All The Saints
…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…
I grew up an orphan.
I do not mean that I grew up without a physical family, I have a loving mother and father and one brother, who is absolutely one of the most charitable and humble humans I have ever known. What I mean is, spiritually, our Christianity was impoverished. We had a local family, a local church, but no role models. Over and over again in the new testament In Romans and Corinthians Paul calls the people of his churches “Called to be saints” now whatever your theory of salvation, that’s not the issue I want to talk about today.
Today, I want to talk about the big family, and what it means to all of us on a totally practical level.
The Saints in John’s vision of the Revelation are attended with the central question “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I often joke with my girlfriend that I am accidentally postmodern. I grew up as a first-generation American, and my extended family has little contact with me. I grew up with few if any family traditions and given my Father’s fundamentalist past, holidays were always a bit circumspect, yes, even Christmas. I say that to say, I grew up in a world without a sense of history. I mean, I’m sure Derrida loves the way I continually am able to defer culture and tradition, or at least he did. I grew up in world where history was a trinket, something in a book.
My family accidentally raised us in the eternal present. Our history goes back as far as my grandparents and then things get murky, and our future was always the optimistic outlook inspired by my father’s belief in capitalism. Not a bad culture, just incomplete. Our Brazilian heritage was largely a tool, used for talking in public without being observed. Until I was in my late teens I don’t know that there was anything specifically Brasilian about me.
I grew up without history, in a church that did the same (whenever we attended church that is) and in a culture whose history belittled ancients in favor of moderns, whose sense of history was always the revisioning lens of the tragic and ignorant past. I saw other churches, with the murals of saints on their walls as a child and wondered with fear, and a bit of confused longing. Stained glass always made me comfortable as a child, but growing up nominally pentecostal only made for pictures of the holy spirit, or red and white and gold glass.
Our heroes of faith were sometimes bible characters, sometimes contemporary preachers. But we had no sense of the Church between Pentecost and Jack Hayford. There wasn’t even an Azusa in our common language, we had no clue what was what.
This obviously made it a bit difficult for me to come to terms with what the Catholic Church calls The Saints. The people who did it. The ones who loved God, who served him well, and whose lives have had profound effects on all of us as well. With the advent of the printing press and the otherwise extensive preservation of literature brought about through Scholasticism, we have a whole family we can commune with.
I think that’s one thing I love about being Catholic: I am never alone. I am part of a family history.
There’s an entire family of faith, brother Lawrence, or Saint Francis, Sister Pierre from my local parish, or Our Pope Benedict, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Clement of Rome, Maximus the Confessor, and so many others. Today is the day we could in vernacular call: Family day. It’s the one day we celebrate the entire family of faith. We see a few pictures of this in the bible. Every time someone calls God the god of Abraham Isaac and Jacob are they saying they have no relation to Him? Of course not! There is just a sense of historical continuity. They understand themselves within a larger picture. So too when St. John pens his apocalypse, he paints two pictures one of the church militant (Rev. 7:2-8), and the other of the Church triumphant (Rev. 7:9-17).
He gives us snapshots, and the whole history of the psalms and Israel does the same thing. At passover devout Jews still say “This is the night when the Lord delivered us from Egypt.” This is not because they think that they are literally passing through red seas or trying to avoid personal relationship with Jesus through their memory as a community. It is because they are trying to let that history shape their awareness of where they come from.
To be Christian means having a large family, the family of the saints.
Being Catholic means having a huge family history and many brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers in the faith. It means looking back at history and seeing how God never left the church, he never stopped caring, he didn’t come back at Azusa as if he had been absent, he was always here. He was always in the Catholic Church. Both through the Eucharist, and through the saints and their lives we see the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. Christ’s action in the lives of the saints transformed them from Church militant to Church Triumphant. The Eucharist too shows us the pattern that God intends for history like this bread and wine, like Christ we shall all be changed.
The saints are often estranged by our culture, even in personal devotion, because they like the jewish fathers and the prophets before them are dangerous, and strange and holy. They too are motivated by a righteous cause and they are snapshots of what the continued action of God in the world means to us. Just like growing up as a first generation American stripped me of a sense of history, so too Protestantism stripped me of history, but Catholicism brought it back.
Being Catholic has given me a family, and a huge stash of family stories. I can talk about my brother Francis who used to preach to animals, and my Sister Catherine who was such an erratic figure she claimed to be married to baby Jesus. I can talk about my Cousin Athanasius who once single-handedly, it seems, saved Christianity. I can talk about my father and spiritual director, Pope John Paul II and how he once started a peaceful revolution and brought down oppressive communism without ever raising a weapon.
These are the stories worth telling. These are family stories too.
Let’s raise a glass of hot cocoa to all the saints, who have become an illumination and a guide, with their testimonies, let us call them blessed, and smile lovingly at the assembly of faith, the true family, which we have all been gifted with.
It’s the holiday season, and since I have moved away from my blood family, it is good to remember my entire family. The great host whom I am always in the presence of, those whom joined to Jesus, are present to me in every communion physically and spiritually are always available and interceding for the Church in the midst of the struggle to the End. I may have grown up without history, but that doesn’t mean I have to stay that way. I may have been a child once, with no traditions and no cousins, but today I choose to remember my favorite “family stories” over coffee with my girlfriend, and we can laugh at the ones we know, and share new ones with each other.