: Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

they have washed their robes and made them white

This is baptismal imagery.  Baptism is the seal with which our souls are marked by God.

in the Blood of the Lamb.”

The second ancient theme in the reply is a reference to the atoning efficacy of the blood of the sacrificial lamb.

There is no evidence that these people are martyrs; rather, they are those who have survived the tribulation because they were purified by the blood of the Lamb — an encouragement to the faithful on earth to persevere to the end, even to death.

2nd Reading – 1 John 3:1-3

Beloved:
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
Yet so we are.
The reason the world does not know us
is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.
Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure,
as he is pure.

According to tradition that dates back to the second century, St. John wrote his three letters (1 John, 2 John, and 3 John) in Ephesus, on his return from exile on the island of Patmos, around the years A.D. 95-96.  Detailed analysis of the text in 1 John confirms that it was written by the same person who wrote the fourth gospel. There are very obvious similarities of style, structure of phrases, vocabulary, and ideas.

Unlike most of the other New Testament epistles, this letter contains no special introduction (Hebrews being the notable exception). There is no mention of the writer’s name or the addressees. There are none of the usual opening greetings and no special words of farewell. This suggests that it is a kind of circular letter (encyclical) sent to all the Christian communities in the region.

Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.

The first of two themes in this reading is the love God has for believers.  The specific kind of love referenced here (agápē in Greek) is transformative; it transforms believers into children of God.

“The grace of our Creator is so great that He has allowed us both to know Him and to love Him, and moreover, to love Him as children love a wonderful father. It would be no small thing if we were able to love God in the way that a servant loves his master or a worker his employer. But loving God as father is much greater still.” [Saint Bede the Venerable (died A.D. 735), On 1 John]

The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.

As children of God, we are a new reality, re-created as God’s children.  Thus we are not accepted by the world, the old reality.  The world, which is subject to sin, recognizes only its own.  It did not recognize the Son of God, and it does not recognize these new children of God.

The implication: believers should expect the same kind of rejection, and possibly persecution, that Christ endured.

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.

The second theme of the reading is introduced: eschatological fulfillment.  Using the “now but not yet” formula of Christian eschatology, the author explains that believers have been reborn as children of God (“now”), but the transformation isn’t complete (“not yet”).

Not only is the transformation incomplete, it has not been fully made known to them.

We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

This sentence is constructed in Greek with a verb that has no subject.  As such, it is unclear what is being revealed, the transformation from the previous verse, or Christ himself.

Regardless, the theological intent is the same: the believers are promised an even fuller identification with God.  They will not only be his children, they will be like him, and as such, will see God as God is.

There is a Hellenist influence here: the Greeks believed that a reality can only be understood by a reality that is similar to it.  We will understand God more deeply because we will be more similar to him.

Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.

Seeing and understanding God is what every Christian strives for; however, this vision is a hope, not a certainty. For their part, believers must do what they can to pattern their lives after the purity of God.

“Note that John uses the present tense when he talks about our need to purify ourselves. The practice of virtue is an ongoing thing and has its own inner dynamic. If we stop living this way or put it off until some future time, there is nothing virtuous about that at all.” [Theophylact (died A.D. 1108), Commentary on 1 John]

Gospel – Matthew 5:1-12a

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.”

Our reading for today is known as the Beatitudes, which Jesus gave as the first part of his inaugural sermon, the Sermon on the Mount (known as the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s gospel).

A beatitude, or macarism, is a literary form that draws a connection between a behavior and its associated consequences.  They are a form of wisdom teaching, not Christian law, as is sometimes claimed.  Most if not all of the sentiments expressed are found elsewhere in Jewish teaching.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.

The preaching and miracles of Jesus attracted large crowds, making it necessary to take his disciples up a mountain where he could teach his close followers away from the masses.

He began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The first and third beatitudes are similar, addressing notions of power.  Note that actual poverty is not emphasized, or the qualifier “in spirit” would not be necessary.  The spirit of poverty is humility.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.

The second and fourth beatitudes address inner turmoil.  Those who mourn have compassion.  We might interpret this mourning as grief over our brokenness and ineptitude as humans who so easily fall into sin, or it might refer to mourning the evils of Israel.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.

Meekness connotes submissiveness.  Those who are meek are teachable and receptive; required traits for those who would gain knowledge.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.

The fifth, sixth, and seventh beatitude address religious piety.  Essentially, God thirsts for us to thirst for him.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Mercy is the disposition that God has for sinners (Exodus 34:6-7).  Those who seek mercy from God are required by God to extend it to others. This is a repetitive theme throughout the Old Testament and was also taught by Jesus (Matthew 18:21-35).

Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.

Jesus emphasizes cleanliness of heart rather than ritual cleanliness.

Psalm 24:3-4 indicates that Israel already had a tradition that a simple, open heart — not ritual conformity — gives one entrance to the presence of God.

Purity of heart is described by Jesus in Matthew 15:10-20.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Peace and tranquil order have been God’s desire for us from the beginning.  Our sin disrupted this order and destroyed the peace.

Those who work to overcome evil with good, in order to re-establish God’s peace, will be known as his children.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Commitment to Jesus and to his cause are bound to bring insult and persecution. The kingdom of heaven is theirs, a kingdom that is not of this world.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.

There are only eight beatitudes; this is an expansion of the previous verse.  It is an exhortation to persevere through the challenges Jesus has described.

The Beatitudes are acutely paradoxical.  Each of them clearly overturns the standards of the world, and with them, our way of life.

Connections and Themes

  • Today’s readings center around the saints of God.
    • The first reading is John’s heavenly vision of a multitude of victorious believers, worshiping God in perfect harmony with the angels.
    • The second reading paints a hopeful picture of eschatological fulfillment, for those of us striving to attain it.
    • The gospel gives us Christ’s teaching on what it means to be holy, through the Beatitudes.
  • Who exactly are these saints of God?  They are all those who have been baptized into Christ, who have “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.”  While they have lived lives of virtue, we must remember that sanctity is not an accumulation of merit, but rather a gift that comes with baptism to be nurtured throughout life.
  • Our focus today is not only on our own hopeful journey toward sainthood, but an appreciation of others who have blessed our lives with their holiness.  Perhaps our lives have been enriched by saintly parents, friends, or colleagues.  Perhaps we have been lifted up by those we barely know, such as heroic members of the armed forces. Many have been inspired by the lives of saints who lived long ago.  Today is a day to remember and celebrate their holiness.
  • Our baptism, and the identity it gives us as children of God, is a blessing.  However, it also carries with it a challenge to live up to that identity.  The saints who have gone before us have met that challenge, and the Church reminds us of them so that they may guide and inspire us.
  • The rewards for living out God’s will for us are both immediate and eternal, as well as truly great.  In the paradoxical description of the virtuous provided by the Beatitudes, we also see a description of Christ. Similarly, John’s letter promises us that not only will we see God as he is, in all his glory, but we will be “like him.”   Is there a more powerful hope we can hold?

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