The cloud of witnesses
Sunday 31 October 2021 Articles

Adoration of the Trinity (Landauer Altarpiece), Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), 1511; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Fr Neil’s homily for All Saints Sunday, 31 October 2021

I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”¹

The Church’s calendar is littered with celebrations reminding us of the saints. The saints are diverse, spread across two thousand years of history, coming from all four corners of the earth. They are young, old, male, female, married, single, priests, nuns, monks, kings, queens and even popes. The gifts they brought to the Church are as varied as there are different people. Some lived long lives, some short, and some were martyred. There are universal celebrations, national and local saints marking our Church year. These of course are the saints known to the Church, and All Saints is a bit of a mopping-up exercise recognising the saints that are known to God alone. But why does the Church insist on remembering these people who have died?

There is a great danger of seeing the saints only as a window to look back into the past with rose-tinted spectacles at the more glorious days of the Church, marked by the great saints of old. The saints who inhabited the life of the Church are indeed our ancestors from whom we have inherited the faith: but their presence isn’t just an historic one to provide an example of how to live a holy life.

The importance of the saints is that they are a reminder to us of our hope, and a promise of the resurrection that is to come. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Christ was questioned over the resurrection, he states:

As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.²

The saints, then, are not dead relics but active members of the Church glorified; members of the one body of Christ into which we were baptised. They are fellow citizens of heaven with us. It is why we take ‘Christian’ names at baptism and saints’ names at confirmation: to remind us that we are not alone, but part of one Church. That Church reaches back through time, and forward into glory.

So the saints aid us not only by their example of a holy life, their teaching, and preaching; but they are actively praying for us, the Church militant, as we seek to walk the way of faith, hope and love in devotion to Christ, our Lord and God. The Blessed Virgin Mary, our spiritual mother, is the example par excellence as the gift of her rosary, Immaculate Heart and her many apparitions seek to aid us on the often difficult journey to follow more faithfully the way to her Son.

The saints should expand our vision to see beyond our own particular moment with its many difficulties and trials. They provide a vast glorious canvas that draws our eyes to eternity, without which we might be overwhelmed by the present challenges that face us as individuals, and the Church today.

By the grace of God, most of us when we die, if we remain faithful, will spend time being purified in Purgatory. Only then will we enter the glorious company of the saints. What marks the saints out is not that they are a special breed set apart from the rest of us, but that they loved the things of God deeply, truly and passionately, and desired them more than anything else. St Paul articulates this well in his letter to the Philippians:

Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.³

What distinguishes us from the saints is not some magical ingredient, because the raw material for a saint is in each one of us. The true difference is that we might not desire and love enough. Maybe at times we are too often happy to settle for second-, third-, fourth- or even twentieth-best, for things that cannot truly fulfil our deepest needs and the heart’s desire which is found in God alone.

It might be that we haven’t fully accepted that we are the apple of God’s eye⁴. The saints are a mark of what he longs to give us, and the Cross reveals the depth of his love for us, but can he love me? Perhaps, at times, we are unable to trust his promises, and we seek to fill the aching void within us with anything for fear that there will be nothing.

When ever we fear our own loss let us hear God’s promise revealed in the saints and spoken through his word. St John writes in his first epistle,

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.⁵

The recognition of our existence that we crave may or may not be seen by this present age; but God tells us who we really are. It is the saints — led by Mary — who continue to pray for us that we might be open to see and believe the way to eternal life that is in Christ, revealed by his word, lived by the saints, proclaimed in the magisterium of the Church and celebrated in the sacraments that enable us, by God’s grace, to embody our fullness as children of God.

¹ Revelation 7:9–10
² Matthew 22:31–32
³ Philippians 3:8
⁴ Cf Psalm 17:8
⁵ 1 John 3:1–2

The editorial title comes from Hebrews 12:1.

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