Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14 1st John 3:1-3 Matthew 5:1-12a
In our day and place [2012 A.D., a presidential election year in the USA] some Church members and leaders claim that the Church is under attack from the outside, whether it be the government or various ideological groups. That’s really nonsense. Just because one loses an election or is trumped by a political decision does not mean that a persecution is in operation. In fact, of the various ideological issues which are debated in the popular realm of “moral and family values” today, it seems that an increasing majority of mainline (not fundamentalist) Christians in general and Catholics in particular really are well disposed to them and embrace an evolving acceptance and understanding of them in practical and intelligent ways. Real persecution does not afford to those suffering the privilege to speak our or protest or complain or appeal to the broader population. In times of genuine persecution and crisis (read: threat of arrest, imprisonment, and execution), one’s world will likely seem off balance and unstable. At such times of travail and anxiety, healthy human imagination exercises a profound power to hold life together and to articulate hope even using fantastic images. The first lesson for the Solemn Feast of All Saints demonstrates just such a powerful and consoling religious imagination, what our religious tradition calls an apocalyptic imagination. The word “apocalyptic” comes from the Greek word, apocalypsis, which means “a revelation” from the divine other-world. Apocalyptic literature in the bible describes and evolves from crisis times and situations. It uses cataclysmic, end-of-the-world terms. Such language began in the 8th Century BC and functioned as a source of hope and consolation to those ancient Jews who feared for their lives at the hands of violent Gentile conquerors. Such language loses much of its meaning in times of relative peace and stability. In fact, outside of persecution settings, apocalyptic language sounds foolish, goofy, and irrational as it should to us today. Soundly educated, reasonable Christians of the 20th and 21st Centuries in the USA and many other countries live in fairly hospitable settings (although many Christians in other parts of the world suffer anxiety and persecution because of religious extremists and cultural terrorists). Therefore, American Catholics (and other mainline Christians) are not apocalyptic in our normal, daily attitudes towards reality as are those living in frequent fear for their mortal lives. The Book of the Apocalypse of John (aka the Book of Revelation) was composed precisely for people who were enduring active persecution around the year 95 or 96 AD in the region of western Asia Minor. Today’s text is comprised of two sets of verses woven from that book for the purpose of conveying the greatest possible consolation and encouragement to the hearers. The great crowds of people in the vision of Heaven consist of both Jews and Gentiles. The huge number of Jews “marked with the seal” of God’s salvation is described as 144,000. This is a metaphorical numeral which helps those suffering imagine a number too great to count. It is the number twelve (the number of tribes of ancient Israel) squared into an ancient idea of perfection, i.e., 12 times 12 equals 144. And, then that perfect number of Israelites is multiplied by 1,000 which was just about largest numeric concept most ancients could intelligently comprehend. Hence, 144,000 really indicates the totality of all God’s Chosen People, however many that might ever be. It is essentially an infinite number and, thereby, an all-inclusive number as well. This asserts that God’s salvation is universal and aimed at all humans in history. The same interpretive analysis must be used for that “great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue” dressed in white garments and holding palm branches. Again, this innumerable multitude is an infinite and all-inclusive number. These two groups are center-stage in John’s apocalyptic vision of God’s Heavenly Kingdom. Their presence indicates that God’s Goodness is completely superior to any limitation or evil which this world allows and, thus, that all people (past, present and yet to come) are full beneficiaries of God’s ultimate salvation. No one is left out, excluded, or left behind. (Those today who preach and motivate by fear of being “left behind” are themselves remarkably ignorant and superstitious; indeed, they are destructive heralds who contradict the Gospel of hope and peace.) There is a place for or room in heaven for everyone whom God has ever created, both Jew and Gentile. God and the Divine Kingdom are supreme, limitless, and all-inclusive. This is the ultimate assertion of hope and confidence in God’s saving Grace and Goodness on the part of John the Seer (the book’s author). Such is the final goal of God’s Good News, salvation for all! This interpretation may irritate and rile literalists and fundamentalists who (mis)use a wrath-of-God-fear-factor from this book to frighten their audiences with an alleged maximum capacity of heaven. But, literalists and fundamentalists insinuate by their interpretations that God is not supreme, not all-powerful, not all-merciful, and not all-loving! Such is not the Catholic or Orthodox Christian faith!! Our God is bigger than any problem, evil, or limitation! A literal approach to apocalyptic literature in the bible is frequently unwise and not faithfully consistent with the Gospel message. It is very insecure and fails to appreciate the scope and scale of God’s all-compassionate and all-wise salvation!
The 1st Letter of John, today’s second reading, asserts just that, i.e., that “God is love.” A parallel assertion is clearly made in our passage, “We are God’s children now.” We are God’s children already. It is not merely a “future” event. Lectors must emphasize the word “now” when proclaiming this text. It is balanced by the phrase which follows immediately, “what we shall be...” The assertion is that there is much more to this mystery of God’s great salvation, but we must be actively open to full consolation, and divine encouragement is ours now, already, today!
Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes in today’s Gospel proclamation comprises one of those lists of religious beliefs many of us once memorized from either sacred scripture or our childhood catechisms. Rote memorization might have seemed sufficient in childhood, but for us as adults, this can be no longer the case. Yes, one ought to know the Beatitudes by heart, but one must also reflect upon them, plumb them for meaning, and allow them to surround and critique our very lives. The Beatitudes (from the Greek word “makarios” for “blessed” or “blessings”) are Jesus’ descriptions of his then-current disciples. “Blessed are...” The verb “are” in Matthew’s Greek text is present active indicative. This was not a picture of how Jesus’ disciples might be after they get to heaven. It was a serious and commanding description of how his disciples (those then and us now!) must be already! To be a disciple of Jesus was to be blessed with the lived and active qualities attached to each assertion. Disciples were meant to be “poor in spirit,” “mournful,” “meek,” seeking “righteousness (justice),” “full of mercy,” embracing “purity of heart,” “peace makers,” and “enduring persecution.” These are various dimensions of embracing and living the cross of Christ, that essential Christian metaphor of engaging life fully, effectively, enthusiastically, intelligently and confidently. For Jesus, the cross was truly a wooden, physical reality of unimaginable cruelty, pain, suffering, and death. For us, the “cross” is likely not wooden instrument of torture, but it is a challenging reality nonetheless. Sometimes that reality is painful and fraught with suffering. At other times, it is glorious even if challenging. The cross and the crucifix are worn as body decorations by many. Sometimes the cross or crucifix is somewhat realistic portraying the suffering of Jesus. At other times it can be made of precious metals and gemstones, and can take on a glorious and glimmering appearance. Such is the reality of life! Discipleship comes in every possible shape, size, depth, and situation. In well-lived Gospel life we celebrate the success and gratitude of genuine discipleship in the Gospel whether in peace and security or in persecution and suffering.
On this feast of All Saints, those in John’s vision in the first lesson were those nameless, countless, enthusiastic, and thankful Jews and Gentiles of every time, place, and era in history who have met the Savior God in Christ Jesus. Today’s feast day is that of the entire Church membership and, in hope-filled terms, it anticipates the time when all humanity of all eras and locales will be made one with the victorious and Risen Jesus Christ, God, and Spirit, in that beatific vision of heaven, for ever and ever. Amen!
Hail, thee, festival Day! That Day when Christ Our Savior, in limitless Divine Compassion, welcomes each and every human into the Kingdom’s Glory without exception!