We are formed to approach the Book of Revelation in the Bible by the films and books of our age. Lots of esoteric plots about the seven seals, impending apocalypse, and even some who are “left behind.” This is what the Book of Revelation is about in popular culture. Gloom, doom, and a whole tangle of mysterious images. “The end is near,” they cry, or even “all God’s prophecies have been fulfilled.”
However, on this glorious All Saints Feast Day, the church does turn to this same book, but to a portion biblical scholar Barbara Rossing describes as “a salvation interlude.”* Here, on this day, the church hears of a vision of God’s glory with God’s people in Christ, and even with all creation. It is all about the joy and glory of God’s great Day when the world is put to right. And it is about how the vision of that Day changes our own self-image, our life together in Christ, and our view of the world. Given the dire events that impact us every day, it is a wondrous festival in which we can celebrate such a “salvation interlude.”
The interlude opens with a surprising note. An angel appears “from the East,” and
announces to the powers that could wreak havoc with creation, “Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees.” Here, in the midst of the signs of future travail is God’s word about the creation. “Do not damage it!” cries out the angel to those powers. And in our own time, that angel may well be announcing to humanity as well, “Do not damage it!” What a surprising note to hear in the midst of the Book of Revelation! We are to honor the creation, not abuse and exploit it, even down to the trees. Of course, we do, continually damage the world which was ours to care for. The signs of our misuse of creation are all around us now. But God’s opening
word in this “salvation interlude” is that we turn away from our misuse of the creation and turn toward our intended role as caretakers and stewards. Pope Francis wrote of such things in his encyclical, Laudato Si:
Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs
for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its
fruitfulness for coming generations. (Laudato Si, Chap. 2: II: 67)
So, “Do not damage,” cries the angel on this All Saints Day. The saints of God, and especially St. Francis of Assisi, heed the angel and serve as caring, tending, keepers of the earth. We saints do not damage the land or the sea or the trees.
St. John the Seer then shares with the church a new vision, one of “a great multitude,” people “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” This vision is of the saints triumphant, gathered by God and now standing “before the throne and before the Lamb.” Two qualities characterize this heavenly congregation. On one hand, they are innumerable, impossible to count, too many to even imagine. Sure, it may be deeply felt in our post-Christian age that we who are the baptized in Christ are a small band of believers, sometimes ignored by the world or even distained and persecuted. We read the statistics that our numbers, at least in North America, continue to decline. Yet on the Feast of All Saints, our vision becomes that of the Evangelist St. John. He is shown the huge expanse of the faithful, impossible to number, who gather round the throne and the Lamb.
Mega-computers searching out the farthest numbers of Pi baulk at the task of counting this great multitude. This is our “great cloud of witnesses” who cheer us on and who give confidence in our striving. On the other hand, the vision is emphatic: this great multitude of the saints is from “every nation, race, people, and tongue.” Here is the rich diversity of the New Israel, the saints of God. There are indigenous saints from North American, New Zealand, and Australia. There are saints who in this life trace their heritage to Celtic, African, Arabic, Eskimo, Hispanic, and Asian roots. Ancestry.Com’s entire data base is represented in this great multitude, and more. None more privileged than another, and all graced
with life together and life eternal in Jesus Christ.
Catholic artist, Ira Thomas, created a compelling painting of that vision in Revelation.** The faithful are spread across gentle hills and by meandering lakes. Up close, you can discern the individuals in the multitude—different in ethnicity, gender, race, and from every nation. They stand with loving arms about each other’s shoulders, and the faithful saints cover the entire landscape and form their own. Perhaps the artist intended that the only visible feature other than the multitude is the lake of water. Is Thomas saying here that this body of water is a witness to the Sacrament of Baptism that we all share? I believe so. A great multitude, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. Our cloud
of witnesses; the saints of God.
At this point in the salvation interlude, things shift. Instead of the angel narrating the vision, suddenly, that angel turns and asks a question of the Evangelist: “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” St. John immediately flips the conversation, basically answering, “You tell me!” So the angel takes up that task. “These,…have survived the time of great distress,…washed their robes, making them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”
These white-robed saints are the martyrs and those who have been persecuted for Jesus’s sake. That was their great distress. Take a pilgrimage to Rome and one of the essential stops is the catacombs of St. Callixtus on the Appian Way. Descending down the eighty or so steps, the first room is named “the little Vatican,” as it held the remains of nine popes of the early church. Two of them have MPT chiseled beside their names, the Greek shorthand for “martyr.” Then, a bit further, you enter the crypt of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. She was martyred in the 3 rd century. But the names go on and on, beyond that catacomb to the most recent faithful who suffered death for their faith. At Westminster Abbey in London, a new row of statues across the tower façade honors ten 20th century saints including St. Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia (a saint of the Orthodox Church). All now white-robed in glory, washed in the blood of the Lamb. They all had an encounter with great distress, they all now share in the communion of saints, and they all urge us onward in our journeys.
Of course, along with those who met with such great distress are most all of us assembled here around this altar. Mostly, our distress is of a lesser degree. Still, we long for the earthly presence of loved ones who have died in the Lord. We have struggled with our own health and mortality and some of us live with family members whose health and well-being is slipping away.
(The preacher is invited to add other examples within the parish of those who are living with such distress.)
And recently, we have found ourselves harassed or impugned because we
are Catholic Christians and therefore pro-life. Some churches have been burned or defaced and in some parishes the Mass was disrupted by protesters over the Dobbs Supreme Court decision. So far, no one yet martyred, but we do find this a season of distress. Our distresses, though, are juxtaposed with the saints who encountered great distress and are now honored among the faithful in the glory of God the Father and Jesus Christ the Lamb.
But we are also those whose white baptismal robes have been washed in the Blood of the Lamb. We are graced with the communion of saints who now rest from their labors and who shout “Blessings and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” They urge us on and we are in their prayers.
*Barbara Rossing, “Commentary on Rev. 7:2-4, 9-14,” Working Preacher, April 21, 2014.
** The Communion of the Saints, for All Saints; by Ira Thomas / www.catholicworldart.com.