To Be a Saint: In Suffering, in Service, in Wisdom

saintsThis Sunday would normally have been the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, but this year that is preempted by All Saints Day. This is of course a major feast in the Church calendar, and a feast of special importance that we do well to ponder in 2020. We desperately need saints, of different kinds, as different as all the people in God’s holy family.

All Saints Day is not, after all, a time to celebrate the canonized saints of the Church, famed figures who appear here and there on the calendar. Rather, this is the feast of all the saints, all the holy women and men who have been the heart and soul of the Christian community from the beginning until now.

The readings for this feast are set, the same every year. Yet they fruitfully speak to us of saintliness — holiness — reached by three paths: of suffering, of service, and of wisdom.

The first reading is from the Book of Revelation 7, the famous vision of 144,000 women and men in white robes who have come through harrowing times:

"These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7.14)

Revelation is intimating that the 144,000 represent the fullness of God’s people, the twelve tribes of the new Israel, gathered as those who suffered and been transformed by the blood of martyrdom, the blood of Christ. Suffering is redeemed. No suffering need be mere suffering, sheer waste. To say this — redeeming suffering — is not to justify wickedness or cruelty nor to excuse oppressors, but only to say that what others do to us cannot destroy us. In union with Christ crucified, all suffering is to be seen in a new light as redemptive, filling out the community of the holy ones with those who have kept the faith even when all seemed lost. The promise is true:

“Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,” nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.
“He will lead them to springs of living water,” and "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (7.16-17)

the beatitudesSecond, one can be a saint by way of service. Our Gospel passage today is the well-known and well-loved opening of the Sermon on the Mount, the blessings that Jesus proclaims in announcing his vision of God’s kingdom:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.3-10)

This saintliness too can be honored in heaven, but surely it is lived and worked out here and now, day by day, in the world of everyday life and needs. Mourning with those who mourn in our sorrowful 2020; showing mercy, forgiving and being forgiven in 2020's unforgiving society; hungering for righteousness in a systemically unfair 2020; working for peace in a 2020 riven with strife and violence. If we aim to be holy in all we do, then the Kingdom of God is embodied among us.

seeing GodThird, there is the way of wisdom. This is glimpsed in our second reading, the beginning of the third chapter of the First Letter of St. John. We get just three verses, but in fact the whole chapter beautifully gives us a real sense of the love of God permeating the life of God’s people:

"This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. (I John 3.10-11)

We are called to be like Jesus himself, who not only spoke of love, but lived and died for love. The words that follow are as strong as any we find in the Prophets of Israel or the Letter of James:

"And this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us, and so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth… And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (3.16-18, 23-24)

The gift of the Spirit finally brings us back to the start of the chapter, the three verses that are today’s first reading. It is only by spiritual transformation that we find our true identities as children of God, deeply like Christ:

"See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, we are now children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears,we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (3.1-3)

Walk for HungerThese verses speak directly to the spiritual transformation that is the wellspring of holiness. The more we see Christ, just as he is in his crucified and risen glory, the more we will be like him — crucified, risen, pure, holy, loving in practice, in times of danger too. No surprise: as contemplative traditions across the world teach us in various ways, we become what we see, when our vision is steady and undistracted by the million other things we might look at. (Thus the Sermon: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.") And, of course, by seeing and becoming con-formed to the Christ we see, we become saints.

Suffering, service, wisdom. You could glean other insights from these three readings, since there are so many ways to be holy. Or if you wish, you could say these three ways are really one way, the way of love. Love in sorrow, love in all you do, love in seeing the Beloved. Love at all times. We can do this, because, as loved and graced, we are already saints. Today is our festive day too, is it not?