BC and AD - All Saints Day
The saints of the Church represent quite a wide range of fascinating people. Some were apostles, prophets and martyrs; bishops, priests and ascetics; men and women; rich and poor; old and young; some were murderers and thieves early in their lives; others were prostitutes and quite immoral in their behavior; all were sick and broken to some degree, whether physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually; many were quite lost in their lives.
Jesus Christ cares and loves all people, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, and if we allow Him, He takes us from where we are, and transforms us into a new creation! We heard this clearly in the Gospel reading the day after Pentecost, which was also the Feast of the Holy Spirit. “The Son of Man, Jesus Christ, has come to save those who are lost.” In this reading, our Lord uses the vivid analogy of a shepherd caring for his sheep. When the Good Shepherd realizes that one of His sheep are lost, He can’t stay content counting the 99 safe sheep. He seeks to save the lost, to go out and look for those who are broken, sick, suffering, those who feel abandoned, alone and afraid. Jesus Christ loves each of His children, no matter what they have done in their lives, and no matter how lost they may be!
Every day we hear about saints of our Church who may have been adrift, but found new life in Christ. For example, when I was in Albania a week ago, I learned about St. Nikodemos of Berat. He was a man married three times, and when his third wife died, he wanted to marry a fourth time. Since he was not allowed to marry in the Church a fourth time, he decided to renounce his Christian faith and become a Muslim. When he did this, however, his favorite son would not become a Muslim. In fact, his son decided to go to Mount Athos and become a monk. Nikodemos loved his son so much, that he traveled to the Holy Mountain to find his son. While there, he repented of his apostasy and professed once again his Christian faith. He was so sorry for the sin that he committed, that he decided to go back to his home town of Berat, and profess his faith in public, which he did, and for which he was then martyred. And there are plenty of other saints with sinful and broken backgrounds. St. Fotini, the Samaritan woman, who married five different husbands and still didn’t find what she was looking for. What a broken and despised woman she must have been! the apostle Paul was a religious, violent fanatic persecuting and even killing the Christians? St. Moses the Ethiopian was a fearsome bandit and criminal, who even robbed defenseless monks. St. Mary Magdelene represented a confused, demon-possessed woman, with little hope for her future. St. Zaccheus was a man without principle, stealing from the poor to become rich. And throughout history we read about others who seemed desperately lost, yet who found new life and meaning and purpose in Jesus Christ. Even today, we can meet people who lost in addiction to drugs and alcohol, others who spent time in prison for terrible crimes, and others who hated God and professed militant atheism, yet who then became new creations after encountering the Good News and radical love of Christ Jesus!
Yet today on All Saints Day, we highlight that how the Church remembers not only the canonized saints, but also countless others who lived saintly, holy lives. Some of these unknown saints may have led devout and pious lives from a young age, learning from their Christian parents and growing in the grace of the Lord. Many others, however, had nothing to do with God until later in life.
What is common among all saints, though, is how each one discovered a living, intimate relationship with God, opening their hearts to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and dedicating themselves to following the ways of Christ’s Kingdom. These saints struggled to obey Christ’s commandments, no matter how difficult, and become lights of divine love in the world.
We could say that for many saints, and for many of us, there comes a clear distinction between B.C. and A.D. – a time “Before Christ” and a time “Anno Domini - In the year of our Lord.” “Before Christ,” we live our lives according to our own desires, passions, and needs. “Before Christ,” we follow the influence of the world, with its ways and interests. “Before Christ,” our ego and self-centered attitude dominate our lives.
“Anno Domini,” living “in the year of the Lord” implies that something other than ourselves stands at the center of history. Living “in the year of the Lord” means that we understand and acknowledge God as the beginning and end of everything. He is the Source of life, the Giver of life, and the Sustainer of life. Living “in the year of the Lord” means we live our lives according to His will, not ours. In the year of the Lord, Christ’s teachings and commandments become the central influence in our lives, overriding the influence of the media, society and the opinion polls of the world around us! As Christians, and potential saints, God calls us to live now “in the year of the Lord.”
During this past week, this 1st week following Pentecost, the Church begins reading the Gospel of Matthew once again. And we start off with the fundamentals of our faith as seen in the Sermon on the Mount. In this description of life in the Kingdom of God, Jesus describes for His followers what life is like “in the year of the Lord.” Becoming a saint, making a sincere attempt to follow Christ (and such sainthood is the potential and call of each of us) implies striving to follow the concrete and everyday teachings of God, no matter how hard they appear.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go by it.” The way of evil is easy. We don’t have to do much. Just follow our fallen instincts; go with the flow of society; take the easy path that the majority in opinion polls often promote; and we will be walking that wide and broad path that leads to destruction! Countless people, unknowingly, walk that wide path simply because it’s easy, they don’t give it much thought.
“But narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Mt 7:13-14) Our Lord is telling us that FEW will find the Kingdom of God!!!
Yes, it is hard to become a saint! Surely it is difficult to faithfully follow the path of God. “To love your enemy. To forgive those who hurt you. To show mercy to those who don’t deserve it. To turn the other cheek and not allow anger to linger in our hearts. To understand that adultery begins with lustful thoughts, and murder begins with unchecked anger. To bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To seek above all else the Kingdom of God.”
Holiness will not be reached, unless one consciously seeks after the ways of God in a passionate way. And yes, it surely requires great effort on our part. It won’t simply happen on its own. In fact, the path of sainthood is impossible with only our own effort. But we aren’t alone. If we live “in the year of the Lord,” we realize that God is with us and ready to help us. Christ has sent His Holy Spirit to dwell in us and inspire us! He has given us the Church to nourish us and direct us! Jesus will not allow any temptation to come to us that is greater that the strength we have within. When we strive to do our part, sincerely, He readily will do His part. And His part is much greater than ours. We take one step forward, and He will carry us for the next 10 steps. We struggle to take another step in His Kingdom, and He will hold us in His arms for the next 20 steps. Our Lord is faithful in aiding us, but He expects and waits for us to put forth our own sincere and wholehearted effort as well.
Today, on this feastday of All Saints, let us remember all those men and women who chose to live “in the year of the Lord,” who struggled to walk on the narrow path, and who allowed God to help them grow in their holiness. Yet may we not only honor their memories, but more importantly may we learn from them, and imitate their effort and lives in our own lives, so that we may truly follow the ways of the Lord!
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