Today, the Church militant – which is all of us – rejoice with the Church triumphant – which is all the Saints in heaven – because of the great glory of God. This glory they can already see; we hope to see it one day. And we will see it if, please God, we perfect ourselves and grow in holiness to the point that we too become saints for the Kingdom of God.
But I think many of us bristle at the very idea of becoming a saint. We might even throw up our hands in some conversations and say something like, “hey, I’m no saint…” Saints are those people in elaborate paintings or statues, who lived lives that we find very remote. Saints just seem out of touch and sainthood seems way past our grasp.
But that’s all wrong. We were all made by God to come back to him one day: we were, in fact, made for heaven. Becoming a saint is the vocation of all of us. That’s what we were put on earth to do. Because the most important thing we know about saints is that they are definitely in heaven, which is our true home, and that’s where we were meant to return some day. To get there, we ourselves have to become more like them. We have to grow in holiness and make our reliance on God’s grace and mercy the central focus of our lives.
It may help to know that most, if not all, of the saints struggled with holiness too. Think about Saint Paul himself: he began his career by persecuting Christians and we know that he had a hand in the stoning of Saint Stephen. Or think about Saint Augustine who was an intellectual man who disdained Christianity, until his mother’s prayers caught up with him. Or we might think even more recently of Saint Teresa of Calcutta who experienced a very dark time in her life when she could not even communicate with Jesus. But Jesus was still there and led her to heaven.
And so this feast in honor of all the saints is an important one. We celebrate those saints we know of like Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul, Patrick and Dominic and so many others. But we also celebrate the ones we don’t know of; people whose faith and goodness only God knows. And most importantly, in celebrating them, we vow to become like them: close to Jesus who leads those who believe in him past the gates of death to the glory of heaven, where our reward will be great, as Jesus says in the Gospel today. On that day, we will indeed rejoice and be glad!
I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but to be Catholic means being on the move. Many of the ancient churches were built in a shape that evoked a ship, which hearkened back to Noah’s ark, which was a foreshadowing of the Church. Just as that ark was the means of salvation for a few people and a refuge against the storm, so the Church is the means of salvation for the world, and a refuge against everything that the world has raging around us. We are always and forever a people on the move; we are not at home in this world, wherever we may be. Our true home is in heaven and we are on our journey there. Every moment of our lives has to be a choice to move closer to our heavenly homeland.
And that’s what today’s Gospel is all about. Jesus, having died and risen from the dead, is now preparing his disciples for his immanent return to heaven, where he intends to prepare a place for us. He promises that we can get there one day by following him: he who is the way, the truth and the life. And we need him to be that way for us, because our sinfulness had cut us off from God, and it was only the death and resurrection of Christ that could ever restore us to the inheritance that God always wanted for us. So today’s Scriptures, I think, give us the goal, the way to get to the goal, and the effects of achieving that goal.
We know, then, what our goal is. The goal is that mansion that Jesus speaks of – the Father’s house in which there are many dwelling places. It’s a mansion in which there is room for everyone, just as long as they find the way to get there. This reminds us that as nice as our home may be here on earth, there is something better awaiting us. It also serves as a reminder to those whose earthly home is difficult, or even non-existent, there is a place where they truly belong. Whatever our current living situation, however entrenched we are in our earthly life, we are reminded today that we are not home yet, that ultimately there is a place where we can live that will make us feel truly at home for all eternity.
The way to get to that goal is made pretty clear in the Gospel too. Jesus is very direct about saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” So if we want to get to our promised inheritance, there is just one way to get there, and that is through Jesus Christ whose sole mission was to pave the way for us to get back home. Notice very carefully that Jesus does not say, “There are several ways, and I am just one of them; there are many possible truths, and you can hear one of them in me; you can live your life all sorts of ways, and my life is a nice one.” No – he says “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is a statement that has all sorts of implications for the work of evangelization, because if we believe this, seriously believe it – and we should! – then we have to make sure that everyone comes to know the Lord.
Does this mean that those who do not ever come to know the Lord will never receive the heavenly inheritance? Put another way, more directly perhaps, does this mean that non-Christians don’t go to heaven? That’s a tough one. Vatican II addressed that concern by stating that while the fullness of the means of redemption were present in the Catholic Church, still there are elements of redemption present outside the Church. It says, “… some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3) Basically, we don’t have a monopoly on how Christ reveals himself to people, and we cannot know the depths of God’s mercy. Still, helping people to come to know the Lord needs to be at the top of our to-do lists.
