of All Saints
Nov. 1, 2013
Rev 7: 2-4, 9-14
Matt 5: 1-12
Ursulines, Willow Drive, New Rochelle
“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” (Rev 7: 13).
In John’s vision of the heavenly court, he sees among those sealed as belonging to “the living God” 144,000 “from every tribe of the Israelites” (7:2,4) and “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue” (7:9). All this multitude wear the white robes of purity—washed clean “in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14)—and carry the palms of victory (7:9).
Who are they, one of the elders asks John. He doesn’t know, and so the elder tells him, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress” who have washed their garments white in the Lamb’s blood. That is, they have been faithful to the Lamb thru the great period of trial, the persecutions inflicted upon the churches of Asia at the end of the 1st century —the context for these prophetic visions.
How severe the persecutions of the Roman emperors were, we don’t always know. For sure, some of them were terrible and affected the entire empire. Other persecutions were sporadic and localized. We can’t even come close to guessing the number of Christian faithful who lost their property, were exiled, were imprisoned, or were executed, but we may be sure they were “a great multitude which no one could count.”
Today’s feast seems to have its origins in honoring such unknown and unnamed martyrs who couldn’t have their own commemorations and celebrations. Eventually, like the public cult of specific saintly confessors and virgins, it expanded to include all God’s holy people who have been admitted to the heavenly court.
The criterion for admission remains the same: perseverance thru “times of great distress.” And what Christian has not lived in a “time of great distress”? Surely every human being undergoes great distress in life. In many cases that comes specifically from one’s adherence to Jesus Christ, as is happening in our times in places like Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, and China, to name just four countries; as is happening in Western societies to people who resist the moral deterioration of our culture: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me” (Matt 5:11).
Others suffer “great distress” because “ they hunger and thirst for righteousness” (5:6), for the establishment of right order in the world thru respect for the rights and dignity of all people, especially of the poor and the marginalized. They strive for various social justice causes for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and are distressed grievously by human obstruction and human weakness and other reasons.
In still other cases, the “great distress” is more mundane—the ordinary tribulations of life, of illness, of career setbacks, of old age, of religious assignments we don’t especially care for, of personal conflicts not our own fault, etc. We all face those in one way or another at one time or another. Our faithfulness to Jesus then calls us to deal with them as he did: “Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus, etc.” (Phil 2:5-11).
It’s not easy to persevere with equanimity, with humility, with obedience to God’s will thru all life’s distresses. As you know, “old age isn’t for sissies.” So on today’s feast we’re invited to call upon the saints, those who have “survived the time of great distress” and share in Christ’s victory over suffering and death and sin, to call upon them for “an abundance of reconciliation” with God (Collect), i.e., for the pardon of our failures and a closer unity of heart and mind with the “ever-living God” whom we seek, for whom we “earnestly long,” as the Collect says.
The Latin text of the Collect indicates that we’re invoking the saints’ assistance before God for more than “reconciliation” or the forgiveness of our sins. Noted liturgical scholar Fr. Anscar Chupungco has a new book out that looks at the collects of the revised Missal. He writes about today’s Collect:
What does “abundance of the reconciliation” mean? The Latin is tuae propitiationis abundantiam or “richness of your mercy.” Propitius and propitiatio are some of the oldest Latin terms frequently employed to denote the human sentiment of trust in the goodness of God. The adjective propitius is used so that God will be favorably disposed to grant the petition. Propitiatio often refers to God’s kindhearted disposition. Thus, “reconciliation” does not adequately render the sense of the Latin word. The following is a literal translation of the oration: “Almighty, ever-living God, who willed that we honor in one feast the merits of all your Saints, we pray that, by the intercession of so many [the ‘great multitude which no one could count’!], you will grant us the abundance of your mercy for which we long.” The sense of the phrase is ‘With a great multitude of saints praying for us, we can long for God’s outpouring of mercy.’”
Fr. Anscar continues with a “homiletic-catechetical note”:
According to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “The church has also included memorial days of the martyrs and other saints in the annual cycle. . . . By celebrating the days on which they died, the church proclaims the paschal mystery in the saints who have suffered and have been glorified with Christ. It proposes them to the faithful as models who draw all people to the Father through Christ, and through their merits it begs for God’s favor” (104).
To such an exalted doctrine the Collect for All Saints affixes a consideration quite human in its motivation. We trust that God will listen to our prayer, because a countless number of saints surround God in the heavenly court, all interceding on our behalf. There is strength in numbers.
So God offers us more than his mercy in the case of our sins, however necessary that is. He offers his help, his assistance in many forms as we undergo the various distresses of our lives, trying to be faithful disciples of Jesus. And the beg all his saints to intercede for us until that day when we will be marching with them into the heavenly court.
 Anscar J. Chupungco, The Prayers of the New Missal: A Homiletic and Catechetical Companion (Collegeville: Liturgical, 2013), citing pp. 115-116.