By FATHER DONALD DILGER
The Solemnity of All Saints (Replaces 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time This Year)
First Reading: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; Response: Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; Second Reading: I John 3:1-3; Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12a
Today’s first reading is an excerpt from the Book of Revelation. This document can easily rank as the strangest literature in the New Testament. The author is a Christian prophet named John, not the same as the author of the Gospel of John. He is in exile for his Christian faith on the Island of Patmos, a small island southwest of the coast of Turkey, “on account of the word of God and testimony of Jesus.” Small islands in the Aegean Sea were used as places of banishment in Roman times. The approximate time of composition is late in the reign of Emperor Domitian, the mid-nineties of the first Christian century. Some Christians seem to have been martyred in the eastern provinces of the empire, and worse was expected. Domitian styled himself “Lord and God, and emperor worship was enforced especially in the east, for example, Asia Minor, where John is located. A background of religious and economic harassment and persecution of Christians motivates John to write. His purpose is not to foretell the future in any detail, but to encourage Christians to persevere until a hoped for intervention of God takes place. This intervention would bring victory to Christians and annihilation to their persecutors. All of this is expressed in vision after vision in a style of literature called “apocalyptic,” meaning “revealing.” Characteristic of apocalyptic literature is extensive use of symbols to depict a hoped for final intervention of God in favor of Christians. In apocalyptic literature the victory is always said to be “soon.”
In today’s vision, four angels are standing at the corners of the earth holding back the winds so that they do not blow violently over land, sea and trees. Another angel comes out of the East holding God’s own seal (stamp). The angel commanded the four angels to restrain the damaging winds until God’s seal (stamp) can be put on the foreheads “of the servants of God.” John got this idea from Ezekiel 9. The angel and helpers sealed 144,000, 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Another vision kicks in. John sees a multitude too great to be counted “from all nations, races, peoples, languages.” These formed a choir standing around the throne of God and the Lamb of God chanting praise, glory and prostrating themselves in worship. An elder comes up to John and asks, “Who are these people?” They are “the ones who survived the time of great distress, who washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. It would take a volume to ferret out the meaning of these visions. When, however, this reading becomes part of the liturgy of All Saints, the white-robed multitude from every nation, race and language proclaims the universality of the Church and symbolizes all the Saints.
The Responsorial Psalm 24 continues the theme of universality. “The earth and everything in it belong to the Lord.” As above in the first reading, a question is asked, “Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord or stand in his holy place?” The answer is not as advanced in theology as is the Book of Revelation. Therefore, no washing of robes making the white in the blood of the Lamb, which may be a symbol of baptism of water or blood or both, but simply, “One whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain.” The Lord blesses such.
The second reading is from the First Letter of John. Its language and ideas are so similar to the Gospel of John that attributing the Letter to the same author is a safe conclusion. The author speaks of God’s love that has made it possible for us to be not only called children of God but to be children of God. The context of this reading: an argument about which group in the Christian community are children of God and which ones are children of the devil. The latter are identified in the context as those who claim they can sin freely because they have the seed of God.
Matthew gathered oral traditions and written traditions about Jesus. He combined these with his superb knowledge of the Scriptures (the Old Testament), to compose five great sermons which he attributes to Jesus instructing his disciples and others. The first of these is the Sermon on the Mountain. Crowds followed Jesus, so he went up a mountain and sat down. His disciples gathered around him. This is the setting for the nine Beatitudes, or Blessings, which form our gospel reading for the Solemnity of All Saints. The beatitudes can serve as preamble to the rest of the Sermon on the Mountain which teaches Christians how to live the Beatitudes. Jesus upholds the poor, the grieving, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, the falsely accused. From the point of view of the secular world this may not make sense. The values of what the gospels call the kingdom of God differ from those of the world, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways,” says God through the prophet. See Isaiah 55:8. In the secular world, the poor, the weak and the meek get clobbered. They are the first to get social justice benefits cut, while those with power and money first take care of themselves.
Peacemakers are often ridiculed. The poor get foreclosure. Those who took advantage of them and are caught at it, get golden parachutes to ease them into wealthy retirement. The merciful are often seen as weak and are despised for it. Those who mourn over the sins of society are persecuted. For example, those who take public action against providers of abortion are screamed at and ridiculed. If a society is measured by its concern for its weakest members, how does our society measure up? What can be seen as an alternative to a Christian way of life? Bubba in a pick-up truck, shotgun across the rear window, a bumper sticker: “Guns, guts, and God made America great?” One may ask, “Whose guts?” Would it be the holocaust our ancestors perpetrated against native Americans and Americans of African descent? The Beatitudes give us a program for bringing the kingdom of God to this earth. That is the meaning of the petition, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it (already) is in heaven.” The remainder of the Sermon on the Mountain instructs us how.