Solemnity of All Saints: November 1, 2020
My Dear Friends in Christ,
This Sunday the Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints. In doing so, the Church, together with Christ, wishes to remind us of the goal toward which we strive as Christians as we draw near to the end of another liturgical year and set out on a new one. In accordance with that same line of thought, over the course of the next few Sundays the Gospels remind us of the need to be prepared for the coming of Christ and of the necessity to cultivate the talents God has entrusted to each one of us during the course of our earthly pilgrimage before finally celebrating the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe on the final Sunday of this liturgical year. Accordingly, we might think of today’s solemnity having a threefold meaning for us. First, it reminds us of the end for which we were created and toward which we strive, i.e., eternal communion with the Triune God through, with, and in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Second, it calls our attention to that great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) who have gone before us having made the most of their earthly pilgrimage, continually nourishing the gift of life they have been given by God, cultivating and sharpening all their faculties for their definitive encounter with Him on the other side of eternity, where the eternal embrace of Divine Love will set in perfection our likeness to Him, “for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). Finally, in order that we might reach this end of unblemished happiness, it calls us to link our lives to the long chain of exemplars who have gone before us, that is to join however imperfectly the company of the saints, who facilitate our imitation of Christ through their intercession and encourage us by their example, both when they once walked this earth and as we call their lives to mind in memory.
In the first instance, then, today’s solemnity reissues the universal call to holiness as formally taught by the Second Vatican Council. In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Council Fathers taught “that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity,” adding that “the Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and everyone of His disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consummator of this holiness of life: “Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (LG, 40). At the beginning of his famous Sermon on the Mount in chapter five of Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus assume the posture of a Jewish teacher, i.e., sitting, but not in any chair of authority (Mt. 5:1-2). Instead, he ascends a mountain, and from precisely this position which is representative of the purview of God, overlooking all of creation, sets forth what Augustine called “the perfect pattern of the Christian life” (On the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, 1.1).
This perfect pattern of the Christian life begins with the Beatitudes. Throughout the course of history, there have been various ways of articulating exactly what the Beatitudes are. It is worth mentioning three briefly as they complement one another, giving us a more complete picture. The first of these comes from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and sets forth the mirroring dynamics that will encapsulate the three understandings to be mentioned here. In the first place, Papa Ratzinger writes that “anyone who reads Matthew’s text attentively will realize that the Beatitudes present a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure” (Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 74). Ratzinger’s description of the beatitudes as a “veiled interior biography of Jesus” points to his divine nature become Incarnate, and thus what we hear and see in the Beatitudes is the manifestation of the life of God among us. A certain fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) should set in at this moment, for, if Augustine is right in calling the Sermon on the Mount the perfect pattern of the Christian life, and the beginning of this pattern is the life of God, then the call being issued here is for nothing less than the imitation of God Himself. Yet this is precisely what Israel had been called to when in the giving of the law to Moses, God ordered him “speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:1-2), a command the Divine Teacher reissues in this same sermon, only this time, from the prerogative of the Son says: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). In his letter to the Ephesians Paul teaches the same, exhorting his readers to “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).
At this point a word of caution is in order. The imitation of God through the imitation of Christ we are exhorted to today by the beatitudes should be understood in a scripturally based manner which the Fathers of the Church would later develop in conjunction with Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy. This understanding protects against the more straightforwardly moralist understanding of the imitatio Christi tradition would undergo in the Middle Ages. The difference is, that the development of this tradition tended to level down imitatio Christi to a simple replication of the acts of Christ whereas for the earlier part of the tradition, imitation of Christ meant a life of transfiguring discipleship, wherein the disciple experienced increased conformity to and participation in the life of Christ as they sought to imitate his life in their own place and time. This is precisely where the mirroring dynamics articulated by Papa Ratzinger come into play. For he says, not only do the beatitudes express the “interior biography of Jesus,” but at one and the same time, “the individual Beatitudes are the fruit of” Jesus looking “upon the disciples; they describe what might be called the actual condition of Jesus’ disciples: They are poor, hungry, weeping men; they are hated and persecuted (cf. Lk 6:20ff).” He continues, “these statements are meant to list practical, but also theological attributes of the disciples of Jesus—of those who have set out to follow Jesus and have become his family” (Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 71).
