Solemnity of All Saints
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12a
I have proclaimed the gospel that we just heard a number of times this year. Since we are in Cycle A in the Lectionary, it was the gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, if you can remember it from way back in January. But the other times I have proclaimed it as deacon has been at funeral services, including the one for my mother back in August. There are many options for the readings that one can choose for a funeral, but this is the one, Matthew's beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, that I chose for my mom. And there are many passages from all four gospels that would work well for All Saints Day, but this is the one the Church chose for this day as well, and I think for the same reason.
For today we honor those people who did their best to uphold the Christian ideals that are embedded in the beatitudes. They go beyond what the Old Testament law had required before Jesus. No longer was it sufficient just to not do mortal sins and to worship the one true God. Now one had to actively participate in making the world a better place. It wasn’t good enough to worship God on the sabbath, you needed to risk persecution in spreading the Good News to others. It wasn’t good enough to not kill, you needed to be meek, and even above that to be a peacemaker. It wasn’t good enough not to covet your neighbor’s possessions or to steal, you had to be poor in spirit, being satisfied with what you had. It wasn’t good enough not to bear false witness, no, you must seek righteousness and justice within the larger society.
And so Jesus promises us today, if we can do this, we will be honored by joining him in the Kingdom of God. That is what it means to be a saint, or at least what the Church means by the term. Today the term gets thrown around a lot by people who mean nothing more than someone who is generally nice. The Church, when it declares a person a saint, has a much more rigorous standard. They do have to be nice, if by nice you mean love their neighbors, although true love doesn’t always come with a smile, especially when frank speaking is required. In addition to a demonstrably good life as evidenced by those around them, the Church also requires evidence that they are indeed in heaven. This evidence is only accepted upon thorough research concerning two miracles which have been brought about by prayers to the saint for intercession to God to bring it about. I’m no expert on the requirements that are used in this process. I do know that they are quite extensive and very detailed, so that I also know that we can be unhesitating in accepting the results of the canonization process.
This is important to understand and accept, that it is something that can be trusted. In this era of talking heads, we are bombarded with opinions masquerading as facts, and no one seems to catch a break from being criticized, even real saints. Everyone, even the leaders of the Church are constantly smeared, sometimes for legitimate mistakes, but more often for mere disagreements with opinions they have given. So it is no surprise that the public turns to made-up heroes. It seems like every other movie that comes out is about some comic book superhero. What we need is some real-life heroes, and the Church gives them to us in the saints, and gives us this special day to recognize them.
I’ll just mention one, since it is on my mind. It is the saint that my son took at his saint name at his Confirmation a few weeks ago: Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Franciscan who did missionary work in Asia as well as work in his native Poland. After the Nazis invaded Poland, he and his monastery helped smuggle 2,000 Jews, as well as worked as a hospital for refugees. He was arrested and sent to Auschwitz as prisoner 16670. He continued his priestly duties covertly and was severely beaten when it was discovered. Then, after a prisoner escaped from the camp, the camp commander demanded that ten people be randomly selected and starved to death in retaliation and as a deterrent. Maximilian was not selected, however, when a Polish soldier that was selected begged for mercy since he had a family with children, Maximilian volunteered to take his spot. All ten were deprived of all food and water, and when Kolbe and three others were still alive after two weeks, they were killed with a lethal injection to finally end it.
Now, the saints were real people, not two-dimensional cartoon superheroes, and so they were not perfect. This is also important for us to celebrate because a perfect role model can become discouraging for those of us that aren’t perfect, will never be perfect. A goal that is unattainable ceases to motivate. But the goal is attainable, and it is useful to understand that they became saints not because of their sins and mistakes but despite them. There are always critics. Some said that Maximilian wasn’t really a martyr because he volunteered to die, and not for his religious beliefs but to save someone else. Of course you can be a saint without being a martyr, but Pope John Paul II, who canonized him in 1982, would not allow him to be stripped of that distinction. He said that the Nazis promoted hatred towards many segments of humanity, which therefore made it hatred towards religious faith in general and Christian faith in particular, and so his actions were consistent with all those martyrs who have given their lives in defense of the gospel.
And so, as we try to live up to that gospel, today’s gospel and all the other readings that we hear throughout the liturgical year, we have Saint Maximilian Kolbe and all the other saints to look to for inspiration. Maybe we should all dust off our own Confirmation saint names, including me – I took Saint Patrick as mine. We should look to them for guidance on how we could live a better life. We should pray to them for intercessions to God to help us and our world. I would like to think that my mom is a saint. Well, I do think that she is, but realize that she’s not canonized and recognized as such. But I chose the beatitudes for her funeral because I feel that she lived them out to the best of her abilities, and she is one of my inspirations to try to live them out in mine as well.
As we continue with the Mass, let the Eucharist be a true communion with all members of the Church, including the communion of saints who have gone before us to guide us on the right path. May we look to all of them for the help we need to follow the gospel and live up to our baptismal promises. And so we look to our patron saint here in our parish and sincerely ask: Saint James the Younger, pray for us. Saint Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us. All holy men and women, pray for us.