The Sunday within the Octave of All Saints
6 November 2016
O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
Perhaps All Saints Day is for me like the Feast of the Transfiguration. Yes, I know, “how is a raven like a writing desk?” What I mean is that some of the fixed points in our calendar call to me the same way year after year. It’s not that I don’t find new insight into these mysteries each time I encounter them, but in the end I am drawn year after year to particular images. For the Transfiguration, I can’t help seeing and sharing with you the realisation that in that mountaintop experience the disciples are given a glimpse of the Resurrection they carry down the mountain and that sustains them on the journey to the cross. And every year, when I read the All Saints lessons I am drawn to the image of Paradise in the Revelation to St. John:
I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb .... “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Here are gathered all those who have conformed their wills with God’s will, who have been steadfast in their relationship with God (which is to say, steadfast in their faith), spreading God’s Love throughout creation, sometimes—often, even—at great personal risk. These are the ones who have so loved God—as God so loved the world—that they shone God’s light forth for all to see. In this gathering there is great joy and the trials and hardships they have encountered in being so resolute in love are now behind them and the gentle touch of the lamb on the face of each wipes away all their tears.
And it is this caring Lamb who leads them. It is remarkable that here the symbol of that most powerful creature, our leader and shepherd, takes the form of the lamb —the symbol of gentleness and mildness, of one who knows how to follow, but who will only follow the one he knows to be the true shepherd. Our shepherd is the lamb who was lead to the slaughter at the hands of cruel and ignorant men. Our shepherd is the lamb who came through the ordeal, not hating those who persecuted him, but loving them all the more. Our shepherd is the Lamb who was himself so transformed, transfigured by Love that death itself was defeated.
Indeed, it is the power of the resurrection effected by shed blood of the Lamb that has enabled the saints to stand before the throne. It is the Lamb’s supreme example of love that has inspired, energised, and, yes, transformed the saints. It is the blood of the Lamb that has washed them and made them clean and spotless, and it is the Lamb who gives them life with living water.
And who are these saints? Who are these who gather before the throne to worship and adore and love and serve not a Lord who selfishly oppresses with his power, but the Lord who is also the Lamb. The Saints, we are told, are from “every tribe and people and nation and tongue.” They are people of all sorts with no regard for wealth or education, as the capacity for love knows no human-defined boundary, but extends itself to all of us. They are all those who have loved with the Love of God, rich and poor, young and old, all genders, and from all cultures.
The sight of this vast and truly diverse host, led by the Lamb, is, I hope, an encouraging sight, because there is room for each and ever one of us in that band. Each of us is worthy to be counted among these saints. We are, after all, from all walks and conditions of life, all backgrounds, so many identities. And in and through these differences, we are nonetheless connected to God and to each other, having been created in the image and likeness of God. Each of us, then, has within ourselves, the capacity to respond in love to the transforming, self-giving Love of the Lamb.
Sainthood is not about being the biggest, the strongest, richest, most powerful person. It is about being a creature who, when it counts, can—in and through our own complex human lives—conform our wills with God's will. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages, which was perhaps the height of devotion to the saints, people’s favourite holy men and women were not the superheros, but rather the ones who seemed most human, most flawed, and were still used by God as bearers and doers of God’s will.
Over the past few weeks we have been hearing a lot about tax collectors, those Jews who worked with the Roman authorities to bring in the steady revenue that the Empire required and who made themselves rich in the process. These men were considered to be some of the most undesirable characters of the world of first-century Judea. These men were not welcome in polite company and it was unthinkable that a respectable teacher or rabbi like Jesus would interact with them, let alone break bread with them. Indeed, that’s just how the Pharisee at the temple responded to the tax collector praying by himself, off to the side.
But Jesus reverses our expectations. Jesus the lamb called to them like the shepherd looking for the one lost sheep and they heard his call and came to him. Zacchaeus was so drawn to Jesus that he climbed that sycamore tree just for a glimpse of him. Zaccaheus the tax collector was so struck by Jesus’ notice of him and Jesus’ invitation to dine with him that he was moved to give his money to the needy and to make amends for his dishonest dealings. Zacchaeus shows us how ordinary people, people who are not considered your usual saints, can respond to the call of the lamb. Zacchaeus shows how someone like you or like I—tax collectors and sinners that we are—can be numbered among the saints. He shows us how God can cooperate with anyone in his cosmic purpose of love.
Human life is complicated. Each of us has our own flaws, each of us has those places where we are most vulnerable, most likely to let ourselves and others down. We are not always up to the tasks we are set. We are not always up to the serious business of loving God and our neighbour. Nevertheless, we remain always ready and always worthy to do God’s work, because God has acted first. Each of us has been created in God’s image and likeness, and has been led by the Lamb to the living waters of Baptism into his death and Resurrection. Having been created and made new, we are already Holy—which simply and literally means “set apart.” All of us have within us the power to answer God’s call because God already gave us this power because he Loves us so much.
The Saints who stand and serve at the throne of the Lamb are before us not as examples of virtue so different from us as to make us feel inadequate to our call to ministry. They stand before us, rather, as complex human beings who, like Zacchaeus and other tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners encountered God and responded. Who saw God’s outstretched arms, responded to the invitation into that loving embrace, and who in turn shared that embrace with others.
On this All Saints Day, as we once again read and hear the vision of the saints gathered around the Lamb, I pray that in and through the complexities of our lives, we may allow God to break through. I pray that we may know the loving embrace of the one who created us, know the touch of that Lamb on our face as he wipes away our tears, and that we may share that Love with others who will feel in our touch, the touch of God.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 5 November 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume