Catechesis on the Solemnity of All Saints

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Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB Catechesis on the Solemnity of All Saints


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All Saints – followed by All Souls. It’s one of the major feasts of the Church’s year. It’s the only solemnity between the Assumption of our Lady on 15th August and Christ the King at the end of November. It gathers up all the celebrations of the saints we’ve had throughout the year: “we crowd them all up into one day”, said St John Henry Newman. And so it widens to embrace all the known and unknown people who are now at home with God. “All Saints, All Souls, all sorts”, said a priest of this diocese. It’s a Holyday of Obligation. It’s a feast of great beauty. It has a lot to give.

1.

First, let’s look at how it came to be. Feasts don’t drop from heaven. They spring from the soil of the Christian community, Mother Church. What’s its story?

We can begin with a couple of passages from the New Testament. First, the Letter to the Hebrews 12:22-24: But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly[a] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

The author is writing to ordinary Christians. They would have been few, experiencing hostility, feeling fragile. In the verses just before, he tells his listeners they are not, like ancient Israel, standing before Mt. Sinai and hearing the thunder and lightning of God. Their situation is better. Even though they are still on earth, they are also already in heaven, in the heavenly Jerusalem. They are with the angels, with the believers who have predeceased them, with the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and with the risen and ascended Christ. Your address may be Tenement 5, Tavern Alley, off the Forum but your real home is heaven. The author may have the Eucharist in mind here.

Then there’s the 1st reading of the Mass of All Saints, from the Book of Revelation. John the visionary sees “a huge number impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language, standing before the throne.” They have gone through the trials of life. They have been faithful. They have been cleansed. They are the pioneers. And they can’t be disinterested in us.

So, there are two passages. There are others. They reveal the early Christian mind. The first Christians did not feel alone. They knew they were part of a body. They felt preceded, accompanied, watched, surrounded, befriended, awaited by fellow-believers who had died and were now with Christ. They felt this especially when they were few and socially marginal (which they generally were). When martyrdom was on the horizon, they felt it more acutely still. They felt it strongly too when they were praying, either together or alone. They felt there was a heavenly dimension to their being Christian.

This was the seed-bed of our feast.

So, when from the 4th c onwards, it became possible for Christians to build churches and celebrate their faith publicly, their developing liturgical year began to include not just Easter and then Christmas, the various feasts of the Lord, but also commemorations of our Lady, of the martyrs and gradually other saints. A further step was sometimes to group them, especially the martyrs, together. This process went from roughly the 4th to the 9th century.

Imagine a highrise, a tower block, and after dark. Some flats will be lit up; people are at home. You see the bright windows at the top right, or halfway down, or in the bottom left. As evening progresses, more lights go on. And so in different parts of the Christian world, feasts of all the martyrs and gradually all the saints would appear, would start to be kept, here and there: in Syria, Constantinople, Italy, Rome, Ireland, England, France, Germany and so on. Chapels or churches might be dedicated to All Martyrs or All Saints. We have the evidence. By the 8th and 9th cc., the pattern seems to have settled, the practice of celebrating all the saints together is established, the tower block is all lit up. And what was achieved then is what we have inherited and still have.

If we look at the whole Church, we discover three major traditions.

  1. In Middle Eastern and later some Indian Christianity, we have a feast of All Saints on the Friday after Easter
  2. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, we have a Sunday of All the Saints kept on the Sunday after Pentecost.
  3. In our own tradition – Western, Latin, Roman – we keep All Saints on 1st November, as winter begins in the northern hemisphere. This date probably goes back to Ireland, was taken up in England too, and thence passed to the Continent. In time it was adopted throughout the Western Church, and so now to the Americas and Africa and Asia.

It’s good, though, not to forget the other traditions. The universality is a sign how part of Christian identity this celebration is.