So the goal is heaven, and the way is Christ. The readings today also give us the effects of achieving the goal. Those effects include a community where relationships can overcome difficulties, a relationship with God the Father, and an ability to do amazing works in the name of Christ.
In the first reading, we see the early community addressing perhaps the first challenge they have had. There is an inequity in the distribution of aid to the widows, and presumably, their children. This is not unlike inequities that exist in parishes everywhere at one time or another. But, being that they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and that they had chosen Christ as their way, truth and life, they were able to resolve the issue in a prayerful way. They are able to appoint seven members of the community to take care of that, so that the Apostles can continue to preach the word. There is an attention to the needs of the less fortunate, there is a sharing of authority, and an empowerment of the community. These are all fruits of trusting Jesus to be our way.
The second effect of achieving our goal is a relationship with God the Father. This is very directly what Jesus came to accomplish. Jesus, the one who was completely united with the Father, came to our world so that we could have that same relationship. That would not ever have been possible without Christ, because the only way to know the Father is to know him. Because of their complete unity, when we see Christ, we see the Father. As Jesus says to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.” This also has implications for us believers. Because people come to see Christ in us, they will come to see the Father in us as well. This promise makes it all the more important that we make sure that we are not an obstacle to people coming to know the Lord.
And finally, the third effect of achieving our goal is that we can do great works in the name of Christ. Some people say that Jesus never came to establish a Church, but today’s readings tell us that is patently false. He certainly came to establish a Church, because after his death and resurrection, it was the actions of the Church that continued his saving work. It was the Church that continued the healing, reaching out to the needy, preaching the Word, and all the rest. And the Church continues this saving work in our own day. We are empowered to do wonderful works: to preach, to heal, to serve and love in the name of Jesus Christ. None of this happens on our own, or as a result of our own ambition. It only happens by joining ourselves to the One who is the way, the truth and the life.
There’s a lot at stake in our Scriptures today. There is a world that needs to know Jesus so that they too can know the Father and experience the joy of a real home. There is a world that needs to know the touch of Jesus so that they can be healed and strengthened for life’s journey. There is a world that needs to hear the Word of Jesus so that they can come to the way, the truth and the life. It’s on us now, none of us can be passive observers or consumers only. As St. Peter says today, we “are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that [we] may announce the praises’ of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are not home yet, but we can get there through our Jesus, our way, our truth, and our life, and we have to gather everyone we can, and take them with us!
Today at Notre Dame we celebrated the funeral of a dear woman who has been part of our community for many years. The funeral Liturgy provides a glimpse as to what the Catholic Church teaches about life, death, and eternity. In particular, the prayer of commendation, which is said just before leaving the church says this:
Into your hands, Father of mercies,
we commend our sister Helen
in the sure and certain hope
that, together with all who have died in Christ,
she will rise with him on the last day.
turn toward us and listen to our prayers:
open the gates of paradise to your servant
and help us who remain
to comfort one another with assurances of faith,
until we all meet in Christ
and with you and with our sister for ever.
From this beautiful prayer, we can pick up two very important aspects of the Church’s teaching on eternity: first, for the baptized believer who has done her or his best to live the Gospel, a resurrection to life is assured – in “sure and certain hope.” Second, that resurrection will happen together with all believers, and until then we wait, comforting one another with “assurances of faith” so that one day we can all “meet in Christ.”
So first, the believer has sure and certain hope of resurrection to life. Many people erroneously believe that because of the Church’s teaching on works, and also the teaching on purgatory, the salvation of the believer is not certain. But we believe that our salvation has indeed been won by Christ, and believe that those who accept his free offer of grace and friendship are indeed assured of their eternal salvation (CCC 1031). The need for purification in purgatory is a separate matter; and I’ll ask you to bookmark that for a bit.*
Second, we believe that salvation is something we’re supposed to do together. Yes, the individual believer has to choose to receive grace and friendship with God, but we live that grace and friendship in communion with the body of the Church, and it’s up to us as believers to encourage one another and bring one another to heaven. This is such an important concept that the Church, in its instruction on marriage, insists that “authentic married love is caught up into divine love,” in effect, the spouses love one another into heaven (Gaudium et Spes 48.2, cf CCC 1639). Even vocations to the consecrated religious life (monks, sisters, etc.) are ordered to the salvation of the person within the context of community. As Saint Benedict wrote in his Rule for monks, “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to eternal life” (Rule of St. Benedict, 72). This desire for communal salvation is so great that the Church prays for it at every celebration of the Eucharist. For example, this selection from Eucharistic Prayer I notes that the whole family of believers comes together to offer the sacrifice:
Therefore, Lord, we pray:
graciously accept this oblation of our service,
that of your whole family;
order our days in your peace,
and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.
