Friday, November 01, 2013

Blessed Children of God (All Saints Day—Cycle C )

Revelation 7:2–4, 9–14
1 John 3:1–3
Matthew 5:1–12a

The gospel reading from Matthew for today is commonly called the Beatitudes, and it occurs at the beginning of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” I was pleased when Fr. Henry asked me at our monthly clergy meeting to preach for this holy day because I wrote my thesis on Luke’s version of the sermon. But then he added, “Bill, please… please don’t read your dissertation to them.”

So at Fr. Henry’s request, you’ll be spared the pain of listening to a reading of my thesis this evening. But I am going to talk about the Beatitudes and the sermon, and what they mean for Christian living. Matthew’s sermon is often considered the basis of Christian moral teaching. Properly understood, it contains everything you need to know how to live a moral Christian life. But the beatitudes really go beyond just the basics. They teach us how to live as saints—how, in our day to day lives, we are sanctified.

The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin word for “bless,” and this word “blessed” is repeated nine times during this passage. We use the word “beatitude” for the highest form of blessedness—the form of blessedness of being in God’s presence. That’s why the Church calls a saint a beatus, refers to a saint’s beatification, or talks about being in Heaven as the Beatific vision. A beatitude, then, is simply a heavenly blessing. It’s a six-dollar word for something basic to our faith, a belief in sanctifying grace, Heaven, and eternal life.

That little vocabulary lesson is all fine and good, but look again at what Jesus says causes us to be blessed in this way. We’re blessed
  • when we’re poor in spirit
  • when we mourn
  • when we are meek
  • when we hunger and thirst
  • when we’re merciful, pure of heart, persecuted, reviled
That doesn’t sound like a good time to me. That sounds painful… even downright inconvenient. It sounds a bit like a burden. Yet Jesus says that we are blessed right now when these things happen to us. Not only when we are in God’s presence at the end of our lives, but right now when we experience these things…

And when we rejoice because of them. That part is important.

You see, experiencing poverty, mourning, revilement, and persecution are not our reward. We don’t give mercy just so that we can get it. These trials are the means of our sanctification—the way that we become saints in our own right. If we walk this path and fight this fight, we too will see the face of God. Today, All Saints’ Day, we’re celebrating those who fought the fight and won, and are now standing in God’s presence.

It’s easy in our American culture to get the idea that grace is cheap, that salvation doesn’t require sacrifice, that prosperity is God’s demonstration to the world that we are His chosen people. But scripture doesn’t give us that option, and our Catholic tradition has never told us that the road is easy.

Jesus did not tell us to pick up our gold-plated golf clubs and follow Him. That’s not a burden. Jesus told us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross.

Daily.

Not when it’s convenient or fits into our schedule but every day. Pick up that burdensome cross of mourning, persecution, meekness, hunger, and thirst; and you are blessed.

That is how we are sanctified. That is how we become holy. That is how we become saints! That is how we are beatified! Lives of challenge lead us to a life of glory. That’s what this feast day is all about.

John repeats this point in his letter. He wanted to encourage the faithful not to give up in the face of persecution and heresy. “We are God’s children now,” he says. We have not seen what it will be like in God’s presence, but we are already His children, here and now.

See? We’re blessed not because everything is perfect, but because we are God’s children.

Revelation speaks of those who survive the time of great distress, or the time of “Great Tribulation.” Revelation is talking about the Communion of Saints—those whom we celebrate with this feast today, the saints with whom we join our prayers daily and at every celebration of the Eucharist. These saints used to be just like us—right here, who experience joys, sorrows, sadness and pain. Saints don’t become saints because they are somehow impervious to suffering or shielded from temptation. They come through the path of sanctification just like you and me—through a trial of fire. But the reason the Church calls them saints is because their lives are a testimony to us of how to accept difficulty and suffering with grace—even joy—and to recognize ourselves as blessed and as God’s children.

For every saint we celebrate by name today, there are millions more who have lived silent lives glorifying God in their everyday tasks. And that is how every one of us is sanctified—not only by writing a great treatise like St. Thomas Aquinas, or by extraordinary service like Blessed Mother Teresa, but by offering our everyday lives to the glory of God.

That is the path to sanctification.

Today we celebrate this Eucharist in honor of the Communion of Saints: those great ones we know by name and the millions we don’t know who are also in God’s presence. And we pray for their intercession to aid us and the hundreds of millions of saints-in-the-making who share this earth with us now that we will all persevere, run the race to the end, and enter into God’s presence as they have done.
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