An Irish Saint
The 98-year-old Mother Superior from Ireland was dying. The nuns gathered around her bed trying to make her last journey comfortable. They gave her some warm milk to drink but she refused. Then one of the nuns took the glass back to the kitchen. Remembering a bottle of Irish whiskey received as a gift the previous Christmas, she opened and poured a generous amount into the warm milk. Back at Mother Superior’s bed, she held the glass to her lips. Mother drank a little, then a little more and before they knew it, she had drunk the whole glass down to the last drop. “Mother,” the nuns asked with earnest, “please give us some wisdom before you die.”
She raised herself up in bed and with a pious look on her face said, “Don’t sell that cow.”
Saints Across Time
On the Feast of All Saints, we might think about those saintly folks inhabiting nunneries and monasteries – past and present. For example, a few years ago Mother Teresa became known as St. Teresa. We might also think of the popular ‘saints’ – St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Patrick of Ireland come to mind. Or we might go back to the Biblical saints – St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. John. Or perhaps we might give thanks for our patron saint (St. George/ John). Today is a day in the Christian calendar that we are invited to think of the great examples of our faith tradition and to recognize their efforts in the building up of the Church. And we are invited to see ourselves within the long line of what we call the communion of saints.
We are all ‘Saints’
We’re probably not comfortable identifying ourselves as ‘holy ones’ or as ‘saints’ for that matter. But if we are to take our cue from Scripture, and St. Paul in particular, then we can definitively say that all those adopted into God’s family by the Holy Spirit are rightly called ‘saints’. In his epistles addressed to the Christian communities sprinkled throughout the Roman world Paul frequently uses the word ‘saint’ synonymously with ‘Christian’. He calls these folk, quarrelsome, divided, and imperfect and yet he also names them ‘saints’, ‘children of light’, and ‘brothers and sisters’ in the Lord.
Saints & Sinners
Paul certainly was not perfect himself, yet today we call him ‘saint’. Perhaps he is a great example of that English proverb that states, “The greater the sinner, the greater the saint.” The farther a person is from living according to God’s ways, the greater capacity, it seems, for said person to live a transformed life. They do not achieve this by their own efforts, however, but rather by the grace of God. One writer put it this way,
“…those we rightly revere are ‘God’s saints’ in the sense that God creates them by grace. Men and women do not by sheer determination and self-discipline become saints. Sanctity is a divine gift. It is indeed the power of the resurrection at work in human lives. Thus commemorating the saints is nothing other than a way of affirming that the transformative power of Christ is at work all about us in human lives…”
Jesus does not say he came to rally the holiest and brightest people to his cause, he says he came to ‘seek and save the lost’. He came to find those whom society deems worthless. His company of choice consists of lepers, sex workers, tax collectors, the illiterate and impoverished. And he came to show an alternate way of appropriating value and respecting the dignity of every human life.
The Sermon on the Plain
The gospel writer, Luke, tells the story of Jesus in a way that particularly emphasizes his compassion for the marginalized and ostracized. In today’s reading for example, Luke’s sermon on the ‘beatitudes’ takes place on a Plain (Matthew’s version takes place on a Mountain) – as if to emphasize Jesus is on the same level as the people to whom he’s preaching. He paints a picture of God’s kingdom not based on ‘keeping the rules,’ but on the reality the people existed in. If we are to think of the people listed in the beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart, those who work for justice, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted – who comes to mind?
We might think of ones close to us in failing health, the homeless and underemployed, those crushed by the loss of a family member, a broken relationship, or failed vocation. In the beatitudes Jesus speaks God’s blessing, God’s very presence, into the realities of the human condition. Those deemed worthless by their society are dignified as the blessed of God – as those whom God favours.
The Dignity of Every Life
It’s not always easy to see the dignity in every human life. My job sometimes takes me into situations where I visit with folks whose health has stripped them of a great deal. I’ve sometimes wondered about whether I’m making a difference in the life of someone suffering from dementia, knowing that they will not likely remember me ever having visited them. But then I am reminded by passages like that of the beatitudes, that God affirms the dignity of every human life: of the weak and lowly, the depressed and destitute, and those not easy to love. And whether the one being visited remembers my being there, God’s presence is there.
Blessing in Mourning?
The difficulty is in discerning God’s resurrection life in every human life, and perhaps even in our own. Of all the beatitudes I tend to fixate on “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” In the context of All Saints, I think about those who have gone before me in the faith: my grandparents, friends I’ve lost, parishioners I’ve buried. But I also think of other kinds of losses: of relationships, dreams, and futures that will never be, and a past not wanting to be laid to rest. Commentators agree that the use of the verb ‘mourn’ in this context is indeed meant to embrace a spectrum of experience.
“The verb “mourn” in the text is an inclusive word, embracing a spectrum of experiences. In context, it most naturally pictures the plight of those who are heartsick because things are not right in the world, because injustice and suffering are still rampant. But it also includes the situation of those who grieve because of loss. Death is a part of what is wrong in the world, “the last enemy,” Paul called it (1 Cor. 15:26). Thus the beatitude offers a blessing to those who face the communion of saints with mixed feelings, with grief as well as celebration. They too are not forgotten. Jesus promises comfort.”
Finding Our Place in the Company of Saints
The Feast of All Saints invites us to find our place in the company of the faithful – with those who mourn, with those who humbly pursue justice. Today we remember those who have gone before us. We give thanks for their lives, and for the hope of resurrection we cling to when despair threatens to take hold. We find our own place in the great company of the saints and living creatures, gathered around the Table of our God, hearts full of praise and thanksgiving to our Loving Creator.
We live in challenging times. We may be energized by the task of working for justice and building God’s kingdom. Or we may feel worn down by the weight of unfair expectations or unanticipated hardship. On the Feast of All Saints, let us discern the Spirit of Christ working in our lives, as He has in the lives of all the broken, mourning, and poor in spirit that have gone before us. Let us see the ‘blessedness’ of God in all those we meet and strive to carry on Christ’s work of blessing those in need. It is a great task to be sure…but one to which all the saints of God are called. If you, like me, are hesitant to be identified as a saint, perhaps this saying from a Scottish writer may speak to you: “The saints are the sinners who keep on going.”