02 Nov 2020

Livestreamed from St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, Sunday 1 November 2020

All Saints is not really the feast of all saints. It is not a celebration of those ‘living saints’ who are among us, transparent with God’s grace, demonstrating remarkable virtue. Nor is it a celebration of those becoming saints, whom St Paul dared call ‘saints’ already.[1] No, All Saints is not about living saints.

But it would be strange to say it is the Feast of All Dead Saints. That’s because, although they have died, we do not believe the saints are dead. In our creeds we profess our faith in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Far from being dead, then, we believe the saints are more alive in heaven than they ever were on earth. Instead of the Feast of All Dead Saints, today is the Feast of All Super-living Saints, the Ever-living Saints!

Though Paul was happy to use the word ‘saint’ to describe every Christian – for we are all hopefully saints-in-the-making – most of us would be uncomfortable being called a saint. Partly such diffidence reflects a proper humility: we know our weaknesses and failings; we still have a lot of work to do, or God does, to ready us for heaven. Most of that will happen in this life, we trust; but some may still be required in Purgatory. But we sense we are, at this stage, not yet ready for heaven, not yet perfected.

A second reason why people might be slow to talk or think about heaven is that we frankly don’t know much about it. It is beyond our experience. Sure, there are many glimpses of the saints in heaven in the Bible. Christ, we know, returned from the dead and that is a promise to us (1Cor ch. 15 etc.). But what it means for Him to be “seated at the right hand of the Father in glory” and what the afterlife will be like for us is rather mysterious. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”[2] Some things are beyond our present understanding or articulation. Heaven and the life of the saints might be largely in this category, and anything we did say about them more distracting than revealing.

Philippe de Champaigne, St Augustine of Hippo (1645), Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Another reason people might be reluctant saints is that they think it’s just too hard to live as a saint. “Make me chaste,” the young Augustine prayed, “but just not yet.” Being a mediocre mix of good and bad can seem enough for now. Few of us can be saints in the full-on sense all the time. And as long as we repent in time to scrape into the back rows of the heavenly cinema, it’s enough. I’ll come back to that…

But let me consider here a fourth reason many people are disinclined to be saints: they think sanctity is boring. Pop culture tells us that to be in heaven is to sit on a cloud forever, all staring in the one direction, playing harps and singing hymns all day – all very tedious. But Christian faith insists that in heaven we are in perfect peace, eternal rest, totally fulfilled, and not because we’ve lowered the bar on what satisfies us. To heaven we will bring all that is best about us, restored and purified, and we will all be more, not less (LG 48-51; CCC 1023-29 etc.). Instead of being tedious, the life of the saints is, as Pope Benedict explained, “a supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality”. It is “like plunging into the ocean of infinite love… life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”[3]

Fifthly, pop culture often suggests that in the afterlife we cast off our bodies like old clothes and leave the material universe behind, becoming ghosts or angels. But that would be to do us a violence. Without bodies we would no longer be human beings at all; life in heaven would be a diminishment rather than an enrichment. No, in the resurrection our bodies are glorified like Christ’s. Though walls and doors, time and space no longer obstructed Him, yet the Risen Lord could be touched and could eat: He was embodied. So we do not abandon the material world for the spiritual or wake up on a cloud after all else has been destroyed: there will be a new heaven and a new earth, of which our own bodies will be part.[4]

Detail from Fra Angelico, The Last Judgment (1431), Museum of San Marco, Florence

So if a lot of what pop culture tells us about heaven is misleading, how are we best to imagine that ‘blessed’ state? Fra Giovanni di Fiesole, known to posterity as Fra Angelico, was a 15th-century Dominican friar, theologian and artist, beatified by Pope St John Paul II and declared patron of Christian Artists. Amongst his extensive corpus are many versions of the communion of saints. In some angels and saints converse, affectionately embrace or even dance amidst a paradise of music, flowers, laughter and sheer beauty.

