Saturday, 1 November 2008

All Saints Year A

All Saints Day was originally observed as All Martyrs. Pope St. Boniface IV (608-615) on 13th May AD610 re-buried the bones of many martyrs in a Church dedicated to the Mother of God and all the Holy Martyrs which he restored and rebuilt from an ancient Roman temple dedicated to "all gods", the Pantheon. About a hundred years later, Pope Gregory III (731-741) consecrated a new chapel in the basilica of St. Peter to all saints (not just to the martyrs) on November 1, and he fixed the anniversary of this dedication as the date of the feast. A century after that, Pope Gregory IV (827-844) extended the celebration to the entire Church.

Before the conversion of Constantine, Christians suffered severe persecution. So, the Church honoured the early witnesses who refused to deny Christ, even when this denial might have saved their own lives, or the lives of their children and families. The Greek word for witness is “Marturion”, from which we derive the word “martyr”. Whilst it remains true of what Tertullian says, that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”, still the Church needed to recognise those whose faith was exemplary but were not martyred and this explains why All Martyrs became All Saints. There are thousands and thousands of not only martyrs but also saints whose names are known to God alone and today we remember them in a special way. They live ordinary but holy lives. In fact, if you look at the Missal approved by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland and you will find a commemoration of All Saints of Ireland on 6th Nov. The Jesuits celebrate All Jesuit Saints and Blesseds on 5th Nov. These two celebrations show that for every saint that we commemorate publicly, there are thousands of others known only to God.

All Saints is important on at least two accounts. First of all, since not everyone will shed blood, so All Saints is a reminder that many of us are called to white martyrdom through which we die a thousand deaths to our pride, our selfishness, our greed, our laziness, our anger—in short, our sins as we plough through the daily sacrifices called life. The path to sanctity does not lead to blood but it always passes through the Way of the Cross, the way of self-denial, the way of prolonged suffering. The Saints are models of perseverance. "They have come out of the great tribulation", one reads in Revelation, "they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rv 7:14). But, people sometimes give excuses that holiness is for “women or softies”. [1] In reality, it’s far too challenging that many dare not embrace it. They dare not embrace holiness because they are afraid of failure. But, the Saints, and we have many of them who do not possess stellar character, are proofs that no one is ever so useless that one is outside the vocation to sanctity. We should aim for sanctity. Why?

St Bernard’s response to a question will help us in clarifying the 2nd point. When asked “Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this Solemnity, mean anything to the Saints”? his response was simply, “The Saints have no need of honour from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs.... But, I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning”. (Disc. 2, Opera Omnia Cisterc. 5, 364ff.) What is this yearning but a yearning to be like them, the Saints? This was the experience of St Ignatius as he lay in his bed recuperating from a shattered leg. “If St Francis of Assisi or St Dominic did this, I can surely do better than this”. The meaning of the Solemnity is that looking at the Saints, we too yearn to live in God and with God. Sanctity inspires sanctity. Thus, hagiography or the “Lives of the Saints” is a valuable aid to this path of sanctity.

But, one of the problems that we face today is that our models and examples are taken over by music or movie stars. I was listening to Justin Timberlake’s attempt at African-American rapping on “Where is the love?”. The group, whilst lamenting the lack of love, was proposing how we ought to love. [2] At that moment, it struck me that we suffer a broken connexion somewhere. How so? We believe in the Communion of Saints and yet there seem to be a lack of interests in the lives of canonised saints—who are certainly models of what “love” is or how best we can live our lives. You might think that I have something against the music or movie stars but I haven’t because at the WYD in Sydney they played a song by Stacie Orrico:
I've got it all, but I feel so deprived. I go up, I come down and I'm emptier inside. Tell me what is this thing that I feel like I'm missing. And why can't I let it go. There's gotta be more to life... Than chasing down every temporary high to satisfy me. Cause the more that I'm... Tripping out thinking there must be more to life. Well it's life, but I'm sure... there's gotta be more. Than wanting more.
The lyrics hit the nail on the head because most music and movie stars provide us with a model or an ideal which does not take us far enough or if you, like close enough to heaven. Their ideals fall short of our Christian vocation which is to be holy. That is why Staccie Orrico says that something is missing and which St Bernard calls the yearning. And in fact, if you think about it, the lack of vocation to priestly and religious life can be traced to this loss of models amongst the young. Life is not challenging enough or the rewards are just too temporary and too earthly. You wonder why I bring in the music or movie stars. One of my altar servers has for his mobile phone ringtone, a song which has as its first word a four-letter word spelt with “F”. Imagine, one minute he’s serving God and the next minute, when his phone rings, the first word you hear starts with “F”. I asked him if he thought our politicians were crooks and he answered without 2nd thoughts: Yes. I asked him why? Because they promise one thing but do another. I asked him: What about you? You serve God but your ringtone says something else? He was caught. But, I am not singling out any of the servers because every one of us here suffers from this broken connexion between what we profess with our lips and how we live our lives. A lady came to me for confession. At the end, I said, “Go and offer your suffering to God and pray for the conversion and salvation of priests and religious. She said, “You don’t need that as much as we do”. I said, many of us priests and religious profess to love God with our lips but our hearts are furthest away from God. All Saints reminds us that our entire life is an effort to bridge the gap between what we profess and how we live—to fulfil the yearning that we have been made for.

That is a meaning of the Communion of Saints we profess. All Saints and All Souls so close together because they remind us that the Church is not separated by time and space. At the altar, the Church triumphant—the Saints, Suffering—the Souls in Purgatory and Militant—we who are labouring here on earth, are gathered around the Lord in offering the perfect to the Father. We can ask our brothers and sisters to help us imitate and strive to respond with the same generosity with which they did when they walked the earth. In particular, we call upon Mary, Mother of the Lord and mirror of all holiness that she, the All Holy, may help us to be faithful disciples of her Son Jesus Christ! Amen.
[1] They say it through statements like “Church is for old women with nothing to do”.
[2] In a way, their lamentation was actually a proposal on how we should love. Every “description” of a negative situation could also be a prescription of a positive possibility.