1 John 3. 1 – 3
Matthew 5. 1 – 12
All Saints’ Sunday
Today we celebrate all the holy saints of God – and today the Church gives us as our Gospel reading the ‘Beatitudes’ – so called because of that word ‘blessed’ that keeps coming up.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that in the official process of recognising a saint, before a holy person is canonized, they must first be ‘beatified’ – recognised as a ‘blessed’ one.
As we look at this passage today we can see all these different virtues that Jesus highlights reflected in the lives of many saints. We might have our favourite ones: one of mine is St Cuthbert, who certainly was poor in spirit and humble in heart. Our own St Margaret was persecuted for righteousness’ sake, in her martyrdom.
In these and all the saints, we can see those who have lived the life of the Beatitudes so fully that they have been transformed by them; they have literally become ‘beatified.’
But there’s a problem. In many parts of the Church, that’s as far as it goes today: remembering the pious example of people who lived a long time ago.
All the saints that are recognised as such in our traditional calendar lived in the distant past. We’ve only added one of our own since the Reformation: King Charles the First. (But you have a hard time finding many churches who keep the Feast of Charles, King and Martyr, these days.)
The Roman Catholic Church adds new saints to the calendar from time to time: even some former Anglicans, such as St John Henry Newman, for example.
But have a look at the calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church, and you’ll see that more than 2000 new saints and martyrs have been added in just the last two decades. This is as that Church learns more of the terrible suffering that Christians endured under the Bolsheviks, about a hundred years ago.
It’s too easy today to see the saints as belonging only to a romantic, mythologized past – as if holiness and sainthood are only things to be found in history books.
But in other parts of the worldwide Church, the faces of the saints are not just known as cracked paint on old church walls: they are faces people recognise, from places they know.
In the case of the new saints of Russia, their grandchildren are worshipping in the pews, their photos are found in secret police files. And crucially, they’re not just remembered as good examples, but are celebrated as a living part of the Church’s present – and its future. These saints bring new people to the faith.
And I think that’s a good way to approach this Gospel reading. We might think of the saints of the past when we read the Beatitudes today, but of course Jesus wasn’t talking about the saints when he said it. There hadn’t been any, yet.
He wasn’t talking about people of the past, or the saints of the future: I believe he was talking about himself, right there in the present, amongst them.
Look again at the Beatitudes from that point of view, and we see that they describe Jesus. They show how he lived as one of us.
He was poor in spirit, and meek; he hungered and thirsted for righteousness; he was merciful, pure, he was peace itself. And of course he was persecuted and reviled for the righteousness he embodied, to the point of death.
The Beatitudes aren’t a list of commands, or even an instruction manual for achieving a holy state. They are a description of the life of Jesus. And they’re given to us that we may enter into that same life ourselves.
They are an invitation to become like Christ, and to share in the blessedness of his life. A translation of the New Testament I often read, renders it as ‘blissful.’ “How blissful those who hunger and thirst for what is right, for they shall feast.” [D. B. Hart.]
As we heard in that tiny little bit of St John’s first letter, we are not called simply to imitate Christ, but in fact become so like him that we become God’s children, as he is: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
Christ lives to intercede for us in heaven with all his fellow children of God, caught up in the worship and prayer of heaven. We appeal to the saints as those who have truly become like Christ, who are close to him now in this blissfulness, and see his glory revealed.
When in the fullness of time we are gathered up with the saints and take our place with Christ, “we will see him as he is,” and “we will be like him,” says St John.
Because we have this great hope, we work now to “purify ourselves, just as he is pure.” We seek to become like him now on earth, as far as we are able, in living in this blessed, blissful way.
Christ invites us to become like him – not just in remembering his example – but in joining him in his work of renewal and recreation that continues right now, and for all time.
So as we read and reflect upon this Gospel again, let us think of the ways in which we can become more like Christ in the world. What is it in our way of living that needs purifying, or humbling? Where may we be peacemakers, in our families or communities? Where are we called to stand up for what is right, even at cost to ourselves?
As Pope Francis recently said, “To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.” We are all called to this blessed, blissful way of life, and we are all given the power to do it, as one of God’s children. May that be our commitment, this All Saints’ Day. Amen.