Today, we celebrate all those ‘standing in front of the throne and of the Lamb’. Who are they? Surely, all those figures of the Old Testament, from Abel and Abraham onwards, and all those of the New Testament, Mary and Joseph and John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, James and John and all the Apostles, Mary Magdalene, Stephen and Mark and Luke, and so on. It’s a litany, a procession. The saints of Scripture lead it. Then follow the great saints of Church history, the martyrs first, and all the holy folk we celebrate in the course of the year or find in Dictionaries of Saints or Martyrologies – all the way through to Mother Teresa or St John Paul II. But this is only the beginning. Perhaps these named, known saints are akin to the 144,000 in the first reading. Perhaps they are mediators of grace for the rest, Mary especially. But ‘after that – the reading goes on – I saw a huge number, a great crowd, which no one could count, people from every nation, race, tribe and language.’ Face upon face! Some, please God, people we’ve known and loved, others from every period of history and corner of the world. Perhaps many who did not know Christ or the Church in their own lifetime. But secretly strengthened by God, they lived upright lives and the beatitudes found a home in them. And God the Father has gathered them in. They too have ‘washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb’. They have been redeemed by Christ, the only Saviour. They are members of his Body now, with seats at the heavenly banquet.
This is the vision of today.
It’s a vision of the triumph of grace. There’s not one of those before the Throne who doesn’t know that he or she is there purely and simply by the grace of God. That’s why they cry out: ‘Victory to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.’ They have experienced that victory in themselves. Whatever weaknesses they felt, whatever difficulties came upon them during life, God has given them the victory and gathered them in. He hasn’t allowed weariness or evil or pain to defeat them. ‘These are the people who have come through the great persecution’, that is, the trials and temptations of this life – come through by the grace of God.
Yes, this feast is first of all a hymn to the power of grace, a share in the praise of heaven. The saints in heaven are an extension or expansion of the risen and ascended Christ. They are the proof that where the Head of the Body has already gone, there the members will follow. They are the consequence of Pentecost (whatever the date of their lives).
It’s a very Catholic thing to honour the saints. Our brothers and sisters of the Eastern churches do the same. And many Protestants have been rediscovering this element of Christianity. It can indeed sometimes get out of hand, but when healthily done it’s a very health-bringing thing. It gives substance to our hope. It fills that hope with names and faces and stories. It makes eternal life imaginable. It fleshes out heaven. We see what Christ’s Resurrection implies.
More particularly, our faith in the heavenly city, the kingdom to come, can be a bulwark against two things. Against illusions of impossible happiness here and now, be it in through idyllic personal relationships or perfect political arrangements. It puts paradise where it really is: with the glorified Christ. And then against our innate cynicism or any form of quiet desperation. We are not inevitably headed for Shakespeare’s everlasting bonfire or T.S Eliot’s final cosmic whimper. We are not all going into the dark. And life isn’t just bad motives and dashed aspirations. There is another vision. There are men and women ‘who seek him, seek the face of the God of Jacob’, and who find that face and see him now as he really is. There are people of the beatitudes: poor in spirit, gentle, merciful, pure in heart and all the rest. And a kingdom of heaven and comfort and mercy and all the rest is awaiting them. There is such a thing as grace. Our hearts can be purified, our knots untied. There is the victory of God.
In a sense, this feast was first given to John when he had the vision of the 1st reading. He had that vision, he says, when he was confined to the island of Patmos, probably because of some hostility against Christians. It was given him for the sake of his Christian contemporaries, beginning to feel the first pressures of the Roman State and local unpopularity. And year after year, this feast, this vision, is given to us, in the midst of our own constraints and struggles. And given to the same effect.
‘Victory to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!’ ‘And this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith’ (1 Jn 5:4). Our faith frees us from false hopes and feeds us with a true one, with a great one. It gives us victory over illusion and escapism on the one hand, and over cynicism and despair, on the other. Winter is starting to hem us in and aspects of life constrain us, and we age and maybe tire. But here come the saints. They come to steady and strengthen us, and to help us reset our compass. Our eyes and hearts are lifted to the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother, the city of the living God, and our feet move again along the pilgrimage of faith. ‘Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet’ (Heb 12:12). Take up the challenge of holiness! And, as we do, we hear in our ears the cry of the saints, ‘Victory to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ Amen.