And so we can say that Catholic eternity consists of assured and communal salvation for each believer. But what does it look like?
At the moment of death, each person receives a particular, individual judgment, which corresponds to whether or not they have accepted God’s free gift of grace and friendship. We see this biblically in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus relates a parable about Lazarus, a poor man, who is ignored by a rich man every single day of their lives on earth. When they have both died, Lazarus goes to heaven, while the rich man goes to hell. The rich man cries out for relief to Father Abraham, who replies: “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours” (Luke 16:25-26). Jesus was giving this analogy to show the choice that we must make: accepting God’s friendship means living a certain way, loving others and reaching out to them in their need.
Heaven, then, is a choice that leads to perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the angels and saints. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that heaven “is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024). I always tell the children that I teach that God always wants us to be happy. And if we want to be happy forever, we will always seek God’s will and do what he calls us to do. That is the life that leads to heaven.
In heaven, we have communion with the angels and saints and all of the Church, but also and especially with God himself. This communion is almost indescribable, although the Bible speaks of it in images: light, life, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise. Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians summed it up: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9, cf CCC 1027). It’s hard to describe this communion with God because he is transcendent, and so unless he gives us the grace of a capacity to see him, it doesn’t happen. We call this grace the “beatific vision” in which we are allowed to see God and share with him the joy of salvation (CCC 1028).
Now, we can’t talk about heaven without at least mentioning the other thing, and that is hell. Because that’s where the rich man found himself, so because Jesus included it in his teaching, we know that it exists. But what the Church teaches about hell is that it is in itself a choice. To get there, one must completely reject God’s free gift of grace and friendship. This is usually done through the act of unrepentant mortal sin: one knows the right thing to do, and actively chooses not to do it, and acts contrary to the good. If a person commits a mortal sin, it can be forgiven through grace, but for the one who chooses not to seek forgiveness and chooses not to repent, the only other option is a life devoid of God’s presence. And that life we call hell (CCC 1033).
But here’s the thing about hell. We don’t really know if anyone’s there or not, well, except for Satan and his demons. But since God doesn’t send anyone to hell – one chooses to go there freely – we can’t say for certain that there is anyone there. The Church teaches that we definitely know that thousands of people are in heaven, because we call them saints. The process of sainthood involves the recognition of miracles that happen after the saint’s death, indicating that the person is acting from the glory of heaven to affect the good of those on earth. But the Church has never named anyone who is in hell, because we cannot know if, at the moment of death, an unrepentant sinner may have called out to God for mercy, repenting of her or his sins. We know that hell exists, and we know that it is possible to go there of one’s own free will, but we don’t know that anyone has chosen that option. In fact, we hope not.
To sum up Catholic teaching about the nature of heaven and eternity, I’d like to once again choose some words from the Church’s Liturgy. This time it comes from the prayers for the dead, which can be said at the bedside of a dying person. For them we pray:
Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian!
May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
with Joseph, and all the angels and saints …
May you return to [your Creator]
who formed you from the dust of the earth.
May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints
come to meet you as you go forth from this life…
May you see your Redeemer face to face. Amen.
So I referred to Purgatory earlier, and I said to book mark it. Let’s come back to it now. Purgatory is thought of as the final purification, in which the soul is made fit to be caught up into the life of God in heaven. Now once again, every believer who has accepted God’s grace and friendship is absolutely assured of eternal salvation. But if they have sins that have left them impure at death, they must be purified to enter the joy of heaven (CCC 1030). The purification in purgatory is entirely different that the punishment of the damned in hell. Purgatory is, instead, that “cleansing fire” that Saint Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor 3:15, 1 Pet 1:7). This is why the Church prays for the dead, a practice that comes from the book of Maccabees in which we read: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46, cf. CCC 1032).
