In the earliest Christian times it was common for Christians to refer to fellow living believers as “saints”—hagioi in Greek. Saint Paul and other New Testament writers do this many times, as did the Church Fathers. In the Catholic Church the term gradually came to be restricted largely to deceased heroes of the faith although some Protestant churches still follow this biblical tradition and use the term “saints” to refer to living believers.
Well back in the first Christian millennium feasts of All Saints were established both in the Churches which later came to be known as Eastern Orthodox, and in the Church which we identify today as Roman Catholic. In the west the date of November 1 was settled by the eighth century or earlier, but in the east it falls at the end of the Easter season; for instance, this year Ruthenian and Ukrainian Catholics marked All Saints Day on June 11th.
I suggest that what unites the saints from all periods of the Church’s history is a two-fold movement: first, their ability and willingness to look beyond the attractions and pains of the present world to see the ultimate value of eternal life and the world to come, and second, their desire to bring that “world to come” into the present day by hastening the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus taught all his followers to pray for the coming of the Kingdom in what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, but the saints actually went further and lived the Kingdom while they were still with us. They were aware that as our Lord said in the Gospels “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20), and “the Kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21), yet at the same time they understood Jesus when he said “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
The seeming contradiction is resolved when we realize that while the Kingdom of God has already begun to arrive (“the kingdom of God has come upon you”), it is not like an earthly kingdom (hence, “My Kingdom is not of this world”). The saints thus lived what Jesus teaches us in the beatitudes, which are the heart of today’s Gospel reading.
The beatitudes define the true order of the Kingdom of God, and contrast it implicitly with the ways of our own world and our own kingdoms, both national and personal. The saints looked beyond the straits of this world and saw that the Kingdom is already here, yet is obscured by natural limitations and by sin.
The holy ones whom we celebrate today recognized that the beatitudes delivered in today’s Gospel were and are the key to true sanctity and citizenship in the Kingdom, and they embraced—some from their earliest days, others at the last moment of life—devotion to Jesus Christ who spoke the beatitudes and who lived them perfectly.
Today we should all take a moment to think of our own patron saint—Saint Edward the Confessor in my case—and to consider the way in which he or she lived the beatitudes (we may need to use some imagination here), asking their intercession that we might do the same, and thus one day join in the “great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue who stand before the throne and before the Lamb” (see Rev 7:9). Then we will truly be “saints” even here and now, always hastening the coming of the Kingdom of God. Painting: P. Raphael Pfisterer (1877-1942)
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.