Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. As with all the major feasts of the Church, it’s worth asking what it is that we’re celebrating. This sermon’s dedicated to that question.
All Saints started as a way of remembering all the martyrs, those whose witness had cost them their lives. Speaking English or Spanish it takes a moment for us to remember that there’s a connection between ‘martyr’ and ‘witness’; in Greek it’s simpler, for our word ‘martyr’ is simply the transliteration of the Greek word for witness.
Some martyrs were easy to remember, and some, like Stephen or James, had the story of their martyrdom recorded in Acts. But other martyrs were less well known, or only locally known, and there was the strong sense that every church should remember all the martyrs. That was part of what it meant to be part of a universal, that is, a catholic Church. And, it didn’t take many persecutions for there to be more martyrs than days of the year, so for that reason too churches began to celebrate a feast of all the saints. This happened around the end of the 4th century, and by the 8th century November 1 had been fixed as the day of the feast in the west.
So, as we have been doing since the 4th century, on All Saints we remember all the martyrs. One does not have to be a martyr to be a saint, but some measure of the courage of a saint does seem to be necessary. I’ll say more about that later.
One doesn’t have to be a martyr to be a saint. So what’s a saint? When we turn to the Bible for an answer, we may be surprised to discover that all Christians are addressed as or called saints (or ‘holy’). Paul’s letters are addressed to “the saints” (2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians) or to those “called to be saints” (Romans, 1 Corinthians). So it’s the identity into which we’re baptized.
I was born a McAlpine, and had that name before I’d done anything. As I grew I heard family stories that also told me what being a McAlpine was about. Being a saint is something like that: it’s an identity we receive before we’ve done anything to deserve it; it’s an identity we grow into.
Our readings at the Sunday Mass come, as you recall, from a three-year lectionary. The other two years the Gospel reading is the Beatitudes, which provides an obvious opportunity for the preacher to talk about what a saint looks like. This year (Year B) we’re given the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Does that story show us what a saint looks like? Yes, and in three ways.
But before that, let me first notice very briefly the first two readings.
Our first reading from Isaiah: to celebrate All Saints is to celebrate the future God has in store for the human race. The steady diet of injustice and violence which we receive on the TV or smartphone—or step out the front door—will not continue indefinitely. Human history will culminate in a feast. This is one dimension of the Mass that we often overlook. Our celebrations here together with “Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven” are part of that feast, signs of its coming in fullness.
The second reading from the Revelation: Isaiah’s vision on steroids. At the same time, as in Isaiah, there is a warning that while the future of human history is secure, our participation in that future is still in play: our decisions matter. While there isn’t time to unpack the final verse [At the Mass the reading was extended to the end of the paragraph in v.8], notice that the first group named are the cowards. Something of the martyr’s courage is necessary, even if the worst thing we face are condescending smiles when we identify ourselves as Jesus’ followers.
But to the raising of Lazarus: how does that tell us what being a saint looks like?
First, notice that Lazarus in the moments before Jesus calls his name doesn’t have many options. He comes out of the tomb because Jesus calls him. And that’s a powerful picture of what being a saint is about. It’s not something we achieve under our own steam. It’s something that depends every moment on God’s power, on Jesus’ voice.
Second, notice that the alternatives are death and life. Being a saint isn’t about some super-elevated way of life. English speakers talk about “holier than thou.” It’s about living as a human being rather than something else. And in today’s culture there are plenty of examples of “something else” on offer. One of the most popular: to be a consumer: to find your pleasure and your worth in what you are buying. In the right economy and with a bit of luck you can be a successful consumer—but that sidetracks you from learning to live as a human being. God wants us to live, and the name for someone fully living is “saint.”
Third, the person in this story who’s most obviously holy, most obviously a saint, is Jesus. And look what that means for the people around him! Lazarus starts the story dead, and ends it alive. Lazarus’ sisters start the story weeping, and end the story beside themselves for joy. Some of the religious leaders end the story even more upset with Jesus than before, more determined to do him in, which reminds us why at least a bit of courage is necessary for this saint business. Jesus is quite clear: to the degree that we allow God to make us into what we are—saints—we will be a source of life to those around us. And in this world that’s very good news.
Here’s the thing. We often come to God with this or that problem, sometimes small, sometimes large. The Feast of All Saints is on the calendar to remind us—warn us, maybe—that this God to whom we come has his own agenda: to transform us into people who will transform this world. We come for an oil change; God wants to give us a Ferrari. Let us not refuse the offer.