So, here it is: our All Saints. Not the commercial fungus that has grown around it, not masks and pumpkins, stealing the name of Hallow’een, Eve of All Hallows. Harmless generally, I hope, but you do wonder; a pagan regression really. No, we can bracket this off, and focus on the feast. All Saints isn’t a little one; she’s a big lady. As I said, it’s present in a range of traditions and our Western version is shared, variously, by Anglican and Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists. Being linked to All Souls for a thousand years now has increased its freight. It expands into the idea of November as the month of the Holy Souls, those in process of posthumous purification. In some countries, cemeteries become busy and candle-lit places, as people visit the graves of loved ones. It dovetails too with Remembrance Sunday and commemoration of those who have died in the wars of the last and the present century.  November becomes a time when we salvage our memory of the departed, reintegrate the past into the present. As the leaves fall, the days shorten and a year’s cycle of growth comes to an end, we’re reminded of our mortality, we think of what lies beyond, we become more conscious of the unseen universe of the deceased. It releases serious thoughts in us, makes us mindful of judgment and our accountability. All Saints and its entourage lifts our hearts, shows us a horizon.

So, All Saints. We can think of it too as a harvest festival.

It’s the harvest that springs from the Grain of Wheat that fell into the ground and died and has borne much fruit. It’s the harvest reaped throughout the world by the Spirit of Pentecost. One Eastern text goes: “the world presents the God-bearing…saints, the first-fruits of our humanity, to you, O Lord, the Planter of created things”. Beautiful! A sense of harvest-home.

It’s possible that, in the West, in Ireland originally, the 1st November was chosen because it marked the real end of harvest time.

Can we call it a Christian version of the Jewish feast of Tabernacles?

“The earth has yielded its fruit, for God, our God, has blessed us” (Ps 67): the perfect fruit of God-given lives. All Saints is God’s harvest.

2.

Let me pick out now some of the special items on the table of All Saints, as it were.

In our Roman liturgy, the Gospel is of the beatitudes. That sends a strong signal. We are celebrating the poor in spirit, the gentle, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on. There is a fine modern Preface which lifts the heart heavenwards: “today by your gift we celebrate the festival of your city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother, where the great array of our brothers and sisters already gives you eternal praise”, and speaks of our pilgrim journey thither. The Collect asks, through the saints, for God’s gift of reconciliation. The saints are the great beneficiaries of reconciliation, they are forgiven sinners, they have been put right with God through the blood of Christ, and in the organism of his Body they share what they have received, so that we can find peace as well. Both the Mass and the Divine Office have inspired some exceptional music. You can find on YouTube the Gregorian Alleluia from the Mass: Venite ad me, Come to me, all you who labour…and you will find rest for your souls. If you’re fond of polyphony, there’s the 16th / 17th c Spanish composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s setting of the Magnificat antiphon of 2nd Vespers, O quam gloriosum, O how splendid is the kingdom where the saints reign with Christ and follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Then, in the English-speaking world, there’s the magnificent hymn For all the Saints, composed by a 19th c. Anglican bishop, made famous by the melody later given it by Ralph Vaughan Williams and described as “one of the finest hymn tunes of the [20th] century”. Interestingly, he gave his melody the title sine nomine, “nameless”, because humanly speaking so many of the saints are.

3.

What of the grace of this Feast?

It brings us three things: comfort, gratitude and stimulus. Comfort at the presence of so many human beings who have achieved the true purpose of life and are on our side. Gratitude at this great explosion of divine creativity. Stimulus to continue our following of Christ, to set our compass heavenwards.

I’d like to dwell on comfort mainly.

The book of Revelation is a book of visions – visions that took John the Seer, and now any reader too, out of the ordinary world and into another, God’s world. What Revelation / Apocalypse is among biblical books, All Saints is among liturgical feasts. Its genre is visionary. I want to say keeping this feast is like having a dream – not any dream, but a dream that comforts and strengthens. When we dream we are somewhere else. Like Alice we fall down the rabbit hole or pass through the looking glass or, like the children entering Narnia, through the cupboard door. It’s a topos of literature – and of the Bible. In the book of Genesis, Jacob with the help of his mother Rebekah manages to wrest from his blind father Isaac the blessing that should have gone to Esau his elder brother. Jacob has pulled off a coup. He then has to flee for his life, heading north to get away from his brother. It’s a dangerous and dark time for him. On his way, he beds down one night and has his famous dream of the ladder and the angels. The Lord comforts him with the promise of his presence. When he wakes up, he says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:17). Years later, after many adventures, and now with wives and children of his own, he returns home. Once again, he’s scared of his brother. But then has another vision: “Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is God’s camp!” (Gen 32:1-2) Again, he’s given courage.  Jacob / Israel is comforted by dreams / visions of angels. All Saints comforts us with a vision of saints.

