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BE MERCIFUL – YOU, TOO, CAN BE A SAINT
ALL SAINTS DAY
November 01, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Revelations 7:2-4, 9-14 Psalm 24:1-6 1 John 1:1-3
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
If you ask many people who were not raised in some variation of the Catholic tradition, what All Saints Day is, you’d likely be asked, “What’s that?” The short answer is, today is the day we honor those whose lives are significant, but no longer with us. Today we celebrate a prayerful bond between the Church Militant, those of us here on earth, and the Church Triumphant, those who’ve left us and gone on to the next world.
Showing honor to ancestors is part of many religions and cultures throughout the ages, including ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, Africans, Asians, and Muslims, to name just a few. From that, we can conclude an ongoing relationship with the departed is not just a Catholic thing, but part of the primordial spirituality of all humanity.
While many cultures engage in “ancestor worship” as such, contrary to popular belief, we Catholics don’t worship, or pray to, the saints. God alone, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or more modernly, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, is our object of worship and prayer. Instead, we venerate, or honor, the saints. They are our heroines and heroes. What we as Catholics do, is venerate and honor certain persons who’ve led exemplary lives, similar to the way we honor our own departed family members, remembering and praising what they’ve contributed to our lives, and like the way we honor those who’ve done that in the secular world.
Believe it or not, all established societies have secular saints, those who have now passed on, but who while alive shaped the lives of individuals, a group of individuals, or a country. Examples of American secular saints would include George Washington and the other so-called Founding Fathers. And we have our martyrs, too: Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy come to mind. But while we might honor any human person, we pray only to God, and we worship only God.
The confusion in the non-Catholic mind that we worship the saints can be found in the etymology behind the word, “worship.” The word “worship” has undergone a change in meaning in English. It comes from the Old English “weorthscipe”, which means “worthy of honor, respect, or dignity.” To worship in the older, larger sense is to ascribe honor, worth, or excellence to someone, whether human or divine. In Scripture, the term “worship” carried a similarly broad meaning, but in early Christian centuries, theologians began to differentiate between different types of honor in order to more clearly define which kind is due to God, and which is not. As Christian theology developed, the Greek term latria came to be used to refer to the honor that is due to God alone, and the term dulia came to refer to the honor that is due to human beings, especially those we call saints. A special term was coined to designate the special honor given to the Virgin Mary because She gave birth to Jesus—God in the flesh—in Her womb. That term, hyperdulia, meaning “beyond dulia”, tells us that the honor due to Her as the Mother of Jesus is more than the dulia given to other saints. It is honor greater in degree, but still of the same kind. All of these terms—latria, dulia, hyperdulia—used to be lumped under the one English word “worship.” Unfortunately, however, many non-Catholics have been so infested with hostility toward any branch of Catholicism, that they are unwilling to recognize these distinctions. They arrogantly assert that Catholics “worship” Mary and the saints, and, in so doing, commit idolatry. This is patently false, of course. More accurately, we see Mary and the saints as our partners in prayer, and as examples to follow.
Traditionally, All Souls Day is celebrated on November second. Many of you are quite familiar with that day by the name”La Dia De Los Muertos”, or “The Day of the Dead.” Unlike the mournful atmosphere we commonly associate with funerals, people go to cemeteries to celebrate the memory of the departed with dancing and putting flowers on graves. It is a holiday that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help support their spiritual journey. It is a national holiday in Mexico and part of a three day celebration that begins on October 31, All Hallows Eve, when children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit. November one is All Saints Day, when the adult spirits will come to visit. November two is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The three-day fiesta is filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations. I am hoping next year we can do at least some of that here at Saint Cecilia’s the next time All Saints Day rolls around.
Today at Saint Cecilia’s, while we recognize those persons that Christians have designated as saints to whom honor is due, we do not diminish the significance of those departed individuals who are personal to us. Our relationship with those who’ve gone before us mirrors the relationship he had with them while they were here on earth. So just like we ask one another here on earth to pray for us, or pray for friends or family, we can ask those who’ve gone before us to pray with us as well. That’s because as Christians, we don’t believe death means the end of life, just a change in the form of life. Those who are no longer with us continue to pray for us. Just as they prayed on earth, they now pray in heaven.
That brings up the question: what is the “everlasting life” for which we continually ask God as we pray? To figure that out, we have to consider that heaven is, where, according to today’s first reading, the saints are continually praising God. Exactly where their souls have gone, we do not truly know. Based on our belief in the compassion and gentleness of God, our faith tells us God continues to care for them. But we don’t know precisely where that is happening.
