Homily for the Solemnity of All Saints

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There’s so much “seeing” in today’s readings.

First of all, in the Apocalypse, John sees – “I John saw”. He sees into heaven. He sees an angel stamping a seal on the 144,000 servants of God, “out of all the tribes of Israel”. Then “after that, I saw”. He sees again a number impossible to count “out of every nation”.

The second reading, from the 1st Letter of John, begins: “Think of the love the Father has lavished upon us.” But the Greek doesn’t say “think”; it says “see”. See the love of the Father, this love which has procreated us as his sons and daughters. Then St John goes on: we don’t yet really know what this means, but we will when we “see” the Father as he really is, face to face.

Then comes the Gospel, and it begins: “seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the hill.” There our Lord delivers the Beatitudes, and one of them runs: “Blessed are the pure in heart; they shall see God.”

Seeing and being seen. This a feast for seers, for visionaries. It’s as if we are entering a circle of light. Isn’t that how Dante pictures heaven? Past the betting shops and the hairdressers and the restaurants, we’ve all come out of the dark into the light of this church, this feast. It’s a different light, different from the headlights and street lights and the many screens we’re always gazing at. St John Henry Newman had as his epitaph: “out of shadows and images into the truth”. St Augustine prayed: “I entered into myself, and with the eye of my soul, such as it was, I saw your unchangeable light, shining over that same eye of my soul, over my mind. It was not the light of every day…Your light was not that, but other, altogether other than such lights…He who knows the truth knows that light, and he that knows the light knows eternity” (Confessions, Bk 7). St Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to martyrdom: “I am on the point of giving birth…let me receive pure light; when I’ve arrived there, then I shall be a man, [a true human being]” (Romans, 6). Yes, this is the light that comes from all the saints, and that faith opens our eyes to.

It is the truth of the Beatitudes. When the deacon proclaims the Gospel, it’s as though the kindly light of Christ, the lamp of the word, is lit for us. The light that makes saints. The Beatitudes come twice in the Gospels: first in Matthew, as we have just heard, the longer form. They begin with Jesus “seeing the crowds”. Second, in St Luke, a shorter form. They begin: “Jesus raised his eyes to the disciples, and said: ‘Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of heaven’”. So, whenever this Gospel is read, Jesus raises his eyes and looks at us, his disciples – all the disciples of human history, even those before he came and those still to come; and even us. And he’s not, first of all, telling us what to do. He’s seeing and saying who we are. It’s description before it’s prescription. So far as we’re his disciples, so far as we are in Christ and Christ in us, so far as his Eucharist is alive in us, this is who we are: the poor in spirit, gentle, merciful, pure and the rest. In the Beatitudes, Jesus raises his eyes beyond our faults and our limits; he sees the saint, the true human being, that’s coming to birth within us. He’s seeing us in him and himself in us. Because who is the original poor in spirit and pure of heart? Who most of all hungered and thirsted for justice? Who has made ultimate peace? The Beatitudes are Jesus’ self-portrait, but he paints it for us. He sees what his death and resurrection do to the human being who opens up to them: the new attitudes they shape, so other than those of the world, the blessedness they bring, the promises they realise. He sees the icons of himself we already are and are on the way to be. (If only we could see each other like that!). Think of the Mount of the Beatitudes as a kind of benign volcano, and the luminous lava of Christ flowing into the world, into the disciples, carrying us, not to earth, but to heaven. Think of All the Saints as lamps that have been lit with the fire of the Beatitudes and are now gathered in the banquet hall of eternity, an ever expanding circle of light.

Let’s try and keep our minds and hearts, actions and relationships, in this looking of Jesus. St Bernard has a beautiful idea. The saints in heaven, he says, are waiting for us; they’re desiring us; they’re expecting us. So there must be an invisible pull on the believing heart. Let’s yield to it. Mecca gives Muslims a direction of prayer, and they go there once in their lives. ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ say the Jews. Our Mecca is “the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother”, says today’s Preface, “where the great array of our brothers and sisters already gives [the Father] eternal praise.” Every year, in her liturgical year, Mother Church lets the saints call out to us, and today gathers them all, canonized or not, the crowd impossible to count, into one, even the children lost in the womb, all the forgotten God’s grace has touched. A great cry reaches us from heaven! We need companions; hence the saints. We need to see beyond the visible: hence the saints. We need life-patterns and tales of struggle and victory to keep us going; we have saints. We need inspiration; we have saints. We need the truth, not shadows and images. There are so many false, misleading lights around us. It’s like driving after dark in a city: so many distracting lights, coming towards us, to left and right and behind us, uncertain in their meaning. It’s hard to judge the road. “They constantly care for those they have left on earth”, says the Catechism. “When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were ‘put in charge of many things’. Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world” (CCC 2683), Mary most of all.

“Lead, kindly light, – kindly lights, all Saints – lead thou me on.”