Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Some Quick Thoughts on All Saints


A happy Feast of All Saints to one and all!  This is one of my favorite feasts.  The month of November is not formally a liturgical season, but since it begins with All Saints and ends with Christ the King, these four weeks really do have the feel of a liturgical season focused on meditation on the Last Things: Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgment.

The Readings for All Saints are, of course, beautiful.  The full text of the readings are here.  Here are some quick thoughts:


1. The First Reading is Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14.  St. John sees a vision of heaven.  There are two groups present: 144,000 from “every tribe of the children of Israel,” and a “great multitude no one could count” our of “every nation, race, people and tongue.”  They stand and worship God (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son).  One of the elders identifies the great multitude as those who have “survived the great tribulation [time of testing.]”

There has been much speculation as to the meaning of the “144,000” from every tribe of Israel.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses take this as the literal number of those who will experience heaven.  Good people who don’t make the cut will live on a renewed earth.

It’s more likely, however, that “144,000” [12X12X1000] is symbolic for the large, but finite number of those from the twelve tribes of Israel who will find salvation through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.  After all, they are identified as ethnic Israelites.  We should recall that historically, the early Church was predominantly Jewish, and throughout history large numbers of Jews have quietly entered the Church.

In contrast, the great multitude from every ethnic background is just that: the countless multitude of Christians down through the ages from every nation, tongue, and tribe, who have joined the Israelite “core” of the Church to praise the Triune God.

It’s interesting that St. John can still discern ethnic differences in heaven: he recognizes the diverse backgrounds of those who make up the multitude.  This suggests to us that some of the distinctives of our different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are good in themselves, enrich the culture of the Church, and are conducive to the praise of God.

The 144,000 and the countless multitude has survived “the time of great distress.”  This reminds us that suffering in this life is always a part of the growth in holiness.  There is no way to avoid pain in the Christian life—to grow closer to Christ and deeper in God means to “take up our cross daily and follow him.”  Yet we do so with confidence, because if we share in his sufferings, we will also share in his glory (see Rom 8:17).

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6
This Psalm reminds us of some of the qualities of holiness.  “Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD? Or who may stand in his Holy Place?” the Psalm asks.  In this context, the “mountain of the LORD” is first of all Mt. Zion or Jerusalem, the location of the Temple.  The Psalm goes on to describe the moral qualities that should characterize Israelite worshipers who come to offer sacrifice in the Temple.

But already in ancient times, the people of Israel perceived that Mt. Zion was a mystic representation, almost a sacrament, of God’s “heavenly mountain,” the true and eternal abode of God, which we would now call “heaven.”

Those qualified to share God’s eternal abode with him are those “whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain.”  In other words, one marked by external justice in action (one’s ‘hands’) as well as internal justice, a rightly ordered soul (one’s ‘heart’) that experiences proper affections or emotions (one’s ‘desire’).  Holiness is a matter of the whole person.  The saints achieved this; we work toward it.

3.  The Second Reading is 1 John 3:1-3.  This reading emphasizes divine filiation, that is, the fact that we have been made children of God.  As many have pointed out, this is unique to the Christian faith: other religions do not teach that we are or can become the children of God.  St. John himself is amazed that we have such a privilege. There are no exclamation points in the Greek language that St. John wrote, but if there were, he would have used them:

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

If this were not enough, there remains for us in heaven a destiny that ‘has not yet been revealed’—perhaps a reality to wonderful to be put into words in this life, like describing color to the blind or music to the deaf.  One thing we do know, is that we will become like Jesus, and that is enough for us.

This optimistic hope gives us the courage to live holiness right now, even though it may mean suffering and self-denial: “Everyone who has this hope … makes himself pure.