The mention of theological attributes brings us to a consideration of the thoughts of Augustine and Aquinas on the Beatitudes. For Augustine, the Beatitudes were the virtues, each of which for him are the various dispositions of love in the soul and therefore a demonstration of participation in the life of Christ who is virtue in itself, an understanding he bases on 1 Cor. 1:24 (The Catholic Way of Life, 1.13.22 & 1.15.25). However, for Augustine, participation in the life of Christ, is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, and so he pairs the gifts of the Holy Spirit with the Beatitudes, the former making the latter possible (On the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, 1.4.11-12), to the point where the virtues and Beatitudes can be thought of as fruits of the Holy Spirit (Exposition of Psalm 137.7-8). Aquinas, always the more detailed in his theological exposition, nuances this position in two ways. First, like Augustine he associates the Beatitudes with the virtues, but with the caveat that “these virtues are called divine” (Commentary on Matthew, 5 L. 2.410) due to their being produced by the action of the Holy Spirit within us, and in this sense can be called the fruits of the Spirit (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 69.1, q. 70.1, & q. 70.1.3). Second, whereas the virtues are habits perfecting powers of the soul and do not necessarily manifest themselves externally, the Beatitudes describe realized action (Summa Theologiae, I-II q. 69.1, Commentary on Matthew 5 L. 2.410-411).
The weaving together by Augustine and Aquinas of the Beatitudes and the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives makes the connection with this Sunday’s first reading clear. There, those numbered among the blessed in the Book of Revelation are “clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10). The white robes here are a symbol of baptism wherein we are gifted with the Holy Spirit who enables us to imitate Christ’s life of self-sacrificing love, the palm branches a figuring of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to undergo His sacrifice as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29). The passage from Revelation likewise highlights Aquinas’ insight, that the saints who already partake in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb are those who actively imitated Christ with the whole of their lives (Rev. 7:13-14).
That said, while the perfection of eternal happiness awaits those who so ardently pursue the imitation of Christ with their lives on the other side of eternity, because the imitation of Christ expressed by the Beatitudes is also participatory, the manifestation of the Beatitudes in an individual’s life is indicative of a proleptic participation in the life of eternal happiness. Said differently, it demonstrates that these individuals in some sense already participate in the life of heaven. This is seen in the very structure of each Beatitude. For starters, the word generally translated in English as blessed is in fact the Greek makarios, which means happy. We usually render this blessed to distinguish it from the passing emotion of happiness to instead denote a lasting state of being. Notice please, that Jesus does not say that those who follow him will be blessed, but that they already are. The promises associated with each Beatitude rather denote the consummation of the life of Beatitude wherein the blessed will share all things that can be said to belong properly to God alone and therefore His alone to give, e.g., the kingdom of heaven, the earth, comfort, satisfaction, mercy, sons of God, kingdom of heaven. What this means then, is that the living out of these Beatitudes is a veritable in-breaking of the life of Heaven, the very life of God in our own place and time, seen most perfectly in the lives of the saints.
The examples that could be listed here are almost infinite. But we could most readily associate the Beatitude of the Poor in Spirit with St. Francis, a perfect exemplar of the virtue of humility who intentionally made himself poor so as to imitate the poor Christ. In St. Augustine, who we are told spent the last of his days continually weeping as he prayed the penitential Psalms, we see the Beatitude blessed are those who mourn come to life. The healing janitor monk, St. Martin de Porres demonstrates how blessed are the meek, while Servant of God Dorothy Day and St. Oscar Romero place the beatitude of hungering and thirsting for justice on full display. In accompanying St. John Paul II to the cell of the man who shot him to offer him the forgiveness of Christ we witness mercy, and in the little way of the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux, we see a heart singularly devoted to the one thing necessary, the love of Christ. Finally, in the tireless efforts of St. Albert the Great, we see the fruits of the work of the peacemakers, and in the countless martyrs like Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, to name only two, we see the purest devotion and unity with Christ manifest itself to the world.
All of these saints and countless more beckon us to join their company starting today. Ultimately their exemplarity serves a threefold function for us. First, it puts on display the life of Beatitude in all its concrete messiness, and thereby serve as flesh and blood criteria for discernment so as to how to navigate our own pursuit of the imitation of Christ in our own time and place (Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 71; cf. 1 Jn. 3:1-2), amidst our own struggles and dealing with our own weaknesses. Secondly, via their participation in the life of Christ, they make the life and love of our God known and present to the world, and thereby give us the support and encouragement so necessary in our own pursuit for holiness, wherein we experience hurdles and setbacks just as they did. Finally, when we experience the inspiration that their lives give us, we are taught of the importance of living exemplary lives. This is precisely why Our Lord follows the Beatitudes with an exhortation to be salt and light for the world. Ultimately, the purpose of the lives of the saints, both those who have already finished the race and those of us still hurrying to the finish line is this: to let our light, which is itself a participation in the one Light (Jn. 1:9-10), “so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16). This is our vocation which we live by cultivating the Beatitudes, and in so doing, bear fruit in charity for the life of the world (Optatum Totius, 16), calling others to the perpetual felicity of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Your servant in Christ,