Rorate Caeli

Sermon for All Saints: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla

After this I saw a great multitude which no man could number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes and with palms in their hands: and they cried out with a loud voice saying: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb”.  

This is the heart of the book of Revelation, the eternal worship of God in heaven by the saints.  How disabused is this the last book of the New Testament by those who are looking for special numbers and signs, looking for clues to times and dates, looking for arcane and Gnostic messages, treating this book as if it were a sequel to a trashy novel about angels and demons.   Yes, there is war in heaven, yes there is the dragon who seeks to destroy the woman and the child, but at the very heart of the book of Revelation, the Apocalypse is the worship of God by the saints in heaven, and what we do here today is the earthly reflection of this worship in heaven by the saints of God.  

Who are these like stars appearing?  Who are these dressed in white?  They are the martyrs, holding their palms; they are the apostles, the confessors, the doctors, the virgins, the holy men and women whom we celebrate today on the feast of All Saints. And we celebrate the saints not as dead people remote from us, not as people of yore that we can look up to merely for examples of goodly living, the saints as textbooks for the pilgrim’s progress. The saints are living members of the living Church of Jesus Christ, those who live with him now in the Church triumphant.

 One of the tragedies of the Protestant reformation, and there are many, was the denial of the reality of the saints.  When they went into the churches and smashed the statues of the saints, claiming they were idols, they denied the reality of something fundamental to the Christian faith; the reality of grace.  They imagined salvation as something merely personal, something between God and me, something in the end juridical affecting only the individual.  How different this is from the image we just heard in the book of Revelation, for salvation, therefore grace, can never be merely an agreement, a happening between the individual and God. 

When God became man, when God entered this fallen universe of ours, he did not do so solely for me or for you, but pro nobis:  qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem:  our, not my.  You say mere words:  no, this is crucial.  The Church is not a collection of individuals: the Church is essentially community: I am saved because we are saved.  One of the sad ironies of the confused state of contemporary Catholicism is Catholics belting out Amazing Grace at the Mass.  Have you ever read and thought about the words to this Puritan hymn?  Probably not.  You are carried away by the tune and the singablity of it all, some of us remembering Judy Collins singing this in her once clear voice.  Look at the words of this protestant hymn and count the number of times the pronouns “I” or “me” occur.  Many.  For this is the quintessential protestant affirmation of salvation as individualistic and not communal.

Why do I go on about this communal essence of the Catholic faith?  Because that is what we are celebrating today, the communion of saints, and this is not in some vague general way that can be affirmed by an ecumenical commission.  But it is deeper than that. What this day is at its heart is a celebration of the reality of grace.  And grace not just as a pious word, but as the very presence of God within this world, the presence of God going ahead of us and calling us, the presence of God calling us to repentance and forgiveness, the grace of God that does forgive us and renew us in the sacrament of confession, the grace of God that enters into our bodies and souls in Holy Communion, the grace of God that abounds ever more than the sin that infects us and affects us, the grace of God that is the only basis of our hope for everlasting life. 

 And yet grace is so often talked about in terms that echo the conversation in Alice in Wonderland between Alice and the White Queen.  The Queen offers Alice some jam, and Alice says: “No, thank you, I don’t want jam today.  The Queen responds:  “You couldn’t have it if you DID want it.  The rule is: jam tomorrow, jam yesterday but never jam today.”  How many people think of grace in this way, as something always in the future, in the sweet by and by when we shall meet at that beautiful shore?  No, the saints are those men and women who have been transformed by grace in this world, in the here and now, who have allowed themselves to seized by the presence of God, allowed themselves to be surprised by joy and to be ravished by that joy. They are the proof that grace is real and is the power of God within this world of conflict between good and evil. 

 Look, there is Joseph looking at the baby in the manger holding his lantern, doing what he does not understand but what he knows is good and true.  Look there is Peter, the fisherman, the one who never seemed to understand, now on the Vatican Hill being crucified upside down, whose blood, with the blood of his brother Paul, sanctifies the pagan city of Rome.  Look, there is Antony fleeing into the desert, seeking the still small voice of God, filled with the grace that fills him with the knowledge that it is in silence that God is heard.  Look, there is Monica, wetting the ground with her tears for her son wherever she walks, there she is with her son in Ostia in that moment when grace seizes them both and they see far beyond their sight. Look, there is Teresa of Avila in the rain and mud, dragging her wagon carrying the Blessed Sacrament to a new convent. Look there is Isaac Jogues being cruelly tortured by the Indians he wanted so much to bring to Christ, his body racked with pain, and yet filled with the life of grace. Look, there is Therese of Lisieux in the darkness of death, she who talked of roses and the child Jesus, there she is surrounded by her well meaning but merely religious sisters who are hoping to see some sign of magic saintliness, but she  refuses to succumb to the acid of sentimentality, and in her darkness utters those words that are the heart of the universe after the incarnation:  tout est grace, tout est grace.  Grace is everywhere.  

And there is Maximillian Kolbe in the hell of Auschwitz who sees clearly by the light of grace that he is to die for a Jew just as a Jew, who was rejected by his people and who was God incarnate, died for him and for us.  They are countless, they are real, they give us hope. They are holy , they are with God, but they are a part of who we are as the Church, they care about us, they pray for us as we ask them to pray for us, they are who we hope and pray we will be, and there, look, there is she who bore the infinite God in the finite small space of her womb, she who is the Mother of God and our Mother, she who is our life, our sweetness and our hope she who in Dante’s words is Virgine Madre, figlia del tuo figilo, umile e alta più che creatura, termine fisso d’eterno consiglio, Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son, humbled and exalted more than any creature, fixed goal of the eternal counsel.

But the saints are also the positive and real effects of the incarnation in time and space.  It is not as if God became man and did what he had to do on earth and then ascended back into heaven leaving no trace except the written word of the Bible and personal faith based on that.  No, the incarnation changed space and time itself. Emmanuel means God with us, grace with us, and the saints are the reality of this sanctification of time and space by God’s flesh and blood in Jesus Christ.  The very celebration of this feast in time, that we come here, is in obedience to this new situation in which secular time read by the clock is now transformed into the kiss of time and eternity.  There is no daylight saving time in the universe where entropy is reversed and the light of the Son of God pierces the darkness. The whole cycle of the feasts of the Church, whether the feasts of our Lord, of our Lady, of the Saints, these celebrations, especially those we call holy days of obligations, are reminders that time and space have been transformed by Christ, and whether or not the world knows this or not, we know it, and we respond to this sanctification of time by coming here, and doing what we do, remembering by entering into the worship of heaven which is the holy Mass.  How misguided are those leaders of the Church  who manipulate holy days of obligation, now it is a holy day, now it isn’t, because it is a Monday or  Saturday,  all in the name of making it less of a burden to our people. But the burden is the point. How can we remember if we are not obligated to come here and do this, do this in remembrance of him in the communion of the members of the Church of all time and space, how can we remember that grace is real if we are not taken out by force from the world that has forgotten what it knew or is supposed to have known?  

And just as the creator of the universe was contained in the little womb of Mary, so too in this church, this small space, a very tiny fraction of the universe of time and space, heaven itself becomes present, for when Christ becomes bodily present under the forms of bread and wine, when God incarnate enters into this place, he brings with him the entire hosts of heavens:  et ideo cum angelis et archangelis: and therefore with the angels and archangels, with Thrones and Dominations and with the whole heavenly host, we sing a hymn to your glory. Sanctus. Sanctus. Sanctus.