Feast of All Saints All Saints Day is the day on which we remember the martyrs, those who died for their faith, those who refused to sacrifice to the emperor and were thrown to the beasts and gladiators in the arena. Others were tied to stakes and burned while others died deaths too terrible to mention here in God's house. In the earliest days of the Church, martyrs were remembered on the day of their martyrdom; the faithful would gather at the grave of the martyr and would pray and sing hymns. But by the time of the final persecutions towards the end of the fourth century, there were too many martyrs to commemorate on the day of their deaths plus many that had died and whose names had not been recorded. The Christians in Rome were remembering the martyrs, known and unknown, on a special day by the year 373. All Saints Day was celebrated on May 13 for many centuries, but Pope Greogory III dedicated a new church on November 1 and declared that day All Saints Day. In the year 836 Pope Gregory IV declared a universal observance of All Saints on that day and that has been the date ever since.
We remember the martyrs because their example of bravery and standing for their faith helped the church to grow and also helped defeat those who persecuted the Church. The very first Christian martyr was the Deacon Stephen. James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus, was martyred by an angry mob. Later persecutions were committed by the Roman authorities and they were much more cruel than the stonings by the Jews. When we read the accounts of the martyrdoms of Perpetua and Felicitatus, of the martyrs of Lyon, of Bishop Polycarp, and the hundreds of martyrs in the “History of the Church” by Bishop Eusebius, we learn that their brave example changed the opinion of people against the persecutors and in favor of the Christians. When the people of the Roman empire saw the martyrs face death willingly and refusing to give in to their torturers, they began to wonder what gave them such courage and many people were converted to Christ. Even though the martyrs were brave, that was not the case for all Christians. Imagine how frightened you would be if you knew that because you are a member of your church, you could be arrested and torn apart by lions and bears in an arena where everyone in the neighborhood would watch you die. Some people are brave, but many of us are not always so full of courage! The Apostle John discussed this in his vision of the Final Days. John had been exiled to Patmos, a small island, because he had been preaching in Edessa. John wanted to warn Christians of the persecution to come and he wanted to help them face it bravely. He warned the Christians that fierce persecutions would take place, but if they remained faithful, they would be rewarded with eternal life in the City of Light, the City of God. They would all stand before the throne of the Lamb where they would serve him day and night within his temple. The image of the Temple was important because the book of the Apocalypse was probably written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. To serve God in the Temple was an image which gave people hope. John saw 144,000 people from every tribe of Israel standing before the throne, but then he saw “a great multitude that no man could number, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands, crying out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” John was told that these people were the ones who had come through the great tribulation. They had washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. As their reward they serve God in the Temple, but also, they have been rewarded because “the One who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” They were also promised that their deaths would be avenged by God. This vision gave people hope, it reminded them that God loved them and that they would not suffer in vain or die in vain. Because they knew God loved them and that they would have every tear wiped away, they were able to face their trials with courage and this courage inspired others to turn to Christ and receive eternal life. John was fortunate enough to leave Patmos, and he returned to Edessa and later died an old man, in Ephesus.
Most of us are very fortunate; Christianity is not illegal where we live and we probably won't have to face persecution. We probably won't be threatened with death for gathering at our churches every Sunday to share the bread and wine, but people are being martyred for the faith in parts of Africa and in Pakistan and in Iraq. Christians have been killed in the past fifty years in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and even Panama by governments hostile to their dedication to the teachings of Jesus. We need to continue to pray for the Christians around the world who are living under persecution.
The lectionary designates a reading of the Beatitudes on All Saints Day, either the version from Matthew’s or Luke’s gospels. The Beatitudes bestow a blessing for who one is or for what one does. Many of us have been poor at some time in our lives. Jesus said that the poor or poor in spirit have the kingdom of heaven. We a have mourned at some time, and there are people mourning right now, but you are blessed because you shall be comforted. You who are meek are blessed and will inherit the earth. You who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those of you who love God with your whole mind, you are blessed and will be satisfied. You who are merciful are blessed for you shall obtain mercy. You who are pure in heart are blessed and shall see God. Those of you who are peacemakers, who work to end strife at home, at work, in your community and in the world are blessed and will be called the children of God. There are special blessings for the martyrs, for the persecuted. You who are persecuted for righteousness sake, you will have the kingdom of heaven, just as will the poor. And all of us are blessed when people revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely on account of Christ. Those who are martyrs, those who are persecuted, rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. All of us here are either poor, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, or peacemakers. Some of you may fall under several blessings, and some may even be suffering persecution. Know that you are blessed, that you are loved by God. Know that your reward is great in heaven. Know that you are saints, and that, one day, you, too, will stand before the throne of the Lamb and will shout with the other heroes of the faith, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.