November 1, 2015
Feast of All Saints
During the year the Church celebrates the memories of the saints one by one, allowing us to get to know them better. But today we lump them all together into one great feast. Not only those who the Church has canonized but the great multitudes in heaven enjoying the beatific vision - known only to God. Included in this feast would be our own family members and friends who have passed into heaven, for they too, now live the fullness of joy in God’s presence.
I remember in the novitiate hearing someone quote a saint as saying “I have found my heaven here on earth”. My first thought was ‘That’s Nuts’! I’d be pretty disappointed to get to heaven and find it is just like earth! But even Elizabeth Barrett Browning chimes in to say, “Earth is crammed with heaven.” And the singer, Bon Jovi, to throw in a contemporary, said “Heaven looks a lot like New Jersey!” (Needless to say he was born in NJ!) So why are they saying this? My vision of heaven is not New Jersey!...nor as the actor in The Fields of Dreams, who mistook Iowa for heaven! But a further quote from St Catherine of Siena perhaps explains it. “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, "I am the way.” And so “Every step of the way to heaven is heaven.” So there we have it – heaven is wherever we find Jesus. Maybe that vision is not complete here…but it certainly begins here. As someone said “the best way to get to heaven is to take it with you.”
The Vatican Council greatly emphasized a "universal call to holiness". Holiness is the ability to find God in our lives here and now…and to create a space for God’s presence and grace. So what is a saint? And what must we to do in order to join the company of the saints in heaven? Most people would probably say saints are the holy and extraordinary people who have gone before us — most likely leaving behind them a trail of miracles and amazing acts of self-sacrifice, suffering, and heroism. But this is a narrow definition of sainthood and would perhaps leave heaven quite empty! During the early centuries the saints venerated by the Church were all martyrs. This makes sense because there was a continuous persecution of Christians for the first 300 years. They wanted to remember and celebrate those Christians who, in real danger, remained faithful witnesses to Christ. I suspect that most of these believers/saints were ordinary people scared to death, but hung in there because of their faith. In that sense, being a saint has nothing to do with being heroic, holy, or different. It was (and is) about being faithful — no matter what. So here is the first trait of what a saint is: a faithful follower of Christ.
But now let us look at some of the saints in Scripture to see how they became ‘blessed’. Let’s start first in an unlikely place…with the Pharisee and the tax collector. (Lk 18:9+) The tax collector prayed in the temple, standing far off, beating his breast, saying “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Because he received God’s mercy, he went home a blessed man. It is interesting that Luke says, he “would not even look up to heaven”. Maybe he didn’t need to look up to find heaven, for he understood that “earth is crammed with heaven”!
Or we can take St Peter who told Jesus “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. (Lk 5:1+) Jesus instead gave him a purpose and mission to accomplish. Receiving God’s mercy, Peter “left everything and followed Christ”. Then there is Bartimaeus from our gospel last week. He was a blind beggar and experienced deeply his helplessness, and so when Jesus passed by, he begged and shouted “Lord have mercy on me a sinner”. After receiving God’s mercy we are told he followed Christ “on the way”. Both Peter and Bartimaeus understood that “All the way to heaven is heaven”, because Jesus said, "I am the way.”
Then we have Zacchaeus, but he was not seeking mercy at all or even aware of the need. (Lk 19:1+) Rather his desire was solely to see Jesus. Christ tells the crowds, who stood around that sycamore tree, that he had come “to seek out and to save the lost”. In His mercy, he calls Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus receives God’s mercy and “welcomes Jesus into his home”. So what made these people saints was simply that they received God’s merciful love…they received Jesus and welcomed Him into their homes and hearts. So our first step to sainthood is just to be open to God loving us! Jesus doesn’t tell us to be saints by achieving great things, doing miraculous deeds, but by letting Him ‘abide’ and ‘remain’ in us.
But now let us shift to today’s gospel: the Beatitudes. Here we find the second step toward becoming holy. The blessed are those who are poor in spirit, pure of heart, merciful, thirsty, faithful in the face of persecution and insult. This indwelling Spirit moves us to action…We are called to live the Beatitudes. Pope Benedict said “The saints manifest in many ways the powerful and transforming presence of the Risen One; they let Christ possess their lives completely”. They let God make His home in them…as we too abide in Him. As St Paul said, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”’
This second criteria comes only after the first which is an inner space for God. The Beatitudes bring us to blessedness, but also show the road that we must follow. It is by living with love and offering Christian witness in our daily tasks that we become saints. It is an invitation to share His joy, to live and offer every moment of our lives with joy, and at the same time, making it a gift of love for the people around us. (paraphrased Pope Francis) If we understand this, everything changes and takes on a new and beautiful meaning, in the little, ordinary things of life. So far…how am I doing in God's call to holiness?
So it is through the Beatitudes that we find heaven. In this way, yes Iowa and even New Jersey (!), can be heaven…for it is wherever God is. When we receive God’s mercy, allow Him to make His home is us, live the Beatitudes, and faithfully follow Christ, we create heaven on earth until that day, along with all the saints, we shall see Christ face to face.