Readings: Rev 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 Jn 3:1-3; Mt 5:1-12a
“LORD, THIS IS THE PEOPLE THAT LONGS TO SEE YOUR FACE!”
- After a long illness a woman died and arrived at the Gates of Heaven. While she was waiting for St. Peter to greet her, she peeked through the Gates. She saw inside a beautiful banquet table. Sitting around it were her parents and all the other people whom she had loved and who died before her.
When St. Peter came by, the woman said to him, “This is such a wonderful place! How do I get in?” “You will have to spell a word,” St. Peter told her. “Which word?” the woman asked. “LOVE,” St. Peter said. The woman correctly spelled the word “LOVE” and St. Peter welcomed her into heaven.
About six month later St. Peter came to the woman and asked her to watch the Gates of Heaven for him that day. Now, while the woman was guarding the Gates of Heaven, her husband arrived there. “I’m surprised to see you here,” the woman said, “How have you been?” “Oh! I have been doing pretty well since you died,” her husband told her. “I married the beautiful nurse who took care of you while you were ill. And then I won a lottery. I sold the little house you and I lived in, and bought a big mansion. And my wife and I traveled all around the world. We were on vacation and went water skiing today. I fell, the ski hit my head and here I am.” Then he asked her, “How do I get in?” “You will have to spell a word,” the woman told him. “Which word?” her husband asked. She replied, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA.”
I suppose all of us do realize that this is no way to get into heaven when we die. However, this humorous story does bring up a most serious question – ‘How does a person get into heaven? Who will be there and who will not?’
On November 1, day we solemnly celebrate the great feast of All Saints. It is important to emphasize from the beginning what we mean here by ‘saints.’ Normally, we apply the word to people of extraordinary holiness who have been ‘canonized’ or ‘beatified’ by the Church. Among them each one has their favorites: St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Anthony, St. Joseph and so on. But today’s feast uses the word in a much wider sense. It refers to all those baptized Christians who have died and are now in heaven with God in glory. It also certainly includes all non-Christians who lived a good life sincerely in accordance with the convictions of their conscience. “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.”
The Gospel Reading from St. Matthew chosen for today’s feast is interesting. It gives us what we know as ‘the Beatitudes’ from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It is, in fact, a Charter for Holiness. When many people think of holiness they think of keeping ‘the Ten Commandments’ and perhaps some other requirements of the Church like going to Mass on Sundays or fasting during Lent. What we often tend to forget is that the Ten Commandments really belong to the Old Testament and are part of the Jewish law. Of course, they are still valid and Jesus said clearly that he had not come to abolish the Jewish law but to fulfill it.
We might then say that the Beatitudes are an example of that fulfilling. They go far beyond the Ten Commandments in what they expect of a follower of Christ and yet the sad thing is that one hears of relatively few Christians saying that they base their lives on the Beatitudes. When we go to Confession it is the Ten Commandments we normally refer to and not the Beatitudes. And this is sad because it is clear from their position in Matthew’s gospel that the Beatitudes have a central place. The Beatitudes is a compendium, a summary of Jesus’ teachings. They are a kind of mission statement saying what kind of person the good Christian will be.
The Gospel says that particularly blessed are: Those who are poor in spirit; those who are gentle; those who mourn; those who hunger and thirst for what is right; those who are merciful; those who are pure in heart; those who make peace; and those who are persecuted in the cause of right.
This is the kind of Christian we are all called to be. It is these qualities which made the saints and which will make saints of us too. They go far beyond what is required by the Ten Commandments. If taken literally, the commandments can be kept and not with great difficulty. Many of them are expressed in the negative, ‘You shall NOT…’ so we can observe them by doing nothing at all! ‘I have not killed anyone… I have not committed adultery… I have not stolen…’Does that make me a saint?
Being a Christian is a lot more than not doing things which are wrong. The Beatitudes are expressed in positive terms. They also express not just actions but attitudes. In a way, they can never be fully observed. No matter how well I try to observe them, I can always go further. They leave no room for smugness, the kind of smugness the Pharisees had in keeping the Law. The Beatitudes are a true and reliable recipe for sainthood. “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.”
Again, saints are the children of God. “Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children,” the Second Reading from the First Letter of St. John reminds us today. Saints are not self-made people. They are people who have responded generously to the love of God showered on them. And the completion of that love is to be invited to share life with God forever in the life to come.
“What we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed,” the Reading also says. We do not know and have no way of knowing what that future existence will be like and it does not help very much to speculate. It is better to go along with St. Paul who says that life face to face with God is something totally beyond our comprehension. Let us rather concentrate on the life we are leading now and let it be a good preparation for that future time. “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.”
Indeed, the First Reading from the book of Revelation presents an apocalyptic vision of those who have died in Christ. They are numbered at ‘144,000’ – a number taken literally by some Christian sects. However, the number is clearly symbolical. It consists of the sacred number 12, squared and multiplied by another complete number, 1,000. It simply represents the total of all those who have died faithful to Christ their Lord. They represent ‘every nation, tribe and language’ for access to Christ is open to all. They are dressed in white robes with palms in their hands. They are the robes of goodness and integrity. “They are the people who have been through the great trial”. That is they are those who have been through persecution. And paradoxically, “they have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb”. It is the blood of Jesus Christ which brings salvation but only to those who have united with him in sharing its effects. Many of them, of course, are martyrs and they have mingled their own blood with that of Jesus. It is a picture of total victory and the end of all the pains and sorrows they endured in this life. “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.”
Today’s feast is first of all an occasion for great rejoicing and thanksgiving. It is altogether reasonable to think that many of our family, relatives and friends who have gone before us are being celebrated today. We look forward to the day when we, too, can be with them experiencing the same total joy, happiness and peace.
Today is also a day for us to pray to them in Heaven – both the canonized and the not-canonized – and ask them to pray on our behalf that we may live our lives in faithfulness so that we too may experience the same reward. “LORD, THIS IS THE PEOPLE THAT LONGS TO SEE YOUR FACE!” And this is the Good News of today.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.