When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.”
Although the Sundays of November are captivating for their feasts, the Lectionary selections for November are not kind to the conclusion of the narrative of St. Mark, which has formed the backbone of this year’s Cycle B readings. November is the final month of the Church’s liturgical year, with Cycle C and the Gospel of Luke beginning on November 29, Thanksgiving weekend. This coming Sunday, November 1, the Feast of All Saints, has its own prayers and readings unique to the day which supersede the Mass texts for the Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time. Holy Days and major feasts take precedence when they fall on Sundays. Mark will be back on November 8 with Jesus’ observations about the poor woman’s simple gift to the temple. The final reading from St. Mark is November 15, his famous apocalyptic description of the end times. The last Sunday of Ordinary Time (the 34th) is always replaced by the Feast of Christ the King, and in the B Cycle the Gospel is drawn from St. John, Jesus’ encounter with Pilate on Good Friday.
From the preceding paragraph you may catch a hint that in the worship of November is oriented toward “the Last Things.” This is true to a point; for most of Catholic history, at least as far back as the 600’s, the Church has had a celebration of the saints and the souls in Purgatory. In its origins All Saints was part of a three day observance: the vigil of All Saints (October 31), the feast of All Saints (November 1) and the Memorial of All Souls (November 2). The October 31 Vigil was known as the Vigil of all the Hallowed (holy) Ones, and this lengthy term was shortened to Halloween over time.
Now that I have raised the “H” word, I guess I have to finish. Halloween began with religious roots. In looking at several sources, it seems that at some point the vigil of All Saints either coopted some pesky pagan customs (Celtic, sorry to say) or may have inadvertently encouraged local customs of the macabre, given the subject matter of the feasts, death and the grave. Those with long memories may recall that in the 1980’s there was a strong Evangelical campaign to stamp out the October 31 observance in the U.S. because of Satan’s influence. NPR looked long and hard for a clergyman dumb enough to go on the air and defend Halloween…and they found one. I explained the original meaning of Halloween as the Vigil of All Saints—“take that, you uneducated ministers”—and crossed my fingers that my career, such as it was, would not take too big a hit. A few days later I was in the chancery for an unrelated meeting which included our diocesan director of liturgy. In front of a table of my peers he said to me out loud, “I heard you on NPR. You sounded like you were defending your right to collect free candy.”
The history of the All Saints-All Souls commemoration in its various forms is the Church’s most intense liturgical focus on where we go after we die. The Baltimore Catechism used to speak of the Church as a three-part entity: (1) the Church triumphant, the saints; (2) the Church suffering, those who have died and are making the difficult passage from our imperfect world of sin to the beatific vision of God, in a state known as Purgatory; and (3) the Church militant, we the living who are entrusted with saving our souls and spreading the kingdom of God. (Those in hell were no longer factored into the equation.)
It is the third group where the jury is out; we still have determinative options about our own futures beyond the grave.
This is the liturgical theme underlying Sunday’s Mass and Scripture selection. The Gospel for the feast (Matthew 5: 1-12) is the opening of the famous Sermon on the Mount. We have not talked much about St. Matthew yet; his Gospel is proclaimed during Cycle A and it will be another year before we will study it together here on the blog. But a few points may help to explain this text’s placement here. As a stand-alone text, the Sunday reading will be easily recognized as the “Eight Beatitudes” or the principles of Gospel living. If the parallels between Jesus delivering new law from a mountain reminds you of Moses on Sinai receiving and then delivering the Ten Commandments, that seems to be the intent of St. Matthew. Writing to a community composed of Christians who had converted from Judaism, Matthew is working to keep the community Christian, as many members were facing persecution and fleeing back to Judaism, who received better treatment from Roman authorities. Matthew’s Gospel as a whole is an effort to portray Jesus as the New Moses, and the Church as the New Jerusalem. The Beatitudes have thus set the bar higher. They do not dissolve the Ten Commandments, but they define the Judeo-Christian life as the quest for a perfect life. The Swiss theologian and Vatican Council peritus Hans Kung put it well when he wrote that Christianity is the only religion in the world to demand that its members strive to become like their God.
The Beatitudes, unlike any other moral code, are open ended to perfection. We are called to be poor in spirit, sorrowing (over the suffering of others and our own sinfulness), to be lowly, to hunger and thirst for holiness, to show mercy, to be single-hearted, to be peacemakers, and to endure persecution for our “differentness” as Christians. No one can say he or she has “done” the beatitudes (as in the case of the young man in Mark’s Gospel, who said he had followed the commandments from his youth.) Since all of us will face judgment, we can imagine the grim scene where someone tries to explain to God that “I was a peacemaker for much of my life, but I figured I did enough of that and I went back to being contentious.
The Feast of All Saints is not a remembrance of real saints who don’t get much attention nowadays, which is what I was taught in elementary school. The feast, and certainly the Gospel, is targeted to that third group, “the Church Militant,” who still have the opportunity of choice about what happens to us when the casket closes.