Today we are celebrating all the saints, all those, that is, who -- known and unknown -- are beloved of God and share in His eternal blessedness by a supremely fulfilling gift of God that can never be lost or taken away, for He is almighty and His will is eternal. Let us now, therefore, look at those blessed ones we are celebrating and also look closely at the way Jesus traces out for all who would share with them in like blessedness.
You heard in that first reading something of the glory of heaven:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, crying out with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
No racism, no sexism, no privileged groups there, but people from all nations and all times; all of them standing as one before the throne of God with the Lamb their Lord and Saviour, and praising God for the victory He has won for them:
Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honour and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.
It is there, People of God, we, as disciples of Jesus, aspire to go when this, our earthly pilgrimage, is ended. Don’t think: “I can’t imagine me enjoying an eternity of nothing else but that”, for the only way to appreciate something of heavenly joy is to recall some special moment when you felt yourself both supremely delighted and uplifted: how time then passed by unnoticed and so, so, quickly, as you later realized! Now the happiness, the blessedness of Heaven is something of that nature: totally overwhelming, uplifting and ecstatic joy that obliterates time! Such recollections should help you realise that in heaven there can be no such thing as weariness or boredom, for heavenly joy and blessedness is an eternal instant of total ecstasy which has its origin in the vision of the infinite beauty, goodness and glory, of God Himself.
That blessedness, moreover, is not exclusively reserved for heaven; for those who come to some appreciation of the beauty of God’s truth and awareness of His goodness to all who believe in the name of Jesus, can begin to experience something of that blessedness even here on earth, as St. John tells us:
Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
We who believe in the only Son of God who died for our sins and rose again, we who hope in the promises of Him Who is now seated at the right hand of power, are thereby being purified as He is pure, and being blessed with a beginning of the eternal blessedness which is His. And as, through prayer and faithfulness in the way of Jesus, we deepen our hope, we come to appreciate -- and perhaps even, at times, imagine we experience -- something of that heavenly joy so intimately bound up with the gift and treasure which is our faith.
If, then, you would grow in that foretaste of beatitude, if you would know more of the heavenly joy to which we are all called as Christians, turn your attention now with me to the Gospel and try to understand better the way through life Jesus has marked out for His disciples.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Blessed are the merciful, Blessed are the pure in heart, Blessed are the peacemakers, Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.
There we have the virtues of the one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed out of all the tribes of Israel as mentioned in the first reading, a wonderful compendium of what is best in the Old Testament: the truest fruits of the Law, the inspirations of prophets, and the meditations of sages; all, indeed, finding expression in the ecstasies of the Psalmists, and leading up to and preparing for that which would be the fulfilment and crown of all that had gone before. As Jesus said (Matt 5:17):
I did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfil them.
Now, however, since with Jesus the time of fulfilment has indeed come, instead of simply recalling the disciplines of the Law and the experiences of the prophets, which had gradually prepared a people for the Lord over the course of Old Testament times, Jesus goes one immeasurable step further: revealing Himself as God in flesh and the supreme glory of the disciples standing around Him:
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.
It is as if He was saying: such, indeed, were the virtues of the OT, but now, for you who are my disciples, your true title to heavenly glory is that you are My disciples. It is no longer enough to say that you are among the gentle, the poor in spirit, the merciful, for you who listen to Me and who follow Me, are all of that and more: you are My true disciples and that will be your sovereign passport for heaven and title to glory.
Yes, People of God, I am sure that you will appreciate that, in heaven, before the God of glory, it is not possible that the meekness, the gentleness, of any of the blessed could be admirable before the God of all holiness. He is pleased to see such virtues of gentleness, humility, patience, mercifulness, or whatever, but being Himself all-holy, He therefore, most necessarily, sees also the limitations of our virtues, and He loves them best as anticipations of Jesus’ grace, preparations for Him. However, the fact that someone has personally recognized His incarnate Word in Jesus, that someone has loved and served -- in Jesus -- His beloved and only-begotten Son Personally, that does indeed evoke the Father’s love, for to love His Son supremely here on earth is the summit and culmination of all virtue, including and surpassing all that has gone before, in His eyes. You who are parents will understand.
Perhaps we can picture it best if we think of a sculptor. God chose His material, the People of God, the nation of Israel, and through the Law and the Prophets He formed -- as does a sculptor with his chisel -- this block ('stiff-necked people' the prophets called them) gradually into some likeness of the Christ who was to come. This work, however, was always done from the outside, so to speak, just as the chisel of the artist always chips away from the outside. When Jesus the Christ -- the Son of God made flesh -- came, however, He gave His divine word to His disciples, to take root in their mind and heart and His example to inspire them. He finally gave His human life for them, and then, having risen from the dead in the power of the Spirit of God, He ascended to the right hand of His Father, from where He sent His own most Holy Spirit to be with His disciples, making them into one Body, His Body, His Church. The Holy Spirit was given to remain with His Church, guiding her into all truth and protecting her from the snares of the enemy, and in that continuing task the Spirit works from the inside, in the minds and hearts of the disciples, constantly forming them into a living likeness of Christ, their Lord and Saviour, for the Father:
Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matt 11:11)
On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood, crying out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (Jn.7:37s.)
People of God, the glory of our calling, and, indeed, the joy of all the blessed in heaven lies in the fact that, as living members and living likenesses (not plaster-cast copies) of the Son, we are destined to share in His glory, and rejoice in the Father’s love:
You are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God -- and righteousness and sanctification and redemption -- that, as it is written, "He who glories, let him glory in the Lord." (1 Cor. 1:30-31)
In our first reading we heard questions being asked about the blessed in heaven:
Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?
In answer to the first question "who are these arrayed in white robes?" we can recall that we heard St. John tell us:
Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He (Jesus) is pure.
So we know now why the blessed are dressed in white robes: they are disciples who, in Jesus and by His Spirit, have purified themselves as He is pure.
But what about that second question, "where did these people come from?" Here we must bear in mind what Jesus has already told us:
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
That is where those dressed in white have come from; as the elder in heaven said:
These are the ones come out of the great tribulation who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Today we have great reason to celebrate: as disciples of Jesus we have already been given a share in heavenly life and blessedness, and we can experience some measure of that blessedness if we purify ourselves, as St. John told us, by trying to walk ever more faithfully in the way of Jesus, and to appreciate ever more deeply the beauty of His truth. The final washing of our robes, however, will only be brought about through suffering with and for Jesus, as indeed so many of our Catholic and Christian brethren throughout the world are now suffering , as God wills for each and every one of us in our life.
Even here -- such is the blessedness already given us -- we can, in some degree, come to rejoice in our sufferings for Jesus as the apostle Paul assures us:
Just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (2 Corinthians 1:5; Romans 8:18)