Living Mysteries (All Saints)
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Living Mysteries (All Saints)
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Here on the feast of All Saints’, the observation is frequently made that the word “saint” has at least two meanings in Christianity.
The first and older meaning of the word applies “saint” to every Christian. We find this usage in the New Testament.
The other meaning of saint applies it to certain deceased Christians whose witness has become known and celebrated in large sections of the Christian community. Such saints are commemorated by feast days, churches named for them, and still other practices.
I’d like to offer a third definition of the word to complement the other two. It originates in something said by Emmanuel Suhard, who was Cardinal Archbishop of Paris in the mid-twentieth century. He declared that “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
Suhard’s last words here are what snagged me, when he spoke of someone whose “life would not make sense if God did not exist.” That, it seems, is a practical definition of what it means to be a saint.
We are presented with a radical example of this definition in today’s gospel.
Lazarus has died. He has been buried in a tomb. His friend Jesus shows up, too late to heal Lazarus, too late even for the funeral.
Together with other people, Jesus visits the tomb, which is a cave with the entrance blocked by a large stone. Jesus orders the stone to be removed. Martha the dead man’s sister objects. Lazarus has been dead for four days; surely there will be a stench. Jesus promises her that she will see the glory of God, and so the stone is removed from the entrance.
Jesus looks upward, prays aloud, then calls Lazarus out of the tomb. The dead man walks into the daylight, and he is something to behold, bound from head to foot in burial cloths.
Seeing Lazarus rise from the dead must have been an unforgettable experience for everyone who witnessed it. And for the remainder of his life, he was recognized there in the village of Bethany as the man Jesus called out of the tomb. Lazarus clearly meets the definition of a saint that I offered you. His life after leaving the tomb would not have made sense if God did not exist. Lazarus was, in Cardinal Suhard’s phrase, “a living mystery.”
The same holds true of other saints, whether they are listed on church calendars, or known only to a few. If we pay attention to their lives, we find they do not make sense according to the ways of the world. Another factor must be taken into account: the God who exists and who acts in the lives of people.
In the case of Lazarus, it was an actual tomb from which he was set free. Other saints are summoned away from different forms of death.
•Thus Saul of Tarsus, whom we honor as St. Paul, was delivered from a promising career as a killer of Christians.
•Moses the Ethiopian, hot-blooded leader of a marauding robber band, left his life of crime and later accepted martyrdom for Christ.
•John Newton was emancipated by a grace most amazing from his business as a slave trader to proclaim the gospel in speech and song.
•Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing, appalled by high fatality rates among those wounded in battle, labored mightily to deliver them from what otherwise would be certain death.
Each of these Christians, and many more, became a living mystery and they remain so.
All Saints’ Day is the occasion when as the Church we throw up our hands, admitting that the ranks of these holy ones are too vast for each to be celebrated by name, even if all the names were known to us. And so we keep this inclusive feast, honoring each and every one, aware that the ranks are forever growing, moment by moment, year by year.
We look not only to the past, however, to people whose earthly lives are complete. This day compels us to look around also, for we have many contemporaries who are living mysteries, people whose lives make no sense if God does not exist, but whose lives make sublime sense because God does exist.
Church tradition sometimes speaks of an octave, a period of eight days. Thus the octave of All Saints’ continues through next Sunday.
For this period of time, I invite you to join me in undertaking an assignment. Consider the people you know and know about. Consider them carefully.
Are some of them living mysteries, the sort of people whose lives would not make sense if God did not exist? I imagine that each of us can come up with several of these. By remembering them, giving thanks for them, allowing ourselves to be puzzled by the likes of them, we can keep the feast of All Saints throughout this eight day period– and beyond.
Recognizing people whose lives do not make sense unless God exists– recognizing these people among our contemporaries now on earth and among people who have gone on before us– by doing this we identify the living mysteries who surround us, and who are also participants in the far larger mystery to which they contribute.
For All Saints is a time to look out and see how the fields await their harvest.
Countless seeds have fallen into the earth, sharing with Christ in the paschal mystery of death and resurrection. They produce their tremendous crop, a crop that makes no sense unless God exists.
The assembly of saints in heaven is most glorious. So too is the harvest of saints here on earth.
Look for this tremendous crop with the eyes of faith. Recognize that your place is among them.
Copyright 2015, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.