Today’s feast, the Solemnity of All Saints, is purposefully placed by Holy Mother Church towards the close of the liturgical year, just a few weeks before the beginning of Advent, in order to bring us to contemplate the last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell). At the end of November, we will reflect on Christ as our glorious king, the commander of the celestial armies in the Feast of Christ the King, and today we turn our attention to the soldiers of that army, His saints.
The epistle of today’s Mass, from the Revelation of St. John, presents us with the vision of an immense crowd that surrounds the throne of the Most High, a multitude so big it could not be numbered, from every people and nation and race. They hold palms in their hands – symbols of victory – and are vested in white, a symbol of purity.
Each of us has surely asked, “What does it mean to go to heaven? What do the saints do there?” Unfortunately, most people have a rather boring notion of what Heaven must be like. The contemplation of God into eternity often seems less interesting than the pleasures offered by the world. St. John’s vision that we read about today, though, is quite contrary to this notion of eternal boredom. Here we see the victorious saints participating in the glorious moment of Christ’s triumphant entry into Heaven. Yes, Heaven consists in beholding God for all eternity, but that does not mean that life in Heaven is pure passivity. Rather, the saints and angels engage in a continuous victory parade as they continually celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death.
Of course, Christ is the only one truly worthy of praise, the only just one, the only glorious one. The saints and angels sing Him their hymn of praise: “Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” But if only Christ is worthy of this glory, why do we render homage today to the Saints?
The glory of Christ victorious over sin and death is so great that beholding the beatific vision is nothing like seeing the sort of things that we see with our eyes each day. It is not just like looking at a beautiful picture, or a beautiful landscape that takes our breath away. No, the vision of God that the saints enjoy through the light of glory is totally different. The greatest power that a beautiful painting or a beautiful landscape has is to evoke a response from us, to reconsider our point of view, or maybe even to prompt within us a dialogue with God. But not even the greatest masterpieces have the power to enter inside of us, to transform us, and even to make us shine with their own light. This is what God’s glory does with the Saints – it not only illuminates them, but it makes them shine. The liturgy, quoting St. Augustine, says that when God glorifies the Saints, He crowns His own merits. If we praise the Saints, as we must do today, it is because we see in them the glory of the same Lord who lives and reigns forever in our heavenly homeland.
Life in Heaven is not just a boring experience, sitting around doing nothing, listening to angels play harps. The saints not only see God, but they are transformed by God, to the point that they are so full of His glory as to become images of the living God. Heaven, then, is our true homeland. Here on earth we are only sojourners, exiles even, and contemplating the Saints, we should see them as our fellow-countrymen and compatriots in the truest life of all.
St. Bede wrote eloquently about this reality: “Let us consider that Paradise is our country, as well as theirs; and so we shall begin to reckon the patriarchs as our fathers. Why do we not, then, hasten and run, that we may behold our country and salute our parents? A great multitude of dear ones is there expecting us; a vast and mighty crowd of parents, brothers, and children, secure now of their own safety, anxious yet for our salvation, long that we may come to their right and embrace them, to that joy which will be common to us and to them, to that pleasure expected by our fellow servants as well as ourselves, to that full and perpetual felicity …”
“Why do we not, then, hasten and run, that we may behold our country and salute our parents?” There are so many things in this life that keep us from hastening and running towards our true country, Heaven. How often have you thought that there is no hurry, that you can enjoy the pleasures of this life for a while, and that those of Heaven can wait? How many times have you fallen into lukewarmness about that which out to be the principal goal of our lives: to pursue with all of the forces we can muster life forever in Heaven enjoying and being transformed by the glorious vision of God? This is why we all need the Saints to remind us of our heavenly goal. That great multitude of the saints is waiting for us, longing for us to join them in adoring God.
Even though the pleasures of this life can seem satisfying, the glory of God that awaits us in Heaven is greater than we can possibly imagine. St. Bede continues, “That beauty, that virtue, that glory, that magnificence, that majesty, surpasses every expression, every sense of the human mind. For it is greater than the glory of all saints; but to attain to that ineffable sight, and to be made radiant with the splendor of His face, it were worthwhile to suffer torment every day … so that we might behold Christ coming in glory, and be joined to the number of the saints.”
Dear brothers and sisters, we should ask all of the saints in heaven each day to intercede for us, so that our desire for our heavenly homeland might continually grow stronger. Even the desire for Heaven is already a grace given by the Lord, and thus we are reliant on the Saints to obtain this grace for us. Thus we can make our own the words of an ancient hymn to all the saints, “Oh you martyrs in purple, oh you shining confessors, call us out of exile into our heavenly reward.”
Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints!
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Solemnity of All Saints, A.D. MMXVII
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen, Ind.