I tell people that Purgatory is really a gift. It’s that time and experience of our spiritual life in which we are completely made ready for the life of heaven. It’s kind of stereotypical for a Catholic to say this, but eternity can be likened to a party. Those who freely accept the invitation freely offered enter in and enjoy the party. This is heaven. Those who reject the invitation outright are outside the party, and this is hell. But imagine going to a party and you know that you’ve done or said something wrong to another person at the party, in particular the host. You’re not going to be enjoying yourself with the guilt of that indiscretion on your heart. So you need to do something to fix the relationship so that you can enjoy the party. That’s what Purgatory is. You still get to go to the party, but you have to make amends first.
I think it’s very important for us to realize that we are not at home in this world, wherever we are. We are always travelers until we reach heaven, which is our true home. I remember on the last day of my dad’s life, almost ten years ago now, he kept looking at his watch and saying, “It’s almost time to go home.” We kept telling him he couldn’t go home, because he was too sick. But later that day when we were talking, we realized what he really meant. He was on his way to his true home, our true home, that place we all want to go one day.
Jesus gave Peter, James and John a glimpse of that in today’s Gospel. On seeing the vision, I think Peter realized that there was something like that going on here. He wanted to build tents, to keep Moses and Elijah there and make that their home. But he really was babbling, because, quite understandably, he didn’t know what to make of it all.
What they were getting, in a way, is a glimpse of heaven. Jesus appearing with Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the epitome of Old Testament Prophets. It’s Jesus himself who brings the Law to fulfillment, and Jesus himself who is the fulfillment of all the prophets’ messages. They appeared in a dazzling vision that revealed what Jesus’ resurrected body would be like. It was obviously different and glorious, and had the disciples stunned.
As they come down the mountain, Jesus tells them to keep the vision under wraps until he has risen from the dead. That’s because no one, not even Peter, James and John, would understand what it was about until they had actually seen Jesus risen and glorified. Then they could have that “aha!” moment and realize that there is something more than just this life here on earth.
So in these days of Lent, it is well for us to remember that there is more to life than just what we see here. So the task is to live our lives like we’re going to heaven. Because that’s what we want. Yes, we will have to take up the cross to get there. Yes, we will have to venture into unknown territory like Abram. But if we ever want to get to the joys of heaven, we have to be willing to brave the unknown and endure the cross and go wherever it is God takes us.
Sadly, this year, God is taking me somewhere too. My term as pastor is up this summer, and I had hoped to be reassigned here. But last Saturday, Bishop Conlon called to ask me to take a new assignment. I didn’t want to, and I was praying about it all last weekend, but when I remembered my Ordination promises and when I actually listened to my own words preaching last weekend, I knew my answer had to be yes.
So this June, I will become the new pastor of Saint Mary Immaculate Parish in Plainfield, which is the largest parish in our diocese, over five times bigger than Notre Dame. I can hardly wrap my mind around that, so I would ask your prayers. Transition may be God’s will, but it’s never easy.
This weekend, the diocese will invite my brother priests to apply to be pastor of Notre Dame, and in the coming weeks, Bishop Conlon and the personnel board will make decisions about our parish and the other openings in the diocese. I have been assured that Notre Dame will be taken care of. I will let you know when I hear of the appointment, but now would be a good time to begin praying for your new pastor too.
There will be time in the coming months for goodbyes and thanksgiving, but I want to assure you that being your pastor has been one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I’ll never forget you. I am grateful for all that you have done for me, and all of your prayers for me each day. Please be assured of mine for you. Our prayer today could be the prayer of the Psalmist: “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.”
One of my favorite hymns is the one we sang at the beginning of Mass today, “For All the Saints.” Ever since I was a little kid, I can remember the rather stirring melody and the beautiful words in praise of the Saints Triumphant. For me, it kindled a little yearning to be a saint some day. You might hear that and think, “well, someone’s full of himself, isn’t he?” But honestly, we should all be having that yearning. Because we are all supposed to be saints.
When we think about saints, we get stuck, I think, on those saints of statues and medieval stories. But today, the Church is asking us to think about saints in a broader way. Yes, we include all those “official” saints that have been canonized through the ages. They are our intercessors and our inspiration. The Church rejoices in the saints because when someone becomes a saint, the Church recognizes that he or she is definitely in heaven, the goal of all our lives. So, from the many saints of every time and place, we know of thousands of people that are certainly in heaven. This illustrates that God’s will always done, doesn’t it?
But, as I said, I think the Church wants us to think about saints in a broader way. There is the story of a schoolteacher who asked her children what a saint was. One little girl thought about the saints she saw in stained glass windows, and said “Saints are people the light shines through.” Think about that for a minute – that little girl isn’t far from the kingdom of God there. Because all people are called to let the light of Christ shine through them, and saints are those people who have made that the business of their lives.
