Sanctuaries of Holiness
Solemnity of All Saints. fr John Patrick Kenrick examines the nature of sainthood.
Today we may for once delight in our ignorance, in the fact that we simply have no idea just how many saints there will be. Butler’s Lives of the Saints has a list of over 2,500 but taken together the Christian saints of both east and west are said to number over 10,000. These include not only those formally declared to be saints but also those, chiefly in the first millennium, who were reputed to be holy. Great as this number may seem it is still small compared to the 144,000 servants of God mentioned in the book of the Apocalypse. And that number – which really stands for a vast multitude – must surely be far exceeded by the actual number of those in heaven, and who are therefore considered saints. If there have been about 46 billion people born in the last two thousand years alone one might expect the final tally of the saints to be simply mind boggling! And the number of the saints is growing all the time!
On All Saints Day it is this absolutely vast multitude, beyond our ability to count, that we are celebrating. It is a reminder of the sheer scale of God’s providence. Today we are not so much celebrating what human beings have achieved as celebrating the fruit of divine providence and the inevitable triumph of God’s love for humanity. St John speaks of the love that the Father has lavished on us and it is this love that achieves the likeness of God in us.
Scripture tells us that holiness is in the first place a characteristic of God. It is God who is holy, set apart. Not only set apart by human designation but more fundamentally set apart; God is essentially ‘other’ and must be seen over and against His Creation.
In both Jewish and Christian belief, God has embraced what he has made and in this embrace rendered everything holy. By virtue of its divine authorship created matter can even be a channel for God’s sanctifying power. In human beings that holiness becomes a sharing in God’s own holiness through Christ, our brother.
If in celebrating His saints we are primarily celebrating God’s achievement rather than theirs we are nevertheless drawing attention to the only human achievement that matters, namely conformity to the will of God, the mind of Christ. In his first letter St Peter echoed the OT call to be holy in imitation of God. It is in anticipation of this conformity that St Paul and others refer also to the Christian community on earth as ‘saints’.
It might appear that the saints in heaven are simply exemplary models for us to imitate and that we naturally look to them as our teachers celebrating their benevolence, their wonder working powers or perhaps their ascetic discipline and rejection of material attachments. In fact the relationship between the two groups of saints, those in heaven and those on earth, is a family relationship. We are one body in Christ and they care for us far more than we could care for anyone on earth.
So in celebrating ‘all saints’ we both acknowledge the many unnamed saints in heaven and also recognize that in baptism we ourselves have been set apart, established as sanctuaries of God’s presence. God invites each of us to grow in this holiness.
What is it then that makes a saint? The Beatitudes may appear to be a sort of practical guide to this holiness. Surely Jesus is telling us that if we are gentle, if we hunger for what is right and are merciful, if we are always pure and strive to be the peacemakers then white robes and victory palms are within our grasp? Isn’t that all that anyone needs to do to achieve beatitude? Not quite. These qualities, as he tells us, are indeed the fruits and expectations of discipleship. But the source of beatitude is Jesus himself. The crowds seated before Him are indeed blessed – and if they are attending to the Word of God that Word cannot fail to bear fruit in them. They cannot see their holiness – but the Son of God can already see Himself in them.
Readings: Apocalypse 7:2-4,9-14|1 John 3:1-3|Matthew 5:1-12