THE lives of the saints, like the teaching of the Beatitudes, show the manner and impact of God’s action in human history. In time and for eternity, “the Lord takes delight in his people: he crowns the poor with salvation” (Psalm 149.4).
Luke tells us that, before Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount, he “looked up at his disciples”. The Beatitudes are “the fruit of this looking”. They describe “the actual condition of Jesus’ disciples: they are poor, hungry, and weeping; they are hated and persecuted” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in the Jordan to the transfiguration).
Each Beatitude has an eschatological form: “Blessed are you . . . for you will be. . .” Yet, as Pope Benedict writes, when human beings learn to live from God’s perspective, “something of the eschaton, of the reality to come, is already present.” In them, Jesus is declaring the true nature of reality, and inviting us to live in its light.
Across the centuries, God’s saints bear witness to that reality. We see this in the Primitive Church, where the very people Jesus “looked upon” are transformed by the Holy Spirit into faithful and fearless witnesses. As Beverly Roberts Gaventa observes, Luke wants us to understand that the “acts” of these apostles are, in fact, the acts of God through them (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Acts).
On the road to Damascus, Paul is told that, in persecuting the Church, he has been persecuting its risen Lord. This gives him a living experience of the Beatitudes. He learns that that the suffering and persecuted Church is the mystical Body of its Lord. This is reflected in his teaching — not least in our epistle, where he writes that God has made Christ “the head over all things for the Church, which is his Body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.
Alongside the present indwelling of the Spirit, our epistle speaks of the hope of an eternal consummation: the “glorious inheritance” promised in verse 18. That hope is also expressed in our Old Testament lesson, where Daniel writes that “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the Kingdom and possess the Kingdom for ever — for ever and ever.” On the feast of All Saints, we give thanks for the earthly witness and the eternal blessedness of these “holy ones” — those whom the Church venerates by name, and the wider company of faithful people (whom the New Testament refers to as “God’s saints”) in every place.
The courage of the martyrs of the Early Church expresses their unshakeable belief in these promises of eternal life. While it is often claimed that such beliefs are a distraction from the here and now, these martyrs have had an immense impact on history. Those who wielded worldly power in their lifetimes — rulers such as Pontius Pilate and Herod, Nero and Diocletian — are now remembered largely in relation to Jesus Christ and his poor and persecuted band of disciples. While their empire and many since have crumbled, the blood of those they martyred has proved to be (as Tertullian wrote) the “seed of the Church”.
Pope Benedict XVI observes that, across the “distance of centuries and milennia”, we can see that the Christian gospel is not simply a set of lofty ideals, but “the truest and most profound interpretation of history”. On this feast, we give thanks for the power of these faithful witnesses in every age. Many of them died without seeing the earthly impact of their offering. They were faithful to Christ, and trusted him to give the increase.
In a more recent example, generations of African Americans trusted in the power of God while enduring slavery, segregation, and lynchings. Rosa Parks was one of many civil-rights campaigners raised and nurtured in the churches that grew out of that trust. The faithful offering of previous generations bore its fruit in her lifetime (James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree).
Sarah Bachelard warns us against “functional atheism”. By this, she means the temptation to regard the gospel simply as a set of ideals or imperatives, and to seek to achieve them by the methods and assumptions of the dominant culture. The gospel is good news, not good advice. It is the story of God’s saving work, in which he chooses to act through those whom the world cannot imagine as leaders: the “poor, hungry, and weeping; [the] hated and persecuted”.