The Solemnity of All Saints (Evening Masses)

Today’s readings

I think we all bristle, mistakenly, at the idea of being a saint. Saints are those super-holy folks who are depicted in artwork and glorified in amazing stories. We are just ordinary people who struggle with our holiness, at best. 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. 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. That’s what the process of canonization is all about. And bringing people to heaven is the whole point of the Church. 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 is done in the end, 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 we’re quite right when we bristle a bit at being called saints. 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 a grace, and we dare not bristle so much that we turn away from that grace.

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.

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!”

The Solemnity of All Saints (Morning Mass)

Today’s readings

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. Because the most important thing we know about saints is that they are definitely in heaven, which is our true home, which is where we were meant to return some day. To get there, we ourselves have to become more like them. We have to grow in our faith and make our reliance on God’s 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!

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Today’s readings

One of the great snapshots of Christmas for me has always been the manger scene. These beautiful figurines give us a glimpse as to what God is doing at the Incarnation of Christ – an amazing moment in time! The centerpiece of the manger, of course, is the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The birth of Jesus couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time or in more difficult circumstances. But it was precisely this timing that changed everything: for the world, and for the Holy Family.

But I am aware that the idyllic holiness, peace and love the crèche depicts is often quite foreign to the experience of many families, including many families in this assembly. I know there are families where communication is anything but good. There are families who may never have known the kind of love that is shared between Jesus, Mary and Joseph. There are families who struggle with abuse: physical, sexual, or emotional.

Even in the “best” of families, there is often hardship. I know there are families who struggle to keep up with all the activities that are expected of them. There are families who can’t find time to have a meal together, let alone take a trip together. Families often struggle to make ends meet. There are families who struggle with the changing needs of children as they grow older. Families may be separated by great distance, or may have suffered the sickness or death of one of the members. Other families may find themselves changing roles as a parent, the one who provided for his or her children, grows old and becomes ill and then becomes the one in need of care.

Families can be and are the source of our greatest joys and our deepest anguish. Sometimes all in the same day. The truth is, and perhaps you find yourself thinking this as you sit there and listen to these readings today, none of our families is perfect. Few of us would rush to describe our families as well-functioning, let alone holy. And so we can sit there and look at the manger and find its serenity meaningless in the hectic anxiety of our day-to-day family lives.

But maybe we need to look a little deeper or listen a little harder today. “Holy” and “perfect” are not the same thing. We don’t need to be perfect to be a family. That was true of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as well. Would a perfect family have lost their child on the way home from a trip? I don’t think so, but that’s exactly what happened, isn’t it? Mary says to Jesus when they find him that she and Joseph had been looking for him with “great anxiety.” Those of you who are parents can well imagine the anxiety and can totally identify with what Mary and Joseph had to have been feeling.

Jesus’ response shows the struggle that so often happens in families when the children are trying to grow up faster than the parents would like to see. He is becoming aware of his mission and feels ready to take it on. They still see him as a child, a child for whom they feel great responsibility, not to mention great love and concern. This story is the last time we see Jesus until he begins his ministry at the age of about thirty. It has been theorized that the reason for this is that he was grounded until he was thirty.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the point is that even in the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, there were struggles. Nothing was perfect in that family, not even from the beginning. Right at the beginning, there was a hint of scandal about the pregnancy; they had to flee for their safety; they suffered from poverty and violent threats. Like many modern families they suffered under political and military oppression, had to settle far from their original home and had to start a new life in a foreign place. Two thousand years may separate the modern family from the “Holy Family,” but there is much to link us, much that we share.

So, what we are supposed to see in the Holy Family is something perhaps different from perfection. Perhaps it is faithfulness. Faithfulness to God and faithfulness to one another: indeed, it is this faithfulness that leads them to the holiness we celebrate today. Look at the way the situation in the Gospel reading today was resolved among them. Even though they were panicked and anxious about the disappearance of their son; even though they did not understand what was going on with him, yet they appreciated his uniqueness, and Mary kept all of these memories in her heart, kept them to be sorted out and understood much later. And even though Jesus was ready to grow into adulthood and ready to begin his mission, yet he understood the concerns of his parents and continued to be obedient to them as he continued to grow in wisdom and grace. They were faithful to one another.

Our first reading today from Sirach addresses these same concerns. The family members are instructed to care for one another, to honor one another, to love and respect one another all their days. Even as parents age and the roles become reversed, still we are to respect them for all they have been for us. We are called to be faithful to one another.

I continue to be aware that even as I pull that theme of faithfulness out of today’s Scriptures, that can still seem insurmountable to many of you. Why should you be faithful when the hurts inflicted by other members of your family still linger? That’s a hard one to address, but the call to faithfulness is still there for all of us. And we’re not told to be faithful just when everyone else is faithful. Sometimes we are called to make an almost unilateral decision to love and respect the others in our families, and let God worry about the equity of it all. I know that’s easier to say than to do, but please know that this Church family supports you with prayer and love as you do that.

Every single one of us is called to be holy, brothers and sisters. And every single one of our families is called to be holy. That doesn’t mean that we will be perfect. Some days we’ll be pretty far from it. But it does mean that we will be faithful in love and respect. It means that we will unite ourselves to God in prayer and worship. It means we will love when loving is hard to do. Mary loved Jesus all the way to the Cross and watched him die. What we see in the model of the Holy Family for us is not perfection, but faithfulness and holiness.

