All Saints’ Day, which dates to the ninth century, is not among the most ancient Christian festivals. Beginning in the tenth century, it became customary to set aside another day, as a kind of extension of All Saints, a feast day for the rest of us, not just the Christians who were recognized as exemplary witnesses to the Gospel. It was a day for remembering loved ones, family members and friends. A renewed understanding of its meaning has led to widespread acceptance of this commemoration among Anglicans, and to its inclusion in the calendar of the Episcopal Church as All Souls Day.
As the church has recovered more of the early church’s vocabulary, theology and liturgies in recent decades, the Feast of All Saints has become a day for celebrating the ongoing communion of all believers, both those living today on earth and in eternity. All Saints’ Day gives us an opportunity to remember those believers who have gone before us, and of what they have to teach us.
The prayer that Jesus taught us includes the words, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). Today’s Gospel reading gives us a vision of life in God’s kingdom, as well as Jesus’ teaching on discipleship in the portion of the Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes.
A “beatitude” is a blessing or an announcement of God’s favor both in the present and in the future. Matthew describes eight blessings. The first four Beatitudes focus on those who suffer now, but who will receive justice in the coming reign of God. The remaining verses promise blessings for those who strive to alleviate the conditions described in the first four Beatitudes.
Like a new Moses on the mountaintop, training his disciples in a new kind of righteousness, Jesus teaches his disciples how to recognize blessedness. And it’s not who we normally think of as blessed. We all have some idea of the “good or successful life,” or what it means to have “made it.” It usually doesn’t include those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those whose are meek or pure in heart, or thirst for righteousness. In our world, when we think of someone blessed, we often think in material terms, someone whose is wealthy, or powerful, or famous.
But Jesus teaches us something quite different. Jesus teaches us to see how God calls blessed those who are down and out, distressed by circumstances, passionate about pursuing righteousness and working for peace, or even persecuted for doing the right thing.
These blessings, or beatitudes, are values for right living and reflect the spirituality of Jesus, and the very heart of God. To be human is to be fragile and vulnerable, and it turns out God doesn’t reject us because of this, but meets us most clearly in our places of deepest need.
We are called to be a people who recognize that God always comes to us where we least expect God to be, amid our brokenness, to bless that which the world refuses to bless, to love what the world calls unlovable. We are called to be different from the world around us, to be places of forgiveness, mercy, and goodness.
The blessings in this pivotal sermon don’t relate to outstanding personal achievements – no one can earn God’s grace. But they do point out that we ourselves are always in a position to make a difference, to begin learning here and now the realities of God’s realm and prepare to become part of that grand design through sincere commitment to God’s kingdom.
Bishop Steven Charleston reminds us: “What you do is critical. You may not think so because you see yourself as being without that much authority or influence, but the things you do count for much more than you can imagine. Every person you reach will touch a thousand more. The direction you share with a single person can turn the wheel of history over time. You are an important part of a great story. You are at the heart of the collective experience of your generation. What you say and do matters, so speak up, take a risk, and dare to be remembered.”
Let us pray:
“Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses. Grant that we, encouraged by the good example of these your servants, may persevere in running the race set before us, until at last, with all your saints attain your eternal joy: Through Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”
Resources: Synthesis, 2014; David Lose, 2017; Vicki Black, 2004; Invocation of the Saints; The Covenant of Peace – A Liberation Prayer Book, 1971.