Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):
“I believe in the communion of saints” we proclaim every Sunday when we recite the creed. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are called into the Church as a community of those called to be saints, to be holy. God is of course the all holy one so we are called through our baptism into the very life of God himself, the perfect holy community of Father, Son and Spirit.
November is the month of our hope when we celebrate our calling to be holy. We begin the month with the feast of All Saints or, in traditional English All Hallows, as we celebrate those who have gone before us who are already saints, singing the praises of God in heaven. We do so knowing that we are following on behind them, following the same way.
All Souls the next day has traditionally been important because there has been an overemphasis on souls in purgatory. This would be seen for example in Newman’s Dream of Gerontius. Today with a fresh understanding of the resurrection and more aware of the biblical and historical background, we can be more optimistic about our call to holiness as we remember and celebrate those who have gone before us. Those who have arrived and ourselves who are still on our pilgrimage all form one community of those redeemed in Jesus Christ. We are all the communion of saints and, as I like to quote at funerals, for us who believe, life at death is changed and not ended. That does not exclude some form of purification after death but not in the legalistic understanding of the past.
We celebrate the feast this year on Sunday, a day early. Whilst this encourages us to reflect seriously on the feast, there is the disadvantage that the sequence of Sunday readings in disrupted. A look at the Gospel for this Sunday (31st in Ordinary Time) is to be recommended. The remarkably friendly discussion there between Jesus and a scribe about the greatest commandment itself provides a contribution to today’s feast. I will though be able to say more about this encounter next Sunday.
In the Sunday Gospel, Jesus proclaims that the greatest commandment is the way of love, the way which requires a journey of purification in this world, clearing away all that hinders our love of God and neighbour. There is a striking emphasis on purification in the readings we hear. The reading from the letter of John tells us that we are already the children of God, as indeed we are through our baptism. Yet our hope to realise this fully in the future means that we must constantly purify ourselves, we need to be as pure as Christ. Then, in the words of the psalm, the one climbing the mountain requires clean hands and a pure heart. Purity of heart is striving to clear away all that prevents us from loving God. It means clearing all the obstacles in our lives which prevent us from being open to God’s presence within us. As the Beatitude says: Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. The Carmelite Rule begins with a general statement that everyone must live in allegiance to Jesus Christ and serve him faithfully from a pure heart and a good conscience.
That is demanding especially for so many when the cares of this world cannot be avoided. They form the background within which we must make space for God in our lives. There are many ways of doing this. Quite straightforward for example would be to carry with us a phrase from the psalms or Gospels which we can recall and recited during the quieter moments of the day, regularly reminding us of God’s presence with us.
In all of this, we need a source of encouragement, a vision and an anticipation of where we will be one day. On this feast of All Saints, that is provided by the reading from the Apocalypse. This last book of the Bible has great importance for the Church yet it is for many a strange world. The key is to try to read the book on its own terms, recognising above all how the book relies on the Old Testament and that it is a prophecy giving hope and encouragement to those needing it. With an abundance of allusions, the Apocalypse recycles the images and symbols of the Old Testament within the setting of the triumph of the risen Jesus with the image of the Lamb recalling the Passover Lamb of the book of Exodus. It is the Lamb who is worthy to unseal the scroll but that unsealing unleashes the forces of history, the famous four horsemen of the Apocalypse. This builds up to a climax after the opening of the sixth seal with the question about who can withstand the wrath of the Lamb.
There follows our reading, a self-contained interlude considering this. The reading for the feast unfortunately omits the beginning and the end of this interlude. Here we have two visions, both introduced by “After this I saw”. The second vision is followed by an interpretation by an elder which is best seen as a response to both visions. The comment of elder about the ones who have come through the great distress therefore becomes the key to this interlude. The great distress comes from to the book of Daniel, itself a book written at a
time of persecution.1
The first vision looks back and sees the great crowd of faithful ones (the 144,000) who have received the protecting seal of the Holy Spirit given at baptism. That is a mark of God’s ownership and protection during the times of distress. The second vision then looks forward to the time after the great distress when an even bigger crowd are gathered before the throne proclaiming the victory of the Lamb leading to the praise of the elders and angels. The seven words between the two Amens indicated the completeness of the praise. This is followed by an explanation which has been cut short in the
reading. White robes indicate victory, achieved by the shedding of the blood of the Lamb. These are witnesses but not necessarily martyrs. Their triumph is complete because the Lamb is paradoxically their shepherd leading them to living water, recalling the psalm and the prophet Isaiah.
Celebrating this feast of All Saints therefore, we can rejoice now as we look beyond this interlude to its final fulfilment right the end of the book with the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. We have a great crowd of witnesses to support us as we are those who seek the face of the Lord and receive blessings from him.
1 This reading from Daniel will be the OT reading in two weeks time, the 33rd Sunday