Monday, October 31, 2016

Who From Their Labors Rest: Readings for 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.  Moreover, for those of us in the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere, the falling leaves, migrating animals, and dying back of the ecosystems with the advancing cold serve as a natural reminder of the end of physical life. 

The Readings for All Saints are, of course, beautiful.  Here are some quick thoughts:

1. The First Reading is Rev 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.”

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. For the early Christian readers of Revelation, the vision of 144,000 was assurance and consolation that the covenant promises to all the tribes of Israel would be fulfilled: there would be a large and perfect representation of the twelve tribes among the saved in heaven.

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.  They will not be erased in the age to come.

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). Suffering is necessary and unavoidable because suffering is the only way that love is demonstrated and purified.  Without suffering, the genuineness of love is never proved.  Without suffering, apparent love might always just be a masquerade for some kind of self-interest.  Through suffering, self-interest is destroyed and the truth of intentions is made manifest.  Love becomes revealed as love.  Why do we not understand this?  Why can’t the human race figure this out after so many thousands of years?  Our blindness is almost supernatural and takes the grace of God to heal.

P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6:

R. (see 6) Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.

The LORD’s are the earth and its fullness;
the world and those who dwell in it.
For he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.

R. Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.

Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?
or who may stand in his holy place?
One whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,
who desires not what is vain.

R. Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.

He shall receive a blessing from the LORD,
a reward from God his savior.
Such is the race that seeks him,
that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.

R. Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.

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.  Suffering is invaluable in this respect, because suffering—provided it is embraced with faith, hope, and love—helps to reorder the soul and the affections, which then guide our actions.

The Psalm assures us that the man who lives in righteousness “shall receive a blessing from the Lord, a reward from God his savior.”  This is an important truth that we must embrace with hope, not giving in to despair.  It is not apparent that in this life the righteous receive a reward.  For example, in this recent election cycle, the amount of time that any given candidate remained viable in the primaries seemed inversely proportionate to their degree of personal integrity.  The American entertainment, journalism, and political industries reward the immoral and unscrupulous with power, publicity, and profit.  So it goes.  Truly, they have their reward.  Those interested in a more lasting reward in the life to come, however, may choose a different lifestyle that will necessary exclude them from these industries of power, but include them in communion with the God of life and peace.  To fight despair and bitterness, the righteous one needs constantly to make acts of faith and hope in the promise: “He shall receive a reward from God his savior.”

To hope for the blessedness of heaven is not some psychological crutch for those too weak to look reality in the face, but an act of defiant hope in the face of the darkness of injustice in this world.  The hope of heaven is an act of faith that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is an ultimate moral order to this world; and thus, that world is, finally, good.

2. Our Second Reading is 1 Jn 3:1-3:

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.

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 too 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.

G. Our Gospel is Mt 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.”

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 EverPreached,” 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 (or “justice”), 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.  Moreover, the abuse they receive from others as a result of their poverty makes them more keenly aware of the injustice of this world ...

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 (greed) and the lust of the flesh (disordered physical appetites) ...

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

They 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.  Therefore, 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 disordered 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 one had in the “kingdom of the Earth,” so that one’s only treasure remains “in Heaven.”  Thus, “all things work together for good for those who love God,” even persecutions. 

All Saints is a great feast of triumph, a triumph that in one sense even “exceeds” the triumph of Easter.  For on Easter we celebrate the victory of the God-man over evil; whereas on All Saints we celebrate the victory of frail human beings over evil.  Not that we pit the two against each other; but we triumph in the power of God who conquers through weakness, even the weaknesses of his servants.  We should remember, after all, that the saints were not super-human, nor is holiness outside the reach of each one of us.  Holiness requires only the constant submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives, moment by moment, through each day.  This is possible through the grace we receive in the Sacraments.  Each one of us is called by our baptism to sainthood, and God does not call us to the impossible. 

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