All Saints Day (Year A) (go to the readings)
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
Psalm 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6
1 John 3:1-3
The feast of All Saints’ Day goes back at least to the 4th century. It was mentioned in the writings of several of the early Church Fathers. It honors the multitude of the faithful, known and unknown, who enjoy the heavenly bliss of being in the blessed communion of God for all eternity. Many of the saints in heaven we know by name, and we know something of their story. Some of them have feast days that we celebrate, some of them aren’t assigned a day, and an untold number we don’t even know.
We’re very blessed here in this parish, as our beautiful stained glass windows are filled with the images of the saints. Many of the traditional images of saints have some unique feature that helps us to identify them, such as Saint Agnes holding a lamb, Saint George slaying the dragon, Saint Cecilia playing on an organ, and so on. But more importantly, our windows help us to remember, first, that the saints are surrounding us with prayers and intercession, the great cloud of witnesses who were victorious in their struggle, who embrace us as we gather here in the name of Christ, just as they did in their time; and second, that in the spiritual reality that we cannot see, that the saints are celebrating the sacraments of the Church with us, as we all participate in the one great feast of heaven and earth: the marriage supper of the Lamb and the Bride, which is the spiritual reality of the Mass.
Our first reading for today’s feast comes from the Book of Revelation, that mysterious, mystic last book of the bible. “I, John, saw another angel come up from the East, holding the seal of the living God.” What do you do with a seal? You mark—you seal—something as yours by your authority. “Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Now this Christian prophecy is very cool, because it’s one of the 700 or 800 references that the Book of Revelation makes to images in the Old Testament. In this case, it’s a reference to Ezekiel, chapter 9, which says, “And there were six men coming from the direction of the upper gate which faces north, each with a weapon of destruction in his hand. In their midst was a man dressed in linen, with a scribe’s case at his waist. They entered and stood beside the bronze altar. Then the glory of the God of Israel moved off the cherub and went up to the threshold of the temple. He called to the man dressed in linen with the scribe’s case at his waist, and the LORD said to him: ‘Pass through the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and mark an X on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the abominations practiced within it.’” In this translation of the bible, it says to mark an X. But in the Hebrew, it says, to mark with a Tov, which is a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which, in the ancient form of Hebrew, looked like a little cross. And in Ezekiel, it describes the glory cloud of the Lord leaving the temple, and the temple is going to be destroyed along with the rest of Jerusalem. But those of the faithful who lament the abominations—the faithlessness and corruption—of Jerusalem, they will be marked to be saved.
Fast forward back to our first reading here from Revelation, (“back to the future”), the reality is the same: a small cross being placed on the foreheads of the faithful servants of God—that same little cross that’s placed on the forehead at baptism, and again at confirmation, and is the more ancient way that Christians typically signed themselves with the sign of the cross—are sealed by the Spirit as belonging to God, and they will be saved.
“I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the children of Israel.” Numbers are always interesting in the bible. It’s 12, the number of tribes of Israel, times 12, the number of Apostles, times 1000, the number of fullness, like a thousand years. 144,000…. From the every tribe of the children of Israel. So this is a symbolic number of the Jews who come to Christ, those who participate in the fulfillment of all the old testament covenants and promises about the Messiah and the restoration of Israel. “After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” Now we see great multitude of the gentiles, the pagan converts to Christ and their descendants from all over the rest of the world through the end of time… a great multitude which no one can count. So, the saints in heaven aren’t only 144,000, it’s a great uncountable, multitude.
“Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, ‘Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?’ I said to him, ‘My lord, you are the one who knows.’ He said to me, ‘These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.’” Now, I’m not one for doing laundry. But I do know that you don’t make something white by washing it in blood. But we’re not just talking about blood—we’re talking about the blood of the Lamb! And the Blood of the Lamb washes us clean of the dirt of this world: sin, and death. Those who are washed in the baptismal bath of the paschal mystery—the power of the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection—are those whose spiritual garments have no stain or blemish. When we’re baptized, we clothe the newly baptized in a white robe: an alb (which just means “white” in Latin). Symbolically, all of us who are baptized could be wearing these white garments, and holding our baptismal candles, and singing the praises of God. “Holy, Holy Holy! Lord God of hosts! Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb! Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever!” That’s heaven. And that’s the Mass. It’s the same celebration. Practically speaking, we don’t have everyone wear white, but we do see it in the vestments of the priest and deacon, who wear the white alb beneath their liturgical vestments, and our altar servers, and other ministers, when we have them. And what are these white garments? They’re the wedding garments! Because the Mass is a wedding, the wedding feast of the Lamb and the Bride, and we, the Church, are the Bride of Christ, as Saint Paul tells us. If we jump forward in the Book of Revelation, to chapter 19, we read, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready. She was allowed to wear a bright, clean linen garment. (The linen represents the righteous deeds of the holy ones.) Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.’” That last part should sound familiar, because the priest says it right before communion.
We might remember, a few weeks ago, the man who was chastised by the king for being at the wedding without a wedding garment, in a parable by Jesus in the Gospel reading. This man was called to the wedding (as we all are) but he did not have a wedding garment, and he was thrown into the darkness outside. Many are called, but only those who bear the clean garment are chosen to abide and share in the feast. The garment washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb is from our vertical relationship of love with God; the clean white garment of righteous deeds is from our horizontal relationship of love with neighbor. We get into the feast of the kingdom by the cross. We saw that last week. See, it’s all connected.
The saintly, holy Christian life that we’re called to is given to us in the paradox of the beatitudes. Blessed (or truly happy) are those whose lives are marked with this image given in the Beatitudes, because it, too, is the image of the cross. Jesus gives us the beatitudes as a sort of self-portrait: the Beatitudes describe his example of what living the kingdom looks like in human virtues. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the clean of heart… Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness…” And it’s the paradox of the cross, because the first part of each beatitude involves suffering (at least suffering our purification to more perfectly embody these virtues), and the second part of each beatitude involves a spiritual fulfillment, a grace. The more we embrace the cross, the more we reflect spiritual glory. The cross, of course, is our dying to our human sinfulness, error, and ugliness, as we unite ourselves more and more with divine truth, goodness, and beauty. As Fr. Mike Schmitz recently said, “Saints are ruthless in saying no to sin, and relentless in saying yes to God.”
So today, the Church gives us this beautiful feast of All Saints—not just all the saints known and unknown in heaven—yes, that’s the main focus—but also all the saints on here earth, the holy ones, in a single holy communion with God and with the saints in heaven (the one and entire mystical body of Christ; the communion of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church); who are sealed with the sign of the cross; who love God, and show it through their love of neighbor; who seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; who render unto God what belongs to God; who unite themselves with the paradox of the beatitudes, accepting the temporal suffering of the cross, for the eternal glory of the resurrection.
“Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
From the prayer of the faithful for today’s Mass:
For our nation:
May the upcoming election be completed with integrity and honesty,
may the response to the election be peaceful and safe,
and may the candidate elected serve the common good with honor and
Let us pray to the Lord.