THE saints chart a path for us to follow to the “inexpressible joys” of the heavenly Kingdom (collect for All Saints’ Day). In our epistle, John promises us that our contemplation of God, and our consequent glorification, will find its consummation in the life to come. “When he is revealed, we will be like him, because we will see him as he is.”
While the process of transfiguration — of contemplating the Lord, and being purified and transformed into his likeness — is completed in eternity, it is evident in the life of each of the saints while here on earth. St Irenaeus writes that “the glory of God is the living human, and the life of the human is the vision of God.” The saints show the inextricable connection between the two halves of this statement.
The glory of the saints is the fruit of their contemplation. The Psalmist writes that we must “look upon [the Lord] and be radiant”. Commenting on this verse, St Thomas Aquinas writes that “God is light and the one who approaches the light will be illuminated.”
The earthly lives of the saints testify to an important spiritual reality. The closer human beings draw to God, the greater their awareness of their sinfulness is. As our Gospel reminds us, true sanctity involves poverty of spirit. It is utterly opposed to the self-congratulation of an “in-group” who know themselves to be especially worthy of esteem, or especially favoured by God. As they grow in virtue, the saints feel even more keenly both their imperfection and their total dependence on the Lord.
As St Gertrude of Helfta exclaims, “You must make my life pass over into you. You must take the whole of me into yourself, and make me one thing with you by enfolding me in yourself.”
Because they participate in his life, the saints experience the same rejection as their crucified and risen Lord. Jesus encourages his disciples to see these trials as evidence of their union with him: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.”
This unity of the sufferings of the saints with the sacrifice of their Lord is expressed vividly in our reading from Revelation. The saints who now worship around the throne are “they who have come through the great ordeal”, and their robes have been cleansed in the blood of the Lamb. They do not bring a righteousness of their own, but, as Christ has taken (in St Gertrude’s words) “the whole of them into himself”, they are united with his paschal sacrifice and his paschal triumph.
The commemoration of the saints began with the Church’s building altars in the catacombs on the sites of the martyrs’ tombs. This was a recognition that their deaths were a participation in the self-offering of Christ, and that the eucharist united both the living and the departed in his risen body.
The “blessedness” that the Beatitudes pronounce is not the fruit of moral heroism, but of the life of Christ “passing over” into his followers. As Christians, we are called to be saints and not heroes. Heroes are always the central figure in the story of their deeds. The saint, on the other hand, “is just a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God” (Samuel Wells, in Rupert Shortt’s God’s Advocates).
“The reason that the world does not know us”, John writes, “is that it did not know him.” The saints reveal to us a God whose character is quite different from our worldly fantasies of glory and dominion. The Beatitudes describe a series of qualities — poverty, meekness, undergoing persecution — which the world sees as signs of weakness and failure. Yet these are the qualities made manifest in Jesus’s earthly life, and in the lives of his saints.
To glimpse the presence of Christ in hunger and thirst, desolation and mourning — and in the “meekness” and poverty of spirit which this world despises — is to begin to apprehend the promise of a different world, in which he is “all in all” (Colossians 3.11). For Christ, who is present in their suffering as a sacrificial lamb, is also the shepherd who will “guide them to springs of the water of life” — and who leads them back to the Father, who will “wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7.17).