The feast which we celebrate today is something of an historical accident, it began as the dedication of a chapel to All Saints in St Peter’s in Rome by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century, but it gives us a chance to consider saints, what they are, and what it means to be one. In short there are two things which we need to know about all the saints: that there are many of them and that they are all on our side.
Though, at first glance, the example of the saints and their number can also appear unnerving, even off-putting: when we consider the example of the saints, of lives lived in unity with God’s will and purpose we can begin to feel that we humble Christians with our ordinary hum-drum lives and simple faith cannot live up to the example set by the saints and that heaven has no place for us.
But on this feast of All Saints, I would like to begin by considering the saints themselves. Many people, if you were to ask them what they thought about a Saint would probably reply that they are better than the rest of us, but they somehow earned their reward amongst the church triumphant, but this is quite wrong. No one can earn their way into heaven, and the church has never subscribed to a doctrine of salvation through works. This is not to say that a Saint is simply a sinner, revised and edited. The lives and examples of the saints show us the way to Heaven because they reflect the gospel and the person of Jesus Christ. All of us, in our baptism, receive the grace of God, his free gift whereby our souls are infused with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. We all of us receive the same grace as all the Saints Triumphant, we are given, through our baptism all that we need to get to heaven, through the free gift of God.
We as Christians need to follow the example of the Queen of the Saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and like her say yes to God, and conform our lives to His will. We have to accept the divine invitation, cooperate fully with the divine will, and live out our faith in our lives.
It is no surprise then that Jesus begins his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount with the phrase, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. To be poor in spirit is to lack a sense of one’s own importance, it is the exact opposite of feeling self-satisfied or rejoicing in the fact that we have attained wealth or status or anything that is seen as important in the eyes of the world. The kingdom of God, as proclaimed by Jesus turns our human expectations on their head. Thus, the fact that we do not count ourselves worthy of a place means that we are in fact worthy of one.
We are used nowadays to a ‘go-getting’ world where you are deemed to have succeeded by a confidence bordering on arrogance, where all that matters is your own success. Whereas, in the kingdom of heaven those who are meek, and gentle and kind, those who think about others before themselves will be rewarded in a way which exceeds their expectations – Jesus’ vision of the world lived in accordance with the will of God does turn our understanding upside down.
To be poor in spirit is to be humble, to know that you’re a sinner, that you are no better than anyone else, and that you need God's love and mercy. It is the exact opposite of pride, that foundational sin, whereby humanity thinks it knows better than God, and wants to go its own way. It is not masochism or self-pity, but instead a recognition of our reliance upon God and God alone. If the way to salvation is narrow then the door itself is low down, and only through humility may we stoop to enter. That is why Jesus says this first, because those who are poor in spirit, those who are humble and know their need of God, can live out lives in accordance with God's will.
The church has always been a school for sinners; we will all of us get it wrong, fail miserably, but hopefully love and forgive one another, and ask God for forgiveness, remembering that he is loving and merciful. In all this, we can be sure that the world will not understand us.
We as Christians have to practice what we preach, and live out our faith in our lives, so that it can become something infectious (in a good way) and bring about the transformation of the world we as Christians long for (by the grace of God).
If we are courageous, kind, and humble, then we can give the world an example to follow, as opposed to the violence, greed, corruption, and a shallow cult of celebrity, which seem to characterise our modern world. We can truly offer an alternative, which shows that we are in the world but not of it, and in which the light of the Gospel will shine.
Thus when we consider what constitutes proper behaviour for human beings and how we should live out our faith in our lives the picture of the saints in heaven becomes a far less off-putting one. What God requires of us, and what the saints have demonstrated was their willingness to do what God asks of us, no more and no less.
So let us, on this feast of All Saints, be filled with courage, ready to conform our lives to God’s will and live out our baptism and our faith in the world – as this is what we are called to do, and our reward will be great in heaven.