4.  The Gospel Reading is the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12a.  The Beatitudes are read on All Saints, because they describe eight qualities that characterize the ideal follower of Jesus.  The Beatitudes give us the “personality of a saint.”  Here are some reflections on each of the Beatitudes, taken from my CD set “The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached,” which covers the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7):

The Beatitudes are a chain, i.e. there is a certain progression in this list of virtues:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

The primary reference is poverty of spirit, realizing that we have no spiritual riches, that we come to God empty-handed, in need of grace.  We have no earnings, no strict merit.  Even our good deeds are the result of his grace.  The poor in spirit are those who realize and acknowledge their spiritual poverty.

Nonetheless there is a relationship with temporal poverty.  Temporal poverty tends to humble us and make us realize our powerlessness and neediness at all levels.  It teaches us to depend on God for our temporal goods, and by extension also our spiritual goods.  Furthermore, riches pose a temptation and obstacle to our spiritual life by creating attachments to this world, to the “Kingdom of the Earth.”  For this reason, many saints have understood “poor in spirit” to be “poor for the sake of the Spirit,” that is, temporally poor for the sake of spiritual ends.  Thus they become the voluntarily poor.

The opposite of this attitude was displayed by most of the Pharisees, who were both ‘spiritually’ and temporally wealthy.

This is the point: “poor in spirit” refers to spiritual poverty, but nonetheless is tied to living a form of temporal poverty as well, because temporal indulgence is incompatible with spiritual poverty.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Who mourn for their spiritual poverty, for their nothingness, for their emptiness, for their sins ...

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Meekness is roughly the same as humbleness.  Not putting oneself forward, not throwing your weight around, being docile.  They are meek/humble because they realize they are spiritually poor.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Hunger and thirst for it, because they realize they do not have it of themselves, but need to receive it from God ...

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. 

Merciful, because, recognizing their own sinfulness and emptiness, they can empathize with other sinners and grant mercy to them ...

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

The purgation that comes from recognition of spiritual poverty, of mourning for sin and seeking God’s grace, purifies the heart from attachments to the world, particularly the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh ...

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

No longer fight and make war, because it is the desire for temporal goods, essentially lusts, that cause war.  See how thoroughly St. James, the Lord’s cousin, assimilated the beatitudes:

James 4:1   What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?  2 You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask.  3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  4 Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. .... 6 But he gives more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  8 Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind.  9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection.  10 Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.

Only those who kill their passions become truly at peace with God and with other people.  So the peace we are talking about is not the result of political negotiations—as if political pacifists and skilled diplomats especially belong to the Kingdom of Heaven.  No, it’s those who have achieved peace with God and with men, and teach others how to have that peace as well.  And that peace is found from denying our passions/lusts and turning to God to find our true joy.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Those who live this way will be hated by those who don’t want to give up their lusts, because (1) the disciple is a painful reminder to others that they are not following the way of God, and (2) the disciple becomes an obstacle to others fulfilling their lusts, because he will not cooperate.  So persecution comes, but the persecution is OK, because it creates temporal poverty and mortification, which is an assistance in achieving detachment and coming to know God.  Persecutions take away any stake you had in the “kingdom of the Earth,” so that your only treasure remains “in Heaven.”

2 comments:

Brad Henry said...

John,
I've absolutely loved listening to your lectures and reading your posts here. Like few others you have helped me see the holiness of the Church.
I wanted to run by you something I've been thinking about while reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount. It seems to me that many readings (in the tradition and the pulpit) emphasize these as being a type of a-temporal spiritual stance. Is it possible to read them, though, as referring to a temporal stance? What I mean is that, is it possible to read these as the 'detachment' any soldier must experience in battle, with the aim being that once the battle is over then you 'inherit' the spoils. It seems if we read them this way then resurrection day becomes the goal and Christ is pointing who, today, is 'on the right side' (the meek, the humble, etc...). The reason I like this is that it seems to capture the second portion of the sayings (maybe better?): "...they shall obtain; ...they shall be satisfied; etc....". When it is a-temporal it seems these become principles rather than 'marching orders' (so to speak).
Would love your thoughts!

John Bergsma said...

Brad Henry: those are great thoughts. I'll have to meditate on the beatitudes from that perspective, but initially it sounds plausible.