All Saints’ Day is one of the seven principle feasts of the church year, according to our prayer book’s interpretation of the liturgical calendar. Those seven principle feasts are, in calendar order, Christmas, the Epiphany, Easter, the Ascension, the Day of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and All Saints’ Day. If you’re not accustomed to the liturgical mindset this might sound strange – one of these is not like the others!
Christmas is about Jesus
– it’s his birthday, where we especially celebrate his full and true humanity.
Epiphany is about Jesus
– it’s his revelation or manifestation as God-in-the-flesh, celebrating his divinity.
Easter is about Jesus
– it’s his resurrection from the dead vindicating his innocence and his sacrifice.
Ascension is about Jesus
– it’s his return to the right hand of the Father to intercede on behalf of us all.
Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit
– descending upon the Church and indwelling all God’s people.
Trinity Sunday is about the fullness of the godhead,
– revealing and celebrating the three-in-one and one-in-three.
But All Saints’ Day… that’s about people, sinners now known as saints. What is this doing on par with the first six?
Well, All Saints’ Day is actually the next logical step in the biblical story of salvation. Our salvation begins in childbearing: God chooses Mary and Mary says ‘yes.’ The fruit of her womb is Jesus, known as the Christ, or Messiah, or Anointed One, whom we then follow for much of the year: his birth demonstrating his humanity, his worship by the magi and the events at his baptism demonstrating his divinity, his death as a man and his resurrection in divine power, his ascension into heaven and his sending of the Holy Spirit in his place, thus revealing the fullness of the Trinity. But what happens next? Our salvation doesn’t end there. On the Cross he died for our justification from sin; that sacrifice is complete. But he also ascended and sent the Spirit to us in order to sanctify us. That is the process of salvation in which we are all now living – we’re being sanctified, being made holy, being made into saints. The feast of All Saints is the celebration of that completed work of sanctification in those who have gone before us. And we celebrate it with a particular attention to those whose examples of sanctification are particularly worth noting and modeling and imitating.
You see, in Jesus we see full and true perfection. He never sinned at all. So when we look to Christ, we see our destination: true unmitigated holiness. But in the Saints of old we see our journey: growth in grace, struggling against sin, and finally, a victory. Some people say that it is pointless to celebrate Saints and pay them any attention when we have Jesus, the truly perfect and holy one. But they’re wrong – the stories of the Saints before us are also valuable. We see Jesus struggle with sin and win – that’s inspiring and instructive for sure, but we never see Jesus mess up, have to make amends, and start again. In the lives of the Saints we do see failures, setbacks, fears, and despite all that, a victory.
The traditional Gospel lesson for this great holy day is the “Beatitudes”, Jesus’ string of “blessed are those…” statements. Historically this has always been taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel, but our new lectionary also permits it to be taken from Luke’s, so I’ve decided to opt for that this year (6:20-26). I chose it mainly because Luke has been the primary gospel for this year in the lectionary, but also because in this version he followed the blessings with woes. In the life of Jesus and in the victory of the Saints we see examples of the beatitudes – the blessings. But only in the lives of the Saints can we also find the woes – the failures.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
There are places in the Bible where wealth is interpreted as signs of blessing. Most of the proverbs and other wisdom writings tend to assume that God rewards the faithful with riches. King Solomon, and others, are described as having been made wealthy by the hand of God because of their pursuit of godly wisdom. But there are also places where wealth is made into a snare. That same King Solomon fell from faith and obedience to the Lord, in part, because of his wealth – he interpreted his prosperity as a sign of personal success rather than divine grace, and so he went from a blessed to a woe.
We who are called to be saints of God must take care how we deal with our wealth – be it large or small – lest we seek our “consolation” in our retirement plan, and lay our trust in our nest egg, rather than continuing to place our faith in Christ.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.”
When we’re comfortable we tend to get lazy. In one of my favorite pastoral manuals – books of advice for pastors – the author wrote that one should never eat so much that it is uncomfortable to get up back to work afterward. If you’re too full to work, then you have already committed gluttony and are on track to commit sloth also. This applies to much more than just food. Whenever our life circumstances are favorable, the temptation is relax, let down our guard, take it easy, and act as if victory and peace is assured. Some people like to speak of a “God-shaped hole in the heart”, and that if you try to fill it with anything else you will always be hungry. St. Augustine wrote of the “restless heart” which never finds true rest until it rests in Christ.
We who are called to be saints of God must be careful about where we take our rest and find comfort, lest we end up making peace with our three-fold enemy – the world, the flesh, and the devil – rather than aim for Christ’s eternal rest in heaven.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”
There are so many things that can make people happy. A good drink can make me happy. Watching, reading, or listening to Doctor Who stories makes me happy. Playing video games makes me happy. Take a survey of what makes people happy and the list will explode: watching Patriots games, playing with grandchildren, eating desserts, making love, listening to music… all sorts of things can make us laugh for joy. And most of that is good – God created all of creation for the benefit of its inhabitants. Psalm 104 says that he made wine to gladden the heart of man, but we also know that too much wine makes us drunk. God gave us ears and eyes, and so we can enjoy music and art, but we also know that songs can have lewd lyrics and beauty can be defaced. God made all manner of plants and herbs which can nourish us and even treat diseases, but we also know that such drugs can also be dangerously abused.
We who are called to be saints of God must see that we enjoy such worldly pleasures in their right moderation, seeking our highest joy in Christ, lest we attempt to fill our hearts with the things of this earth that are passing away, and find them miserable in the company of our Savior.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
Boy, do I want to be liked and respected. Some people want to be famous, well-known, trusted as experts in their field. Some people have less ambition, but we all want at least to be liked. Early in St. John’s Gospel, a pharisee named Nicodemus met with Jesus by night to discuss his teaching on new life and second birth. He came to him at night presumably because he didn’t want other people knowing he was talking to Jesus. Later he spoke with Jesus more openly and hesitantly defended him at his trial, but he was still silenced by the question “are you his follower too?” Even St. Peter himself denied Jesus when push came to shove. It’s so much easier, and feels so much safer, to go with the flow. But we must pay attention to what we’re doing in those moments. A man cannot put his wife on hold and pretend he’s not married for a few minutes just so that he can attract or enjoy the attentions of another woman for a little while. A soldier cannot take a break from the battlefield on a whim of personal convenience.
We who are called to be saints of God must take care that we do not forsake Christ for the sake of our reputation in this temporary life. It is easier to fly under the radar, so to speak, but to do so is to follow in the footsteps of false prophets, people who chose treachery against their Lord. Rather, we must cling to Christ and accept the realities that faithfulness to God is not always personally, politically, or even privately expedient.
In place of those four woes, let us pursue the corresponding blessings. “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now… Blessed are you who weep now… Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” To be in that place where you accept the hardships of this life in anticipation of the perfection of eternity is to be in a blessed state. There are times, perhaps too many times, when we live in ways that merit Christ’s woe. But as people called to be saints of God, we both actively pursue and faithful trust the way of blessing that Christ has set out for us. The examples of the Saints show us that no failure is ultimate failure. God “has promised forgiveness of sins to all those who sincerely repent and with true faith turn to him”.
We can, therefore, nay, must, join the great train of Saints from ages past, following Christ Jesus, who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, from the old life of sin to the new life of true blessedness, sanctity, sainthood. That’s the Gospel of All Saints’ Day – today we celebrate our destiny in Christ.