Homily for All Saints and all Souls Days

November 2, 2008

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

Based on Wisdom 3:1-9; Romans 5:5-11; John 6:37-40)

Jesus says “This is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me.”

I don’t know who makes the decision, or how they make it, that since the great feast of all Saints – a holy day of obligation – happens to fall on a Saturday this years it won’t be a holy day after all and, instead, on Sunday we’ll all celebrate All Souls Day.

No matter. We won’t worry about all that. We’re going to celebrate both of them together. It’s not all that clear why there should be two separate feasts in the first place. In any case, what we are celebrating are the great deeds wrought by our god in the lives of these men and women who are just like us. In a sense we are celebrating who we really are. This celebration tells us that we belong to a single holy people; that we are part of one long line of pilgrims wending its way toward the kingdom of God across the centuries.

The Book of Wisdom is an account of the conflict between two different approaches to what genuine wisdom really consists in. The author speaks to the wise of the world out there and says, “You are so smart and so competent. But what you call wisdom is really folly. In your eyes those who have entered into death are just gone. They are no more. Their passing is, in your words, ‘utter destruction’.” Nothing left. But with the eyes of faith we know that they are in the hands of God. The same hands that hold each and every one of us right now and at every instant of our lives.

We are one with them. Their story is our story. They are ourselves. It is the veil of death which appears to separate us that is the illusion. At the time of his passion Jesus tore the veil of the temple in two as the sign that we have full access to the Father just as those who have passed beyond the grave do.

I believe we need very much to re-capture the mind-set of the early church. It shows up in the language of St. Paul. In all his major letters, whether he is writing to the church at Corinth or Rome or Ephesus or Philippi, in every one of those letters somewhere in the text he will say, “Greetings to all the saints.” Or “greetings from all the saints” – from the community where he presently is, back to a community he only left a few months or a year ago.

When he talks like that he’s not referring to people who have been canonized. Canonization hadn’t been invented yet. He’s referring to people who are alive as he writes. People still on the journey with him.

I’m reminded of someone I’ve told you about before: my Jesuit brother, Fr. Al Bischoff. He’s a big teddy-bear of a fellow, over 80 years old and still living in a student residence with the college kids over at Xavier. He’s a pied piper for them. When he greets anyone he says “Hello, saint!” (I realize that when you’re talking about college-age guys and gals at Xavier that could be a bit of a stretch.)

It’s not just a gimmick. I’ll show you what kind of impact it can have. Al spent several years as the Catholic chaplain at a Lutheran College up in Illinois. When he left Augustana College the school presented him with a plaque, and on it the key point they made was “Fr. Al taught us Lutherans that we are all saints.”

I’m not all that sure that the development of formal processes of canonization – miracles and grand ceremonies in St. Peter’s Square – are spiritually healthy for us. The whole saint-making business has a way of making the saints remote and unlike us. It can diminish our sense of our own personal dignity as members of the holy people of God.

Just think back a couple of years ago, to all the buzz in the media when it was revealed that even Mother Teresa(!) Had difficulties of faith, that she felt God was far from her. I think the way our young people might respond to this story, which was presented as so incredible, is “Duh?” Of course she had doubts and struggles, it’s the nature of faith. What do they think she was, an angel? That’s how little the wisdom of this world ‘gets it.’

The saints can become unreal figures. People who reached levels of extraordinary holiness that ‘I could never reach that.’

Remember how recognition of some of the dead came to be ‘saints’ in the first place. They didn’t wear haloes in their village, you know, and nobody called them Saint Harry or Saint Emma. They were just neighbors, people whom their townspeople observed living very holy lives by doing well the things we are all called to do by the beatitudes: raising kids and caring for the sick and the poor. One village would revere them, and so the next town would naturally have to raise up their santo too. And many of them are long forgotten.

We need to ponder the image given to us by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. After spelling out a whole list of the great heroes of the Israelite people – Moses and Elijah and David – leading up to Jesus, he sees us a ‘surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.’

In my imagination I had always seen the picture of this long line of pilgrims making its way across the desert to the promised land, so numerous that it kicked up clouds of dust along the way. Actually after reading it more carefully I realize that he is imagining this vast crowd up in the stands of the arena, looking down on us, the present generation, as we run the race or fight the lions. They are our older sisters and brothers cheering us on in our efforts.

You know, every Sunday in the liturgy there are two elements that are there to remind us of this reality.

The first is the Eucharistic prayer itself. The church gives the presider at liturgy several different formulations to choose from. Each one highlights a different aspect of the paschal mystery: for one the focus is more on reconciliation, for another it might be praise. But in every one there comes a reminder that we are already joined with them, praying together with Mary and the martyrs and holy men and women in our story. The known and the unknown. How often do we stop and attend to the great stained-glass windows that surround us in this church every Sunday? Unfortunately they can become just wall-paper, unnoticed and taken for granted. But these men and women surrounding us and looking down at us walked the same earth as we do. They faced the same challenges – and the same temptations and the same failures.

And among them are saints we have known. Parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and neighbors and teachers and coaches. If we were building this church today we might see one panel with two figures who are faceless to remind us that canonization doesn’t create saints, it only gives some more visible recognition. (And indeed in the new cathedral in Los Angeles there are dramatic representations of ‘saints’ in sneakers and business suits, of every skin color and walk of life.)

The second element in the liturgy comes when we recite the Apostles’ Creed. We say we believe in the Communion of Saints. Once again, that’s not the canonized, it is a single people joined on both sides of the grave. The holy church on earth is in communion with the holy church in heaven. The same life flows within it despite the illusory separation of death.

The Communion of Saints can be both humbling and exalting.

It can be humbling when it reminds us first that we are not the center of the universe. All our efforts and projects are only small potatoes in the long story of this great people. It can be so easy to get caught up with our own importance, even when we are doing the work of the Kingdom. Really, we are all bit players, walk-ons. The Psalmist reminds us that we are grass which quickly withers – and the older members among us can tell you young’ns how quickly it has all gone by. The Communion of Saints can remind us not to take ourselves too seriously. The work, yes; but not ourselves.

But it can also be so exalting! None of us is alone. No matter how small our roles seems to be – changing diapers isn’t high on society’s marquee – we are all part of this great people on a glorious mission.

People tell us that we need to encourage our high-school kids to grow by becoming part of something that is bigger then their small selves. What could be greater, more ennobling, than to share in the life and the story and the mission of this great people?

During this month of November we are encouraged to remember in a special way the loved ones in our lives who have passed from our eyes and apparently left us. I want to suggest that as we pray for them we also realize that we are praying with them, that together we are glorifying our creator God for this one great work constantly coming into being: a people The Lord claims as his own.

Jesus has not, and will not, lose anything of what the Father gave him.