For years, we had a vertical view of heaven, church, and hell. Heaven was beyond the sky, church is here on earth, and hell was below the earth’s surface. Science later proved that all inaccurate when, humans traveled to outer space and sunk deep holes into the ground. Hence, it is more useful to think of those concepts symbolically, not literally.
If Heaven is not a place in the sky, then where is it? Where are our departed sisters and brothers? Consider the idea that heaven might be all around us. The fact is, our departed sisters and brothers are still part of our lives. They live on in our memories. They live on in our dreams. People often dream of close relatives no longer with us. My maternal grandmother, my mother, and others, appear to me when I sleep from time to time. The more intense and frequent our interactions with them while they were alive, the more they remain part of both our conscious and unconscious minds in the here and now. Things that the departed taught us influence what we do and say. Those who’ve been part of our lives, our families, friends, and acquaintances, both inside the church and outside, continue to be felt in how we relate to God and those around us. Consciously or unconsciously, ideas that we learned, and examples that we saw, remain with us and are part of us. The closer they were to us during their lives, the closer they are to us thereafter. Thus, those who are no longer with us on earth still exist in our lives, but in a different way. That continuing presence is the “everlasting life” to which all of us aspire in our prayers. The take away is that what you do on earth in life does indeed affect how you live on after leaving earth.
A departed person is in the heaven of our minds and souls when others have good memories of that person. That’s what motivates celebrations of La Dia De Los Muertos, when families celebrate the love they knew from the earthly life of departed people. Although their loved ones are no longer with us, we continue to feel the love we knew when they were alive and with us.
While churches often have complicated, expensive and time consuming procedure to pass judgment on the lives of the departed to determine who is worthy of sainthood and a place on the calendar, a more precise description of what is necessary to be recognized as a saint is found in today’s Gospel, which assists us in understanding how we all can become saints, truly blessed by God, and potentially considered saint-like by others after our lives on earth conclude.
Each of the beatitudes falls into two parts. It is condition and result; if this happens, then a particular result occurs. The first part describes the humiliation of the present, the second the glory to come. This particular literary characteristic is found throughout the Old Testament prophets and wisdom literature. They are a declaration that those now in unfortunate circumstances will be vindicated in the end. In the context of All Saints Day, those who suffer in this life will eventually suffer no more. If we persevere in dealing with hardship, things will eventually come out alright.
Being a Christian is not easy. So much of what Jesus teaches in the beatitudes goes against what we accept as normal. Take for example, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” Many people don’t want to make peace and reconcile their differences with others. They want to win and get their way. Or they want to nourish the comfort they get from a chip on their shoulder. And consider, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” Male individuals in this country are taught to be anything but meek or humble. We’re taught humility makes on a loser, and that those who succeed are anything but meek. A survival-of-the-fittest mentality, where people compete to survive, is the exact opposite of the society Jesus envisioned in the beatitudes.
Traditionally, the Church looked on this Gospel reading for All Saints day in an estachological way, that is, focused on the last things at the end of time, not survival in the here-and-now. But there’s a lot in there that’s useful to us today, that will, bottom line, make for a better society in the final analysis.
The beatitudes that make up the Gospel for All Saints Day is a proclamation of what it takes to be a saint. Sainthood, however, is not just for those whom the church has designated as saints. We can all be saints. The beatitudes begin what’s called the “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus delivered it at a large public gathering, not just to His disciples in private. Today, His words continue to speak to all of us as an inspiration of what we ought to become.
The most practical of all the beatitudes is my favorite: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” This is the same attitude we see in the Our Father, when we as God to forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others. In everyday language, “what goes around, comes around.” This particular beatitude is the most challenging. I often ask myself why people aren’t merciful to one another. We ask for God’s mercy, but often don’t show it to others. Being merciful to others is not always easy, as again, we instinctively want to retaliate against those who wrong us, and we instinctively want to see wrongdoers punished. Retaliation and punishment are considered “justice” in our society. We behave that way because we fear that if we don’t react in that manner, we will continue to be wronged. We live in a society that sometimes over-emphasizes personal accountability enforced by punishment, a notion which is the exact opposite of mercy.
Mercy is part of what God is, and part of what we are. We are created in the image of God, and the God I know is merciful, as we are told twenty-six times in Psalm one thirty six and in numerous other places in scripture. The core of human nature, with fear out of the picture, is to be merciful to others. Be merciful, and others will be merciful to you. A merciful world is God’s bottom line, God’s final analysis, the world God wants for us. God wants us to show mercy to one another. Mercy goes around, mercy comes around. AMEN.