Heaven is that great multitude that John the Revelator tells us about in today’s first reading: that multitude “which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” They are wearing, he tells us, white robes, which have been washed in the blood of the lamb. That seems very counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Everyone knows that blood stains like nobody’s business. But he’s speaking poetically here, and recognizes that nothing washes us sinners quite as clean as the saving blood of Jesus Christ.
And that’s really the only way. Because if we bristle a bit at my yearning to be a saint, we might be on to something. We can’t be saints all on our own. We aren’t good enough, we can’t make up for our sins with any kind of completeness, and there’s basically no way that we can jump high enough to get to heaven. But this feast of All Saints recognizes that we don’t have to. We don’t have to because Christ has saved us through no merit of our own but based solely on God’s love for us. The fact that we can be called saints is grace, and we dare not bristle so much that we turn away from that grace.
We are all of us on a journey, and we know that our true home is not in this place, however good it may be. We are on a journey to heaven, and that means that we are in the process of becoming saints. That journey consists in following the Way who is Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Redeemer. He has commanded, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” and there is no way to do that except to follow him.
So, no, of course, not all of us will be canonized. Most of us will go to the Kingdom rather imperfect in many ways, and will have to work that out in the grace of Purgatory. But if we look to those canonized saints for inspiration, perhaps our relationship with the Lord will lead us and our brothers and sisters to that place where all the saints worship around the Throne of the Lamb.
Today we, the Church militant, honor the Church triumphant: not only the great saints like Mary and Joseph, Patrick and Benedict, Michael and Gabriel, Francis and Dominic, but also those saints that God alone has known. We glory in their triumph that was made possible by them joining themselves to Christ. We take inspiration from their battles and from the faith that helped keep them in Christ when they could have turned away. If God could do that in their lives, he can certainly do that in ours too. Perhaps, if we are willing to accept it, he can fill us with saintly attributes: strength in weakness, compassion in the face of need, witness to faith in times when society lacks direction, and so much more.
Those virtues are virtues that we think about when we call to mind those official, canonized saints. But they are virtues for which we can and should strive as well. The desire and the grace to attain those virtues comes from God himself, and the reward for receiving that grace and living those virtues is a heavenly relationship with God. What could be better than that?
This is a lot of work, and it’s not easy to live a saintly life, but Jesus makes a promise today to those who strive to do so: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven!”
There’s a principle in the spiritual life known in Greek as kenosis. Nobody likes to talk about it. It’s nicer to talk about the consolations of prayer and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and things like that. But nobody likes to talk about kenosis because, in English, we would translate that something like “self-emptying.” That means making all the stuff we like or tolerate in us to go away, so that we can be filled up with God. Now, the being filled up with God isn’t so bad; I think most people would like that. But getting rid of the stuff that’s in there so that we can be filled up with God isn’t so great.
Kenosis is what today’s Liturgy of the Word is all about. The first reading is from the book of Wisdom, which was composed about fifty years before the birth of Jesus. In today’s selection from that book, the Wisdom writer speaks of the just one, who is a foreshadowing of Jesus. The just one is obnoxious to the unjust, because his example challenges them and his words accuse them. Nobody likes to have that kind of thing thrown in their face, and so they plot to take the just one’s life, which is exactly what will happen to Jesus.
And that’s what Jesus tells his Apostles. In the Gospel reading, he takes them aside and confides something he doesn’t want to be widely known, at least not yet. He says that he will be handed over to men who will kill him, and then three days later he will rise. That’s what we call the Paschal Mystery, and unfortunately not even those Apostles were ready to hear it. Instead, they engage in a frivolous argument about who was the greatest among them. Can you imagine their embarrassment when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about along the way?
I can just imagine Jesus’ anguish as he reflected on that truth, knowing that the end was coming near and that he would die a horrifying death, and not even his closest friends could offer him a kind word. And so he confronts them about their embarrassing argument and tells them that the one who would wish to be the greatest must be the lowest of all, serving all the rest. That was true for him, and it would be true for them too. That’s kenosis.
