How does your family celebrate? My siblings and parents stay not too far away so, pre Covid, we tended to get together as a family for birthdays, big celebrations and over the Christmas and Easter periods. There was always food, there was usually laughter and, if it was a birthday, there was definitely singing of a particular song.
I realise that, in that respect, I’m fortunate. Not everyone has family members who live close enough for such get-togethers. Other people, for various reasons, perhaps opt to celebrate with their chosen family rather than their relatives.
Of course, the current restrictions on visiting other households mean that such celebrations are simply out of the question for everyone at the moment. And even if we were able to gather, singing anything would still be out of the question.
It is therefore all the more significant that our service this weekend is a family celebration of a sort. We might not be given to thinking of All Saints Day in those terms, especially if we normally conceive of saints as only those giants of the faith to whom the church has formally given the title. However, today’s readings, even though they do not use the word ‘saints’, are a good reminder of what the word means.
The reading from Revelation gives us a picture that we could describe as a family gathering in heaven. It’s a gathering with shouting and singing, celebration and thanksgiving. But it’s a gey kenspeckle crowd — there are people ‘from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’; there are angels and elders and the mysterious ‘living creatures’.
Clearly, this isn’t a standard celebration. It seems to be unfettered by time and space or by any ethnic or linguistic barriers, let alone any public health regulations. Nor is it the celebration of a family in the usual sense. It is a chosen family but not in the same way that of a group of friends might be, having banded together around a shared experience or interest: this is a family that, as the Epistle reminds us, is chosen by God:
‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.’
(1 John 3:1)
The reading from Revelation, therefore, gives us a family celebration with the pater familias at its heart: at the centre of the picture is God on the throne, with the children of God gathered round, like a family gathered round to celebrate their father on his birthday.
Revelation was written not as a coded guidebook to some distant future but as a comfort for Christians undergoing very real persecution, the kind of persecution that threatens martyrdom. It was written to say ‘God is still in charge’.
Perhaps we are to understand the multitude as what the Te Deum calls ‘the white-robed army of martyrs’. The ranks of this army continue to grow, as the news from Nice this week reminds us. But this great crowd doesn’t have to be read in that way. They are, simply, described as the ones ‘who have come out of the great ordeal’ (Rev 7:14). That is, they are the ones who have stayed the course, who have not given up despite everything that Rome threw at them. They are the ones who have held fast to their hope in Christ, remained secure in their identity as children of God.
For all its ethic, cultural and linguistic diversity, this great multitude must have some family resemblances beyond its fortitude to knit it together and show that these people are spiritual relatives. That is where we come to the Gospel reading. In these short verses, so well-kent, Jesus lays out what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God. It’s a list of the family traits of God’s children, if you like.
Each of these short pronouncements is headed by the word ‘Blessed’. It’s one of those terms many of us struggle to get our heads round. The Greek word used here, makarios, is often translated as simply ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’. If we think of it in those terms, we have a set of statements by Jesus that, not untypically for him, turns all our expectations on their heads: ‘Happy are those who mourn’. Eh? ‘Happy are those who are persecuted’. You kidding me?
But there is more to this word than mere happiness or good fortune. One commentator I read suggests that we read the Beatitudes through the lens of Psalm 1. This is one of three Psalms that focus on the law of the Lord and it famously begins:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked (Ps 1:1, NIV)
Apparently, there are two Hebrew words that we render with the verb ‘bless’, one which means ‘to be on the right way’ and one which means ‘to bow down’. The one used in Psalm 1 is the one that means ‘to be on the right way’.
If we read the Beatitudes in that light, we can see Jesus as saying, ‘You are on the right path when you are poor in spirit, when you mourn, when you are meek, when you hunger and thirst for righteousness’ and so forth. That makes a lot of sense of a puzzling phrase. But it doesn’t soften the challenge of Jesus’s words in the slightest.
No family lives up to its best all the time. We, the family of God, are no exception. We try to follow the path that Jesus lays out for us but we often fail. That’s why the confession and absolution are an essential part of our worship. Nonetheless, that path — and our efforts to follow it, however stumbling they may be — are the family resemblance that binds us together with our siblings in Christ throughout the world and in the world beyond.
To be a saint is, in fact, simply to be one of those people, to be a child of God. Throughout the New Testament, ‘the saints’ simply refers to the church. The saints are the ones who are holy not because they have particularly great faith but because they are set apart, have set themselves apart, for God. They are the ones who hear and heed Jesus’ call to follow the path that he lays out in the Beatitudes and demonstrates through his life, death and resurrection.
We are not facing imminent arrest and execution because of our faith. But we are nonetheless going through a difficult trial as we struggle to navigate the continuing pandemic. Our response to that trial is unlikely to confer on any of us even unofficial sainthood — not being Roman Catholics is a bit of a barrier to the official version! But we can nonetheless be saints as we follow Christ and can join with the saints who have gone before in standing before the throne of God and the Lamb as we worship.
As we celebrate those whose lives and witness have inspired us, let us remember not only the great heroes of faith but those whose quiet faithfulness to the way of Christ has nourished us and continues to nourish us. Let us celebrate too the joy of having one another.
Questions for Reflection/Discussion
- Whose life and witness has most inspired your Christian life?
- Which of the Beatitudes do you relate to most and which do you find most challenging? Why is this?
- How does conceiving of All Saints Day as a ‘family celebration’ feel to you? Is it helpful or a hindrance? Does it change the way you think about the day?