Today’s first reading from Revelation has come to hold future promise in popular piety, even if the context for the writing of Revelation was the ancient Roman empire. In the popular mind, the graphic, colorful, heavenly visions in Revelation, intended as cryptic imagery for ancient Rome, have evolved to point to a future consummation, a completion of time, when Christ will usher in the fullness of the divine reign.
Likewise, the Beatitudes, addressed to Jesus’ disciples in Matthew, traditionally the Gospel reading for All Saints, have a future orientation in the promises made to the blessed. Most of the beatitudes promise future blessing, as in “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” And “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
So, on All Saints, we look back and we look forward. But what about now? What do saints have to do with our present time in the present tense?
To begin to explore a response to this question, I want to share a story of daily prayer when I worked on the Bishop’s staff in Metro New York Synod. We committed to praying together each day at noon, and we typically followed an ecumenical calendar of commemorations, which meant that someone was remembered on the calendar almost every day.
These occasions of daily prayer became an oasis for us, giving us what we needed to continue the difficult work entrusted to us as Synod staff members.
The order for prayer typically included a reading from scripture, a hymn, intercessory prayer, but often also a brief summary of the biography of the saints we remembered each day as well as a brief reading from their writings.
The cumulative effect of these daily remembrances of the many different saints of all times and nations was to convey to us a palpable sense of the communion of saints, that we undertook our work in the great company of all who have gone before us.
We consistently had the sense that the biographical – or more precisely, the hagiographical – stories of the saints were similar to our stories, particularly when the times they lived were closer to our own.
The days chosen for the remembrance of the saints are often the anniversaries of their deaths. It was also palpable to us just how many of the saints ended up being martyrs, literally dying for the cause of their proclamation of Christ and the gospel.
The reality of dying in Jesus’ name often gave us pause. But this also gave us the courage to do our work, realizing that often our challenges were nothing compared with what so many have endured in Jesus’ name, and for Christ’s sake.
Moreover, the voices of the saints as we heard their own words from their writings had the effect of conveying the living voice of the gospel, echoing, reinforcing and perhaps amplifying the living scriptural word.
So, this story of our daily prayer as members of the Bishop’s staff give a sense of the claims of the saints on our lives in the present tense. Their voices and their witness still speak in encouraging ways – now.
But think also of the saints among your family members, friends and other loved ones. Even if their deaths occurred decades ago, chances are they continue to be a presence in your lives.
My mother died 40 years in 1980 during my senior year in high school, but I can on many occasions still hear her voice and sense her presence. While I am my own person, a unique individual, I have also grown to see how I am also very much like my mother and my father. I carry in my very body, in my DNA, and in my personality, the reality of the communion of saints.
You, no doubt, can also tell such stories. The saints who have gone before us live on in our own lives and witness.
Furthermore, the poignancy, the pain of their absence, the voids that still exist in our souls, become paradoxical vehicles for their continued presence, their presence being made known by the pain of their absence.
So it is in these various ways that the saints continue to have a reality in the present tense, the saints being a bridge between the past and promised future, as they dwell in the divine presence nearer the heart of God in Christ.
I love the words in the letter to the Hebrews which convey far better than I the role of the saints in our lives. The author of the letter had committed a great deal of ink to naming many and various saints of the Hebrew tradition who endured great hardships and lived by faith alone, not seeing the completion, the fulfillment of their hopes. And then the author concludes with these magnificent words:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-12)
The imagery here conveys to me the view of a stadium filled with holy people, the saints, who cheer us on as we persevere in running the race of our lives and discipleship.
Another feature of the saints, and a final reflection to conclude this sermon, is that the holy ones point to Jesus, as the author of Hebrews states, who is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The saints are transparent; we see through them to catch a glimpse of the unmistakable face of Christ.
On this holy day, may you have a palpable sense of all of those who have gone before us in the great communion of saints, that their presence and ongoing claims on our lives, and their pointing to Christ, may be used by God to give us what we need for these trying times.
As we enter into the last days before a major election, not knowing what the outcomes will be, as we enter into the colder days indoors, not knowing what the claims of the pandemic will be, as we enter into a season of further uncertainty and anxiety, may the communion of saints accompany you, with Christ leading all the way. Amen.
Now, for your reflection and conversation at home:
- Remember and name the saints in your life who continue to be present to you, whose witness reveals to you Jesus Christ, and who encourage you in your life’s journeys.