That holiness will make demands of us. It did for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Our church still has the Nativity scene on display; we are still celebrating Christmas Day. But today’s story of Jesus in the temple reminds us that our faith in the Incarnation does not stop at the crib. The Gospel already has hints that Jesus’ disciples will be asked to make a break with the past and accept a new life of sacrifice. Just as Jesus is beginning to show signs of moving beyond the safety of a small family and entering a larger world and responding to its needs, so too must we move out of the confines of the safe and serene and enter and respond to the areas of need that the world presents to us. It will take holiness for us to be able to do that.

Holiness demands that we seek it; it doesn’t just descend from above. If we want holy families, and we certainly should, we will have to make decisions and even sacrifices to pursue it. We will have to make an honest priority of worship; attending Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation as a minimum without fail. We will have to surround our families in prayer, praying at meals, teaching and reviewing prayers, praying together at night, reciting the rosary together, reading the Scriptures together. Holy families are not going to be perfect in these things, but they will not fail to pursue that holiness every single day. It takes a daily decision to do that; but that is the vocation of the family in the world.

Jesus, emerging from childhood to adulthood, reminds us that in his name, we must be ready to live faithful and holy lives, regardless of whether others are doing the same, and no matter what the personal cost. Because the cost of rejecting holiness in our lives is just too great, and the loss of an earthly family is nothing compared to losing our place in the family of God.

All Saints & All Souls

Readings: All Saints | All Souls

“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.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Monday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s gospel has Jesus taking the Scribes and Pharisees to task for forgetting what is really holy, and treating things as sacred while ignoring God who is holiness itself.  Apparently, they thought that swearing an oath by the gold of the temple was more binding than an oath simply sworn on the temple itself: but, Jesus asks, isn’t the temple what makes the gold holy?  And they confused swearing an oath by the altar and by the gift on the altar.  They had forgotten that the altar is what makes the gift holy.  But even more than that, they had been so caught up in details, that they forgot that God is holy, and makes anything that can be called holy, holy.

Now, Jesus isn’t saying that people should disobey the first and third commandments, using God’s name as an assurance of an oath.  Swearing by the name of God isn’t to be taken lightly.  But what he is saying is that the Scribes and Pharisees needed to straighten out their flawed notion of holiness.  God is holy; and he alone makes holiness.

So today might be a call for us to take a moral inventory of our own notion of holiness.  What have we been putting before God?  What do we hold sacred?  Do we have idolatry in our life?  Do we sometimes forget that, as we say in the Gloria: “you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the most high, Jesus Christ…”?

Monday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

People often balk at the mere suggestion of being called to personal holiness.  Oftentimes, this is wrapped up in a kind of misplaced and false humility; that kind of humility that says that I’m no good; there is no way I can even come close to being like God.  Yet the fact of the matter is that we are made good by our Creator God who designed us to be like himself, perfect in holiness.

And if that seems too lofty to attain, Moses and Jesus spell out the steps to getting there today.  Clearly, personal holiness is not merely a matter of simply saying the right prayers, fasting at the right times, going to Church every Sunday and reading one’s Bible.  Those things are key on the journey to holiness, but using them as a façade betrays a lack of real holiness.  Because for both Moses and Jesus, personal holiness, being holy as God is holy, consists of engaging in justice so that hesed – right relationship and right order – can be restored in the world.

All the commands we receive from Moses and Jesus today turn us outward in our pursuit of holiness.  Our neighbor is to be treated justly, and that neighbor is every person in our path.  Robbery, false words, grudges, withholding charity, rendering judgment without justice, not granting forgiveness and bearing grudges are all stumbling blocks to personal holiness.  All of these keep us from being like God who is holy.  And worse yet, all of these things keep us from God, period.

The law of the Lord is perfect, as the Psalmist says, and the essence of that law consists of love and justice to every person.  If we would strive for holiness this Lent, we need to look to the one God puts in our path, and restore right relationship with that person.

Monday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s gospel has Jesus taking the Scribes and Pharisees to task for forgetting what is really holy and treating things as sacred while ignoring God who is holiness itself.  Apparently, they thought that swearing an oath by the gold of the temple was more binding than an oath simply sworn on the temple itself: but, Jesus asks, isn’t the temple what makes the gold holy?  And they confused swearing an oath by the altar and by the gift on the altar.  They had forgotten that the altar is what makes the gift holy.  But even more than that, they had been so caught up in details, that they forgot that God is holy, and makes holy whatever can be called holy.

Now, Jesus isn’t saying that people should disobey the first and third commandments, using God’s name as an assurance of an oath.  Swearing by the name of God isn’t to be taken lightly.  But what he is saying is that the Scribes and Pharisees needed to straighten out their flawed notion of holiness.  God is holy; and he alone makes holiness.

So today might be a call for us to take a moral inventory of our own notion of holiness.  What have we been putting before God?  What do we hold sacred?  Do we have idolatry in our life?  Do we sometimes forget that, as we say in the Gloria: “you alone are the holy one, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the most high…”?