Revelation 7:2 – 4, 9 – 17
St. Matthew 5:1 – 12
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen
Today is All Saints Day, 2013. For most of us, this is a day of solemn obligation, a day when we must attend Mass. But what is All Saints Day?
We have with us yet today, a sermon from St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker (d. c. 270 A.D.) in which he declares a Feast of All Martyrs, although we do not have a date for this feast. About the year 360 A.D., the Church in Edessa began to celebrate a Feast of All Martyrs on 13 May. This day remains as All Saints with the Greek Orthodox. The first definite evidence for a 1 November observance is contained in a letter from Pope Gregory IV to the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis the Pious, urging that this day be observed as a commemoration of All Saints throughout his dominions. This was adopted in 835 A.D.
But what is All Saints Day? We have in the Book of Common Prayer 1928 and the American Missal a most wonderful group of Propers that will help us to answer that question. I would like to comment briefly on each one, not quite in their usual sequence.
Introit The Introit for All Saints begins, “Gaudeamus — Rejoice we all, and praise the Lord, celebrating a holy day in honor of all the Saints …” Gaudeamus – Rejoice we all in English, gives us a clue. This is a day of rejoicing, a celebration of the victory of the Saints that have already been received into Heaven. This is a reminder to us that there are at this very moment, souls in Heaven, souls of persons who once walked the earth just as we do. These were not “super-heroes” but simply ordinary Christians who were devoted and faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, and who have won the crown of glory.
Collect The Collect for All Saints was composed by Abp. Cranmer specifically for the BCP 1549. It reads as follows:
O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son, Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Collect is reminding us, the Church here on earth, of our unity with the Church Eternal, the Church in Heaven. We are united in the mystical body of thy Son, Christ our Lord. It is our faith, and our identification with Christ through the Church that makes us one with Him, and with all the Saints who have gone on before us.
The Collect also reminds us how they have conquered in this life when it says, “Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, …” We cannot hope to attain Heaven on our own, but we can most certainly throw it away. Godly and virtuous living in this life is a starting point. It is not sufficient, but it is necessary. And it is only through the grace of God and His Son, Jesus Christ, that we can live godly and virtuous lives here below. We pray that we may be empowered thus, so that we may eventually join the Saints in Heaven.
The Gospel The Gospel lesson is from the Sermon on the Mount, the familiar passage known to many as the Beatitudes. This is not simply a “check list” of virtues required in order to enter Heaven, but rather it is an overall description of the sort of person who will be received into Heaven. It describes the humble person who, through struggle in this life, seeks to keep their hearts pure and to live out the will of God on earth. Let me comment on just a few points, picking and choosing.
Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is a verse that is very often misread as, “Blessed are the poor,” but that is not what Christ said. The phrase, “poor in spirit” often throws us off the track, because that is not quite the way most of us speak today. To be “poor in spirit” means to be aware of our poverty before Almighty God, our wretchedness in His eyes. It is recognizing our proper position before the Lord. It does not say that the wealthy will not be blessed, although we all know that wealth has distracted many from God. Nor does it say that the poor, those poor in material things, will be blessed. Poverty has caused many to give up on God, and to seek their own way through theft, murder, and other things contrary to the Law of God. It tells us, “blessed are those who know in their hearts their proper place before God.”
Matthew 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. This has much to say to us today, a day in which filth and corruption are rampant in our society. The things that are accepted in television, radio, comedy acts, the internet, advertising, etc. today are often utterly degrading to us, and we must steel our hearts against these things. We must not be like the Pharisees of Christ’s day who maintained the outward appearance of purity (by keeping ALL of the 613 points of the Law), while their hearts were evil and corrupt. They deceived only themselves; God is not deceived.
Jesus closes this reading with these words: Matthew 5:11 Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. 12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you. The person who fits the description that Jesus has just laid down can expect to be rejected and persecuted in this world. This sort of life does not fit in with the world at large, and the world rejects it. But Jesus says very clearly, Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: this is the sort of person who will be received is Heaven, just as the Father has received those who came before Him, the Prophets.
Offertory Prayer In the Gospel, Jesus was speaking to a crowd of Jews. The Offertory Prayer for All Saints gives us an insight into the understanding of these people. It is a direct quote from the 3rd Chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon:
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; and there shall no torment touch them: in the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, but they are at peace.
To be righteous in the Jewish understanding meant to stand justified before God. They understood being justified as being found to have kept the Law, while we know that we are justified only by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross for our salvation. To be unwise meant to be one who did not know God. Thus the offertory prayer, taken directly from a pre-Christian Jewish source, means that the those that are justified, will be eternally cared for by God, protected and at peace. It says that only those who do not know God think that death is the end. Nothing has changed; these things are still just as they were then. Well, there has been one great change; we are not justified by our efforts to keep the Law, but we are justified by Jesus Christ our Lord. That is a huge change!
The Epistle The Epistle Lesson is taken from the Revelation of St. John, the 7th Chapter beginning at the second verse. This is a part of the continuing vision of Heaven given to John, and in it, he describes those who are saved: Revelation 7:9 After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; St. John is making it clear at this point that salvation is not limited to the 144,000 from Israel that had be described in the omitted verses. Rather, salvation is for all mankind, for every nation, tribe, and clan upon the earth. He begins a conversation with an Elder who tells him, Revelation 7:14b These are they that come of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. The Elder is telling St. John that these are souls that have lived lives of faith in the world, they have survived the persecutions that come with being faithful Christians, and they have been made clean by the Blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. These were once apparently ordinary people on earth, but they have persevered, they have fought the good fight and remained true. They have achieved the crown of righteousness, not at all by their own efforts (that is futility), but by the Blood of Jesus Christ, shed for each of us.
What St. John saw should be a source of great encouragement to us. God has not set an impossible task before us in order to enter Heaven. It is entirely impossible if we attempt to do it on our own, to do it our way, to use the popular phrase of today. It is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ, faith in His Body and Blood, given for us. If that faith is real, it will become evident in our lives, leading to good works. But it is not the works that save us, but only the sacrifice of Jesus. The works are simply our own assurance that our faith is real. They are not there for anyone else to see.
Post Communion Prayer Finally we come to the Post Communion Prayers, the prayers of thanksgiving offered after the Holy Communion is completed and the vessels cleansed and properly assembled. I would like to focus particularly on a Post Communion Prayer taken from the Scottish Prayer Book:
O God the King of Saints, we praise and magnify they holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, and Martyrs and for all thy righteous servants; and we beseech thee that, encouraged by their example, strengthened by their fellowship, and aided by their prayers, we may attain unto everlasting life; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This Post Communion prayer reminds us again of the overall theme of the day, namely that others who have gone on before us have indeed achieved the crown of glory, the blessedness of eternal joy, and the security of life everlasting with Jesus Christ, the Father, and the Holy Ghost. Let us rejoice for them, and take heart in our own lives. Jesus loves us, and we will be with Him, provided we persevere in the Faith.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.