All Saints Day
Holy Wisdom Monastery
November 1, 2020
Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
All Hallows Eve, All Saints/All Souls, Dia de los Muertos are described as “thin places” – elusive spaces where our experiences with the sacred assume both more immediacy and more intimacy. Where the veil between the worlds is said to be like gossamer, where we are unmasked. What a perfect family reunion time for the church – the feast where we are reunited with both the saints of our canon and, as Pope Francis named them, our “next door saints” – those loved ones and acquaintances who have died – and who, as family, love us, encourage us, and await us.
Like an exaltation of larks, all these people are the Communion of Saints: all the women and men who “from their labors rest” and who are now among Revelation’s vision of “the great multitude” from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They belong to us, and we belong to them, in a family that spans chronology and geography, time and space. Some of these ordinary citizens of earth were rich in everyday virtues such as patience and generosity. We know of others because of the wildness of their dreams, the stunning vitality of their ambitions. Many are loveable, but not all. Some have feast days named for them, others have day jobs. Today, we celebrate this community of companionship in the Spirit, both extraordinary personalities and the extraordinary status of next-door women and men, called and gifted by grace, trying to find our way.
My siblings and I grew up with our Mom’s devotion to a vast litany of saints. Through her eyes, these women and men were the most human of friends, and they took up the mantle of sainthood as the most ordinary of occupations. On washday, we asked St. Scholastica for sunshine and a fair wind. When driving in precarious weather, we relied on St. Christopher to “ride shotgun.” We called on St. Anthony to uncover stray fountain pens. St Teresa of Avila’s sharp retort to God, “If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!” reassured us that even saints lose their patience with the Almighty.
Mama did not feel the need to disguise the flaws of her saintly friends – indeed, their shortcomings – a touch of egotism, a leaning toward harmless chatter –endeared them to her. She seemed at home with them. Her example of a loving relationship with the saints instilled in us the belief that we are not alone, not now, not ever … that, in the words of Cynthia Bourgeault, we are “not isolated or helpless, but immersed in a great web of belonging….” And she sharpened our capacity to notice in the saints’ examples the ways in which these ordinary people plumbed their ordinary lives for the indwelling of the sacred.
For a while, as I grew older, these childhood affections and patron saints for every purpose and occasion seemed a little silly– quaint plaster anachronisms of an earlier church. But my mother’s devotion to her saints never faltered. Ultimately, her spiritual friends became my own. They became family – and I became a bit of a saint-watcher.
Which brings us to Matthew’s text and the consideration of the beatitudes through the lens of the Communion of Saints – specifically, those in the crowd that day. Those saints who would join the canon as well as the saints next door. When Jesus spoke to the people in the crowd, he was speaking to all of us. I think Jesus was saying, “I see each of you – especially those of you who are typically outside the circle – the poor, the meek, the mourning – and in spite of all that doesn’t seem blessed about your situation, God is with you. You are all members of the Communion of Saints.” An unexpected moment of grace, perhaps, for those in that crowd of witnesses who might have thought that they didn’t have what it takes to find their way into the ranks of the “blessed.”
We don’t know how this message resonated with everyone in the crowd, but we do know about a few of them. We know Thomas doubted – and believed. We know that Peter denied Jesus, was forgiven, and went on to die for him. These saints understood Jesus’ message: that it is the greatest work of God’s love to behold our own lives as eminently worthy of compassion and care, even as we continue to stumble, repent, and stumble again. Neither sidetracked by the allure of holiness, nor intimidated by what it took to live Jesus’ way of life, these saints took Jesus at his word: the explicit, loving, inclusive Word.
And what did that Word tell them? Jesus just reminded us: Nurse the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort those who mourn. Seek justice; love mercy. Draw the circle bigger. Make good trouble! Soul-stirring slogans to which most of us attend absent-mindedly. But the saints took them literally, forsaking the world or roving about in it, giving up their possessions, wearing themselves out with generosity, carrying the good news (and a few cookies) to any heart that would hear them. God-struck, love-struck, making everyday miracles of their own lives.
Frederick Buechner suggests that, “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.” Today, we claim that all these people: disciples and prophets, martyrs and mystics, angels and archangels, all the company of heaven – all these are family. Barbara Brown Taylor goes one nuanced step further: To be a saint, she explains, “you don’t have to be famous, or perfect, or dead. You just have to be you—the one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-repeated human being whom God created you to be—to love as you are loved, to throw your arms around the world, to shine like the sun. You don’t have to do it alone, either. You have all this company—all these saints sitting right here whom you can see for yourself plus those you cannot… all of them egging you on, calling your name, and shouting themselves hoarse with encouragement — because you are part of them, and they are part of you, and all of us are knit together in the communion of saints—God’s handkerchiefs—dropped on the world for the love of Christ.”
On the final road trip of her life with my older sister, Judith, Mama’s spirit was flagging. Daddy was in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, and we’d heard her say on more than one occasion that she was “ready to meet her maker – anytime.” She and Judith were conversing on this topic again, when Mama remarked, “I’ve asked God to send Elijah with the fiery chariot – but God has turned off his hearing aid. I’m going back to his mother – I’ll take a skateboard!” At that moment, Mama did what she had always done: she returned to Mary, her most faithful friend among her life-long Communion of Saints. She died that night. Not alone, not then, not ever. She came out of the great ordeal, and God wiped every tear from her eye.
Wherever and whenever hardship, fear, loneliness have existed, no matter how bleak the times, saints have sprung up to soften the edges, to reinvigorate our hope. They are rising among us even now. The promise, the richness of our tradition is that we can turn again and again to our own Communion of Saints: family, friends, and favorites among the heroines and heroes of heaven and those next door. In them, in all those who have taught us something of the way of Jesus, our own mortality is made more honorable, and our daily lives are charged with a vicarious glory.