Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Saints Day

Two weeks ago I flew home to New York for my 50th High School Reunion. Now 50 years is a long time! Thank God for nametags, or I would hardly have been able to recognize anyone at all! It really had been a very long time since my classmates and I last left our high school behind - leaving behind not just our particular Baby Boomer generation's distinctive experience of adolescence, but also (and more than we could ever have anticipated at that time) leaving behind a whole way of life.  The High School itself has been closed since 1991. Built as an expression of post-war prosperity and confidence, as well as the zeal and enthusiasm of the mid-century Church in America, its closure was a casualty of the loss of so much of that zeal and enthusiasm, rooted in a collapse of our cultural confidence.

Our reunion, however, was not another occasion for such somber thoughts. Rather it was a celebration of one another and of the memories we share from a world long gone. Because ours was very much a neighborhood school, many of us enjoyed a connectedness with one another and with one another's families that preceded high school and in some cases perdured.  Meanwhile, we have all gone our various separate ways, along the paths life has taken us. We have become judges and lawyers, policemen and priests, teachers and truck-drivers.  And in that sense certainly, the school did a good job!

As for those classmates who could not be with us, whose earthly labors have already ended, may they rest in peace, and may we all come together again at the greatest reunion of all in the kingdom of heaven!

It is that great reunion which today’s 1st Reading [Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14] portrays and today’s solemnity of All Saints’ Day celebrates.

In November 1887, the Paulist Fathers’ founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, wrote in the Paulist magazine, The Catholic World: “When, in 1843, I first read in the catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home. It alone was to me a heavier weight on the Catholic side of the scales than the best historical argument which could be presented.”      

The doctrine of the communion of saints had had a decisive effect upon young Isaac Hecker’s spiritual search, and apparently the passage of 44 years had done little to dull its impact. Appropriately so! What would we be without the communion of saints?

For one thing, church would certainly be a duller place! Just look around! Over there is the martyr Saint George in his knightly armor ready to slay a dragon for Jesus. Across the aisle is another ancient martyr, the Egyptian philosopher Saint Catherine of Alexandria.  At this end stands Saint Bridget, a 14th-century Swedish princess, a mystic who became co-patroness of Europe, a wife and mother of 8 children who became a nun and founded an order of nuns (who nowadays even have an Anglican branch). Farther down stands Saint Patrick the great missionary Bishop and Apostle of Ireland, who obeyed Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, even if that meant going outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. And across the aisle is another bishop, whose name we don’t even know. My guess is that the glass with his name must have been broken at some point, rendering him forever anonymous – a fitting surrogate for all those saints we especially remember today whose names are known to God alone.

The communion of saints transcends time, uniting past and present. It permeates the Church’s worship and punctuates the Church’s calendar with its many feasts and memorials of saints, culminating today in this great annual celebration in honor of all the Saints – not just the thousands of saints officially recognized by the Church, but all the holy men and women, known and unknown, who have already attained the goal for which we here on earth still strive. Living now forever with God and praising him for ever in heaven, the saints help us by interceding on our behalf, uniting their prayers with ours, imitating Jesus himself, our Risen Lord who lives forever to intercede for us [Hebrews 7:24-25].

The regular reference to and invocation of the angels and the saints, not just today but in every Mass, signifies our communion, as the struggling Church on earth, with the triumphant Church in heaven, and reminds us that the Church’s mission in this world is to mirror (however imperfectly) that heavenly community of angels and saints, and so transform the world - with love and forgiveness - according to the hope that is Jesus Christ’s great gift to his Church and the Church’s gift to the world.

As one of the seasonal turning points in the ancient northern European calendar, November 1 was the beginning not only of winter but of a new year, the eve of which was a frightening in-between time when the spirits of the dead were thought to roam about and try to haunt their old homes.  Bonfires and jack-o-lanterns (originally carved out of turnips) were part of the defense of the living against assaults from the other world. The celebration of all the Saints on November 1 represented the Christianization of that old seasonal holiday - a celebration of Christianity’s triumph over paganism and of Christ’s victory (as exemplified in the saints) over the demonic forces, which had hitherto held people in fear.

Deliberately celebrated on the day after Halloween, All Saints Day celebrates the hope that replaces fear, exemplified in the lives of the saints and experienced by us in our continued communion with them – a communion which challenges that great opponent of human hope, death, by connecting us not only with the saints already in heaven but with all who have gone before us with the sign of faith. 

Remembering is a uniquely and fundamentally human activity. To remember those who have died is to acknowledge the importance of their lives - and the common humanity we share with them. To remember those who have gone before us in faith is to celebrate the different ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them - and to affirm the hope that we share with them.

For this reason, as a sequel to All Saints’ Day, the next day the Church celebrates All Souls’ Day. We pray that all who have died in God’s grace and are now being purified from the consequences of their sins may be admitted to the fullness of his kingdom – there to join the saints already in glory. Our prayers to the saints to intercede on our behalf, together our own intercessory prayers for one another and on behalf of the faithful departed, express our ongoing participation in that great eternal community in which hope is fulfilled in love and sin succumbs forever to forgiveness.

Homily for All Saints Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 1, 2015

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