After this I had a vision of a great multitude,which no one could count,from every nation, race, people, and tongue.They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.They cried out in a loud voice:“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne,and from the Lamb.”—Revelation 7:9-10
At my grandparents’ house, many years ago, I discovered a book that changed my life: a St. Joseph’s Daily Missal. That prayer book, which had belonged to my grandmother, or perhaps my aunt or uncle, was from the 1950s and was the resource for lay Catholics wishing to take part in the pre-Vatican II liturgy. While there wasn’t anything special about that particular book—which fell to pieces long ago—I discovered a new world in its pages, and it was a world populated by saints from all times and places. I read about early Christian martyrs, monarchs and peasants, monks and bishops, nuns and holy women who had consecrated their lives to Christ, and about those who had personally known Jesus. I read prayers written in their honor. Something within me was moved and I set out on a journey of discovery and faith that, despite many twists and turns, I’m thankfully still on today.
Liturgists and Church historians might remind us that All Saints Day is an ancient celebration that was originally intended to honor the early martyrs, and, as a celebration of the martyrs, it is actually a celebration of the Paschal Mystery—the Passion and death, Resurrection, and glorification of Jesus. The martyrs had reason to hope and found the faith and courage to face death, knowing that death was not the end, but only the beginning.
But when I think about All Saints Day, knowing its history and theology, I still feel like there is a simpler, equally true significance to this feast: This is the day when each of us as Church can take a moment and look at one another and say, Yes, this is right because this is who we are.
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We get a hint of this “rightness” in the First Letter of John: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God. Yet so we are …” (3:1, 3).
All Saints Day is the day for us to celebrate those members of the Church—women and men who were not all that different from each of us—who have persevered and who tried, albeit with imperfect success, to live in and for God.
One of the reasons that I find the saints so inspiring and captivating is because each is a unique person, with an individual personality, a way of engaging God and the world, and as much a mixed bag of grace and sin, strength and weakness as I am.
In the end, however, all of these individuals achieved a special union with God by keeping their attention fixed on greater truths than those offered by the world and by choosing to say “Yes.”
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They risked change; they became holy. I imagine that this is one of the reasons why the Gospel proclaimed each year on All Saints Day is the Beatitudes: The Church is reminding us that authentic holiness must be lived out in ways that touch the very core of who we are. This is how the saints changed the world in ways from which we still benefit today.
All Saints Day reminds us that we need to hear their stories because they tell us exactly what it means to live a life of discipleship and how beautiful that life can be.
But they also remind us that discipleship has a cost—even the most cursory reading of the lives of the early saints and more recent martyrs shows us that the Christian life places burdens upon us and that sometimes faith can demand everything of us.
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This is where we can begin to unlock the “secret” of the saints: They are Christians who do something with their faith, who put their faith into practice in dynamic ways that change the world around them. And these changes weren’t always the grand sorts of signs and wonders that we think of our saints performing. Usually, their dynamic faith was lived out in the most mundane aspects of life — moment to moment, day to day.
Think about it. Even if we take all the stories that we know of the most beloved saints, like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Kolkata, or St. Oscar Romero, we quickly realize that those tales give us only the faintest hint of what their daily lives were like. And just as our lives can never really be summed up in a single moment or experience, their lives were a succession of moments in which they chose, again and again, to try to want more, to try to be more, and to try keep their attention focused on a way of living and loving that was bigger than they could ever hope to become.
Who are the saints for you? How do live the call to holiness—what Jesus outlines in the Beatitudes—in your own life? Offer a prayer of thanks for our spiritual ancestors (remembered and forgotten). What legacy have they entrusted to you?
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Words of Wisdom:
Rejoice for all the saints today;Who ran by faith the narrow way:The great and low together standWith glory crowned at God’s right hand. How blest are those who wrought the peace;As heirs they share the Victor’s feast;And prophets by injustice slainHave claimed the Kingdom’s righteous reign.Come, ye martyrs red and virgins white,With teachers wise and students bright,All wives and husbands, monks and nuns,With bishops, priests, and deacons, come.Come, holy men and women all;With heart and voice sing praise and callTo Christ who rose triumphantlyThat we may join your company.
—Harry Hagan, O.S.B., “Rejoice for All the Saints” in Awake My Soul: Hymns for Days and Season
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