Fra Angelico, The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (1423), National Gallery London

Far from being homogenised, Angelico’s saints bring their histories with them, told in their physiognomies and costumes, now glorified but still individualised. They express different personalities and look in different directions, some contemplative, some more active, some deep in conversation or focused on something that interests them. All are at home in the scene, for heaven is that long-promised homecoming (Jn 14:2-4; 2Cor 5:1; Phil 3:20). Here loved ones are reunited, all our deepest longings are fulfilled: our craving for love, for truth, for beauty, for goodness, for peace, in a world without alienation, discord or frustrated desire, without sickness, suffering and death, no more grief or tears (Isa 25:8; Rev 7:17; 21:4 etc.).

There is so much to be said about that happy place that is heaven, that blessed state that is being a saint. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought spends 7.5 million years calculating “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything” and that answer is, comically, 42; unfortunately no-one remembers what the question is. So let me tell you: the ultimate question is how to get to heaven?

Detail from Cosimo Rosselli, Sermon on the Mount (1480), Sistine Chapel, Vatican

The answer to that question is the meaning of life. The answer is not 42. The answer is to know and love God, neighbour, self. To keep those ten words or commandments that are the best ways to love God and the things of God, family, life, love, truth, persons, the gifts of this earth and work of human hands. To live those beatitudes Jesus declared in today’s Gospel (Mt 5:1-12), which are life in the kingdom of God. To love one another as Christ loved us. And to worship in spirit and in truth, which at its best is a foretaste of eternal life, the heavenly liturgy, the eschatological banquet, the communion of saints (cf GS 38). Everything the Church does is for getting us to heaven.

Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet? No, Lord, fit me for heaven right now. I may only have one more decade, one more year, one more minute on this earth (cf. 1Thess chs 4 & 5). So make a saint of me urgently, immediately, Lord. Inspire and enable me to do extraordinary things or to do ordinary things with extraordinary grace – in my family, friendships, workplace, studies, leisure, wherever, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death. My loved ones too, my extended family, my parish, my colleagues, my countrymen and me: we are all restless, Lord, until we rest in You. So ready us, sweet Jesus, to find our rest in You. And in Your good time, Lord, join me to the communion of All Saints in heaven, where I shall be most truly myself and live most fully – and for evermore! Amen.


Before Genuflecting

Because current circumstances continue to impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite those who are joining us by live-streaming to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces of sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones, of yourselves and of our world.

[1]     Rom 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:26,31; 16:2,15; 1Cor 1:2; 6:1,2; 14:33; 16:1,15; 2Cor 1:1; 8:4; 9:1,12; 13:12; Eph 1:1,15,18; 2:19; 3:8,18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18; Phil 1:1; 4:22; Col 1:2,4,12,26; 1Thess 3:13; 2Thess 1:10; 1Tim 5:10; Philem 1:5,7.

[2]     Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus (1921), Proposition 7.

[3]     Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi: Encyclical on Christian Hope (2007), 12.

[4]    1Cor 15:42-43,52-54; 2Cor 4:14; 2Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1)

Welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney for the solemn Mass for the Feast of All Saints. Few feasts trump Sunday, our weekly celebration of Christ’s glorious victory over death, but All Hallows is one, because it is in a sense the celebration of Christ’s victory in the lives of millions, perhaps billions, of people who are now sharing in His glory in heaven (Rev 7:2-4; 9-14). And if Pentecost is the beginning of the Church, you might say today celebrates the prospect of its end, both chronologically and in terms of its rationale, which is to get us to heaven. In the meantime we know that we have a “great cloud of witnesses” to inspire us and intercede for us before God (Heb 12:1). So today we remember not just all those long recognized as saints but also the unknown ones, the ‘everyday saints’ who have lived godly lives, inspired those around them and now live in God forever.

That we might join them one day as saints ourselves, we repent of our sins and ask God to renew our sanctification in Baptism…