One can then jump to the other end of the Old Testament. The Jewish people are fighting for their faith and their lives against a pagan power which wants to assimilate them. A great battle is impending. The Jews are few, the Gentiles many. The night before, the Jewish leader, Judas Maccabaeus has a dream. In the morning he relates it to his men. He saw a former, deceased high priest, Onias, “praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews”, and then not only Onias, a priest, but the late, great, long departed prophet Jeremiah with a sword in his hand. “This is a man”, says Onias, “who loves the brothers and prays much for the people and the holy city.” So, strengthened by the dream that Judas tells his men, strengthened by the vision of departed saints praying for them, the Jews go on to victory (2 Mac 15:12-16).

What Jacob and Judas had, what John of Patmos would have in the New Testament, we have in the feast of All Saints. We are in trouble, we are in a bad way – the Preface speaks of our “frailty” – but through this feast, through the mystery of the saints, we find ourselves transported. We catch the music of heaven as it were, we glimpse an unearthly beauty, we forget our current predicament, and we are comforted by the words we hear: perhaps that Alleluia, Come to me all you who labour and I will give you rest. Jacob went on his journey, Judas and his men went into battle, but they were changed, they were comforted and strengthened. With their vision of the saints, the early Christians could take whatever the world threw at them. And so for us. Our faith in our common heavenly destiny, our sense of a surrounding presence, of friends and companions keeps us strong.

So All Saints is comfort, manifold comfort. It takes us to a different place and shows us a different perspective. It gives us the comfort that we are not alone, but surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We are invisibly accompanied. There are people with God, some we know, most of whom we don’t, who are with us, rooting for us; that’s what intercession means. They are rooting for us with God, God wants them to root for us, because he is rooting for us and wants us to do it with him. I love what Edith Stein says: “the decisive turning-points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning-points in our personal lives on the day when everything that’s hidden will be revealed.”

So salvation is really possible. From Christ’s crucified and glorified body, present with the Father, present in the Eucharist, has grown his mystical Body. It is growing constantly. Heaven isn’t an abstraction. It has faces and names, even if most are only known to God. It is populated, and populated not just by the publicly well-known, but by people we have known. Every liturgical year, heaven as it were fills up: at the Ascension with the humanity of Jesus, at the Assumption with Mary in body and soul, and in this feast with the number impossible to count. Every year, good people around us pass on. “These witnesses, Pope Francis says, may include our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones. Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord” (Gaudete et Exultate).

In Eastern Christianity, this feast commemorates, I quote, “all the saints, all the righteous, the prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, pastors, teachers and holy monks and nuns, men and women alike, known and unknown, [all] who have been added to the choirs of the saints and shall be added, from the time of Adam until the end of the world, [all] who have been perfected in piety and have glorified God by their holy lives.” This is captured artistically in the icon proper to the feast. Within the rectangular frame is a large circle with the saints curving round on either side. Mary stands at the top; it is a Marian feast. But within this circle is a smaller circle with a large figure of Jesus. It is a feast of Christ. He is central. Underneath Him is a throne, and bowing before it, one either side, are Adam and Eve – with haloes. This is a huge statement. Adam and Eve, who are the origins and symbols of all our screwings-up are saved, are within the circle. And then below it, at the very foot of the icon, still included therefore, is an almost naked man looking up at Christ. It’s the penitent thief. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  This is why this is a comforting feast.

“In my Father’s house are many mansions.” Today we sense the spaciousness of God. “All Saints, all Souls, all sorts”. We sense his creativity, the amazing things he does with human beings, such ordinary material; the ways his own pure light poured out over creation is reflected in the multi-coloured splendours of the redeemed. We sense his divine genius for turning evil into good.

Comfort, gratitude, stimulus. We need to think of heaven, All Saints, more often. It puts everything in perspective.

If Christ is in us and the saints are in Christ, then in some way the saints are already in us and we therefore already in heaven. We are already mutually included, reciprocally involved with one another, completely reconciled. It isn’t just in the future. Everything that burdens our present, therefore, is at one level, in Christ, already over, done and dusted. We are already more than conquerors.

I began with the New Testament and will end with it:  “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4-6).

Bishop Hugh OSB, 2020