The Beatitudes and Holiness
(Readings: Apocalypse 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12)
Introduction to Mass
The gospel reading for todayís feast consists of the well-known passage from Jesusí Sermon on the Mount where he lists the qualities or values that make a person blessed by God. These are the qualities exemplified in the lives of the Christian saints down through the centuries, the men and women who are already living in complete unity of life with God in heaven. They're also the qualities that weíre called to embody, since we're all called in to share fully in God's own life.
Coming together as Godís family let us ask the Fatherís forgiveness, for he is full of gentleness and compassion.
One aspect of today's feast day is that it's a celebration of all those people who lived their lives as good examples of Christian faith and Christian love, who have died and are now enjoying God's company in heaven - the people we call the saints.
We know that in the early centuries of the Church's history certain holy men and women came to be recognised as saints more or less by popular acclaim. People admired the holiness these individuals showed during their lives, and hailing them as saints after they died was a way of keeping their memory and their example alive.
It's only relatively recently that men and women came to be officially "canonised" after stringent procedures conducted by the relevant department in the Vatican.
In any case, this custom of recognising certain people as good examples of sanctity is a very valuable part of the Catholic faith, and it seems sad when - for example - children don't seem to have heard of any of the saints, or know what a saint is.
One reason why it's so valuable is that the men and women we call the saints show how faith in God and dedication to God's Kingdom take concrete shape in different personalities, in different periods of time, and in different types of society. Or, to put it a different way, they show how God adapts his grace to appeal to people in hugely different circumstances.
Those of us who have a favourite saint, or a number of favourite saints, have probably latched onto them because we've been attracted by some aspect of their personality, or perhaps identified with some aspect of their experiences or their circumstances. On the other hand we might admire a particular saint because he or she possesses exactly the qualities we know we don't have!
But ideally, as we read the details of the saints' life-stories, we find their example encouraging in our own spiritual struggles and difficulties. Their example inspires us to persevere in our own vocation to holiness, because it shows how holiness has been possible for human beings who were often weak, selfish, bad-tempered, jealous, greedy, etc., etc. - just like ourselves. As the prayers in today's Mass say, the saints give us hope.
And that brings us to the second aspect of today's feast. Holiness, or "being a saint", isn't something reserved to a few hundred or even a few million very special individuals. Holiness is for all of us.
In the Bible, holiness is first of all the quality that God has - it sums up his perfect love and truth and justice and so on.
But the message of the Bible is also that God wants us all to live in a close friendship with him, and if we genuinely respond to God's approach to us, his qualities start to rub off on us. How could we have a genuine, sincere relationship with God and not start to become like him?
The gospel passage for today's feast shows what a genuine and sincere friendship with God consists of, or what its practical implications are. In the form of this collection of blessings, Jesus describes all the qualities that draw us to God, or draw us under God's rule: poverty of spirit, gentleness, purity of heart, thirst for justice, all those other qualities he mentions.
Realistically speaking, of course, it would take most of us a whole lifetime, and beyond, to even come close to embodying all these qualities.
Fortunately, the Beatitudes weren't intended to be list of demands where Christ says, "right, this is the minimum you're expected to achieve. Shape up or ship out". The Beatitudes are more a sort of a charter, pointing us in the way we need to go, and keeping us from straying off in the wrong direction.
The Beatitudes show us where true human fulfilment lies, and all of them stand in opposition to various false ideals of happiness that human beings chase after, in our day just as much as in Christ's.
The more we try to adapt our way of life according to these Beatitudes, and the more we treat other people according to these principles, the more God becomes active in our lives and draws us on. And the more God draws us on, the more our character and way of life take on the pattern of the Beatitudes.
So if we pray for anything today in connection with the feast of All Saints let's pray that we get rid of any weary or defeatist notion that holiness is alright for some special people, but it's not for us.
Let's pray that we discover - or maybe re-discover - some of the holy men and women of the past and that we'll be inspired by their example.
And let's pray that we might revisit these Beatitudes preached by Jesus - which are very well-known after all - reflect on them again, and put them into practice as best we can in circumstances that we find ourselves in day by day.