|One of the tapestries by artist John Nava,|
Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, Los Angeles
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
1 John 3:1-3
Many older churches, like our abbey church, have windows stretched throughout the length of the church which depict various saints. It’s a colorful way of calling to mind the communion of saints, those men and women of ages past whose lives were marked by fidelity to the grace of God.
In a variation on this theme, the newer cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles has interior tapestries instead of windows, and these tapestries show a procession of saints heading toward the altar, as if in line for Communion along with the worshippers themselves. There are the apostles, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis, St. Clare ... and on and on, with their names over their heads.
But scattered among those saints are people without names, people who don’t appear in Butler’s Lives of the Saints: a teenage girl, a young man from the barrio, and children in contemporary clothes. They are the saints whose names are known to God alone.* It’s as if the abyss between this world and the next had closed over and the procession pulls in people of every age, from the mount of the Beatitudes to the New Jerusalem of the Apocalypse.
When Jesus spoke his Beatitudes to the crowd, he set in front of them scenes from their everyday lives, all too familiar things that they could easily recognize. He began with poverty, and the poor in the crowd could look down and see nothing but their open hands. The mourners stared at him with faces that sorrow had furrowed with tears. The browbeaten had hearts grown gaunt from looking for justice. Even those who earnestly looked for the kingdom of God—the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers—saw their good deeds so often punished with ridicule and scorn.
But when Jesus looked out on the crowds, he saw more than crowds; he saw blessedness in their midst. When we look out at people who fill our everyday lives, it’s a challenge to see beyond appearances. The Beatitudes are a tall order for faith, but they open our eyes to the truth of God’s power to save, to roll back the borders of this present world. We’re keenly aware of the limitations of our human condition, perhaps too keenly aware of them in others, yet we constantly bump up against those limitations in ourselves as well.
The startling clear eye with which Jesus looked out at the crowds respected the truth of his audience’s lives. He saw shepherds, fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers—all the usual suspects—who would never get on the list for canonization. But he pronounced them blessed, a subversive challenge to a one-dimensional view of the world that kept them on the edges of compassion. To all those ordinary folks—people like us in many ways—Jesus opened the borders of the Kingdom of God in which there are no illegal immigrants.
The blessedness that Jesus pronounced on the crowds who covered the hillsides is no relic of the past. It is the legacy and the glory of his followers through the centuries and into the future. As part of the Communion of Saints, the Church is the community of those who live out the Beatitudes through their life of Christian faith. We who believe in the power of Christ's death and resurrection, made present to us here at this Eucharist, have been initiated into a community of saints established by the Risen Christ. This way of life is God’s gift to us. It numbers us among that vast multitude envisioned by John in the Book of Revelation, a multitude drawn from every nation, race, people and tongue, who know that salvation comes from God.
The Beatitudes teach us that authentic joy is not a dream that belongs only to a far-off future, but it is a gift of God for living in our present world as well. The voice of God calls to us daily in our Christian lives and opens our hearts to the hope of heaven in whatever circumstances we encounter.
St. Benedict tells the monk in his Rule that he should “hasten to do now what will profit him for eternity,” not because holiness is merely the price of the life to come; it is the unshakable communion with God’s life in us now and forever. To see the world in this fashion is to have the eyes of Jesus himself. It is to be a person of the Beatitudes for every age.
The message of the contemporary figures mixed in among the known saints in the tapestries of the Los Angeles cathedral is the message of the Solemnity of All Saints. These unknown saints are just as blessed as the ones who are known. They look like us. They look like people we might pass on the street.
If they can be saints, we all can be saints. Saints are ordinary people who allow God to have his way with them. The feast of All Saints is a celebration of the wisdom of Christ at work in men and women of every age, our own included.
*Deacon Greg Kandra used this illustration of the Los Angeles cathedral for an All Saint’s Day homily on his blog, “The Deacon’s Bench.” Credit goes to him for his good imagery, and I acknowledge that I have borrowed from it here and at other points.