Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Saints: Examples of Holiness


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,


We recently celebrated the Great Feast of Pentecost on June 19.  All of the subsequent Sundays of the liturgical year, until the pre-lenten Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee sometime next year, will be so numbered, challenging us to keep our spiritual sight on the overwhelming significance of Pentecost in the divine economy. 

The New Testament era of the Church began its existence on the Day of Pentecost with the Spirit’s descent as a mighty rushing wind that took on the form of fiery tongues alighting upon the heads of the future apostles [Acts 2:1-13].  The Church has always existed, but the Church as a remnant of Israel that would flourish and grow with the addition of the Gentiles began its final phase of existence with the death, resurrection and ascension of God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ Who, seated at the right hand of the Father, would send the Holy Spirit into the world and upon “all flesh” on the day of Pentecost. 

As Saint Epiphanius of Cyprus wrote in the fourth century, “The Catholic Church, which exists from the ages, is revealed most clearly in the incarnate advent of Christ.” 

The simple calendar rubric of numbering the Sundays after Pentecost is one way of reminding us of this essential truth of the Christian Faith.  The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and in and through the sacramental life of the Church we experience something like a permanent pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The first two Sundays after Pentecost are dedicated to the saints -- the first, to All Saints, and the second, to local Saints, in our case, the Saints that have shown forth in North America.  We commemorate all of the saints of the Church – men, women and children -- from her beginning to the present day, including the “patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.”  That is, the entire “cloud of witnesses” that surround us and pray for us while serving as models for our own faith. 

God has revealed to the Church His innumerable saints, and we rejoice in their continuous presence, made possible by the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.  The divine and co-eternal Spirit, holy by nature, makes human beings holy by grace.  That is why these particular Sundays fall so naturally after the Sunday of Pentecost.

The word we use for "saint" is the Greek word for “holy” – agios.   In a real sense, we are celebrating the presence of holiness in the world, incarnate in actual flesh and blood human beings. The descent of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for human beings to become and remain holy.  Without the Holy Spirit, human beings can be nice, pleasant and even good – but not holy.  And it is the holiness of the saints that is their one common characteristic, expressed in an endless diversity of vocations. 

Every baptized and chrismated member of the Church is already a saint – a person sanctified and set apart as a member of the People of God – and every such member has the vocation to become a saint.  The phrase often used to capture this paradox of the Christian life is “become what you already are.”  This phrase expresses an entire lifetime of striving and struggle to attain, by God’s grace, the highest of vocations – the holiness of a genuine child of God, “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” [John 1:13]. 

Of this we are reminded in the Gospel reading for the Sunday of All Saints: 


“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father Who is in heaven...
"He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” [Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38].

We probably have a difficult time relating to such a passage, since we expend an enormous amount of energy – time, talent and treasure -- in order to guarantee for ourselves a comfortable life and the closest of possible family relationships.  God and Church may be a part of that choice, but perhaps only as one compartment of life among many.  At times, the greatest of our goals may be to create a certain form of “domestic bliss,” to the extent that this is humanly attainable.  Nothing else can seem greater or more desirable. 

Jesus, however, makes other claims on us.  And the first of those radical claims is that we must love Him above all else – including father and mother, son and daughter.  This is a “hard teaching.” 

Perhaps it is here that we discover the greatest “achievement” of the saints, and the reason behind the sanctity that they often so clearly manifest.  They simply loved Christ before all else.  And there is nothing that can deflect them from that love. 

But in no way does this diminish our love for our loved ones.  I believe that if we love Christ before all else, then we would have a greater love for those around us, including our very family members.  To love Christ above all else is to expand our very notion and experience of love.  If we live “in Christ,” we can then love “in Christ.”  Elsewhere, Jesus would claim that this would include our enemies!  This is a love that will not disappoint. 

With any other deeper love, there is always the lurking temptation of succumbing to one form of idolatry or another.  Jesus even says that if we love anyone else more than Him, we are not “worthy” of Him!  Clearly, there is nothing easy about bearing the name of Christ and calling oneself a Christian.  Is all of this impossible?  Jesus teaches that “with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” [Matthew 19:26].

We share the most difficult of vocations – to live up to our high calling in Christ Jesus.  This is not something that we achieve on our own, but a process that includes the grace of God and our own self-determination, what we call our freedom of choice or “free will.”  There are obstacles that begin with the genetic and the environmental.  There are distractions and temptations too numerous to keep track of.  There is the unbelief of the world around us.  Yet, if we approach this “day by day,” we soon realize that we are simply trying to become genuine human beings, for the glory of God is a human being fully alive, to paraphrase Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. 

As disciples of Christ, we have the “inside track” to allow us to “run with perseverance the race that is before us” [Hebrews 12:1].  So, we thank God for the multitude of the saints who not only set an example for us, but who also pray for us unceasingly in the Kingdom of God.


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