Life in the world to come is beyond our power to imagine, for as St Paul wrote, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard what God has in store. Nevertheless, images can offer some foretaste of what lies in store, beyond this world. Today’s feast celebrates the many who have gone to heaven ahead of us. They are neither plaster saints nor gloomy ascetics, but a glorious band of decent people who have lived life with such love that they went straight to the God they love so well.
I find it interesting that we always have the beatitudes on this feast day. The beatitudes proclaim a spirituality of brokenness. When Jesus looked out on the people that he addressed in today’s Gospel what did he see? Presumably he saw shepherds, fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick, the maimed, the blind, the lepers, and the possessed – in other words a motley crowd of people, by and large, poor and oppressed, even desperate. But he saw much more. He saw blessedness, holiness, saints in his midst. The one word he used to describe them was blessed. In today’s upwardly mobile, this doesn’t make sense. Nor does it makes sense to those committed exclusively to mere horizontal living with no thought of God or the hereafter. But for the spiritually aware it makes a lot of sense. For Jesus these same poor had a lovely openness towards God. It might even have been that they had nothing else to trust in so they put their wholehearted trust in God.
The saints went “marching in” – happy to be meeting face to face with the One who always held them in the palm of his hand. It’s a stirring melody but do we really want to be part of this parade? The fee is high. If we follow the first reading it seems like we have to go through a time of great distress to the point of washing one’s robes in the blood of the lamb. In other words to be a saint one has to be prepared to suffer.
But wait! Is it really suffering that makes us saints. The second reading tells us that it is God’s love that transforms us into children of God. We may not always live up to this dignity, but, as children of God, we are God’s holy ones. Then what about suffering? It is true that sometimes in order to be faithful we will have to suffer, to put up with ridicule and even be rejected. At such times our challenge to be holy and the opposition of the world may explain much of the suffering we may have to face. Still it is God’s love and our response to that love, not suffering in itself, that makes us saints.
Today we celebrate the blessed in heaven. The great saints like Francis of Assisi, St. Therese, Ignatius of Loyola, Augustine, Paul or Thomas Merton quickly come to mind. A common ingredient in all of them is that they underwent a conversion. At a certain moment in their lives each of them heard and obeyed the words of Christ: ‘Repent and believe the Good News.’ There is clear shift from darkness to light, from selfishness to generosity, from sin to virtue. It’s not something that happened to them overnight. For many of them it was a long and painful struggle. And that’s what makes them so attractive and challenging.
As well as the well publicised saints there is a whole multitude of others that we believe are in that good place. Lot and lots of them are our friends and the older we get the longer the list! Being a saint does not strip us of our gutsy, earthy, emotional life with all its flaws and difficulties. Saints were made of the same material as ourselves. They faced the same temptations that we do. They did not have things easier than us. They just struggled harder. The saint who resists temptation knows more about its power than the sinner who submits at the very onset of temptation. Saints became saints through the choices they make.