October 29, 2010 by Paul
There stands in Arlington National Cemetery a monument — a large white tomb — which is so hallowed and revered that it receives an honor guard that stands watch 24/7, an elite honor guard whose members are chosen from only the very finest, an honor guard whose sense of duty to that hallowed monument will cause them to stand that watch in the face of blistering heat, bitterly cold winter winds, and torrential rains — even when their superiors give them permission to seek shelter. The monument is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and it honors all those soldiers who have died in service to their country, whose remains could not be identified, and whose names are known only to God.
The Feast of All Saints, which we observed this Sunday, is just such a monument for the Church. From the early centuries of the Church, a day was set aside in which all those who had died in the Faith — most of them martyrs, having been put to death for their confession of Jesus as Lord, and most of those unknown by the Church, but known by God – a day in which these saints would also be honored by the Church. In the Church of the East, the day was observed on the Sunday after Pentecost. There is a certain logic to that — the thought being that Pentecost is the “birth” of the Church, and the Church grows, in spite of persecution, because of the faithful witness of many who will suffer death before they deny the Lord who died for them, redeemed them by His blood, and rose again. As one early Church Father wrote: “The blood of the martyers is the seed of the Church.”
In the West, the Feast of All Saints is traced to the foundation, by Pope Gregory III (731-741), of an oratory in St. Peter’s for the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world,” with the day set for November 1st. While “All Saints” is meant to honor those who have passed from this life, it would be a mistake for us to misunderstand or mis-interpret the word. When we speak of saints, we automatically think — almost unconsciously — “really holy” and “dead.” But one of these ideas needs to be re-examined.
One day, not long after Jesus had entered Jerusalem for the Passover — His “Passover” — He was teaching in the Temple. On that day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us, the first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, whose wife will she be in the resurrection, since all of them were married to her?”
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead — have you not read what God said to you, ‘I AM the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, BUT OF THE LIVING.”
St. Matthew tells us that when the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching. And it is pretty astonishing — the declaration that God is no a God of the dead, but of the living; that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob — the holy patriarchs, having long passed from the earth, are NOT dead, but alive!
So what’s the connection to “All Saints”? Simply this: the saints who have gone before us, who have passed from this life, are not dead — they LIVE. They live IN CHRIST, who is LIFE. The saints LIVE, the ones known to the Church, and the ones known only to God. But unlike the honor guard keeping watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the saints — known and unknown — keep over us, a never-sleeping, ever-present, always watchful, honor guard.
“… since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”