So if the Apostles couldn’t handle a message of kenosis, then it’s going to be challenging for the rest of us too. Because our society doesn’t teach us to want to be the last of all and the servant of all. Our society tells us to look out for ourselves and take care of number one. Our society tells us to strive for every honor and glory for ourselves, to be known as the greatest, much like the Apostles wanted to be in that silly argument. We even hear about the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” in which televangelists and other preachers tell people how much God wants them to be rich and famous. Here’s a tip: God doesn’t care if we’re rich and famous or not, he just wants us to take care of others.
So if we want to enter the Kingdom, we’re going to have to empty ourselves out and get rid of all that nonsense. Because nothing that looks like our earthly glory and honor and prosperity will fit into heaven. We have to pour out the sin, the selfish ambition, the conceited entitlement and instead be filled up with Christ. That’s what kenosis looks like for us. And whether we like to talk about it or not, it’s the only way we’re getting into heaven.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.”
“The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.”
This weekend we celebrate two closely-related feasts: The Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, which we commonly call All Souls Day. I say they are closely-related feasts because they show the journey we are on to our salvation. We know that we are not at home in this world: our true citizenship is in heaven, and we are but travellers through this world, hoping to come at last to the Kingdom of Heaven. The people that we know for sure are in heaven are saints, and so it is our quest in this world to become saints. Our goal is to come to perfection and get caught up in the life of God, so that we can live forever with him one day.
The Solemnity of All Saints celebrates all those men and women who have lived heroic lives and have attained the goal of perfection in holiness and complete unity with God. We know they are in heaven either because they died a martyr’s death, giving their lives for Christ and pouring out their blood just like he did, or we know of miracles that have been attributed to their intercession that occurred after their death, indicating they are with God in heaven. These saints may already be canonized saints, or perhaps they are people we don’t even know about who have attained that perfection. It is conceivable that we don’t know every saint, because ultimately God knows whether one has attained perfection or not. All Saints Day allows us to celebrate all those saints we don’t know about in addition to the ones we do know.
The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, or All Souls Day, is an opportunity to pray for all those who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, as well as those whose faith God alone knows. On this day, we especially pray for those who have not attained full perfection in this life, either because of venial sins or attachment to mortal sins, and we endeavor to help them through prayer and through the Sacrifice of the Mass. This is what Purgatory is about, and far from being a punishment, Purgatory is understood to be a gift through which a soul is cleansed through the sanctifying action of our Lord so that they can fully enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
As I said, these feasts are closely related, and during their observance we as a church remember three ranks of saints. There are the saints associated with the Church Triumphant, and these would be the saints in heaven, those who have overcome the power of the evil one and have been perfectly united with God. There are the saints associated with the Church Suffering, those who are in purgatory and especially those who have no one to pray for them, for whom we pray that our Lord would give them the salvation and rest they long for. And there are the rest of us, the saints associated with the Church Militant, including you and me, who are doing our best to overcome evil in this world, and to unite ourselves with our God so that we may come to everlasting life.
What we really celebrate in these days is the joy of salvation. God made us all for himself, and he wills that every single one of us would be saved. He will not rest until all of this is made right, and all have had a chance to enter into eternal life. This journey of salvation, the quest to become saints, is what our faith life is all about. The goal is not so much to “graduate” from faith formation by receiving all the sacraments. The goal is not to jump through hoops and check off the requirements of the Church. The goal is to become saints, because as far as we know, there are only saints in the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Kingdom of Heaven is where we long to take our rest.
This journey of salvation is wonderfully expressed in one of my favorite hymns, “For All the Saints.” Here is one of the verses:
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
These parables that we have today regarding the nature of the Kingdom of God are head-scratchers for sure! I am sure we can all understand how the people were confused by Jesus’ description of the Kingdom, since it even seems foreign to our ears. One might wish that he would just say: “Okay, look, here’s what the Kingdom is like.”
But as I read this last night getting ready for this homily, it struck me that no words would be adequate to express how wonderful is the kingdom. It’s big, like a mustard tree, and expansive, like rapidly-rising dough. But whatever we can say about the Kingdom of God, it’s going to be too little. It will never even come close to describing the Kingdom in its fullness.
My guess is, no matter how often we hear these wonderful parables, on that great day when we – please God! – get to the Kingdom of heaven, we will be amazed beyond our wildest dreams. God’s heavenly Kingdom is something we certainly don’t want to miss. So let’s not be like those Israelites in the first reading who Jeremiah rightly pointed out never listened to God, or who as the Psalmist points out have even forgotten God.
Because if we remember our God, and listen closely, maybe we’ll hear just a tiny clue of what heaven will be like. That way we’ll recognize it when we get there.