As children we heard from our father the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. He told us that when Adam and Eve put the forbidden fruit to their lips and ate there was a sudden loud noise in heaven which shook the whole universe. It was the sound of the gates closing. From that moment heaven was locked and no one could enter it again.
Of course, it never entered our heads that there are no gates in heaven and that therefore there could not have been a noise. Kids' stories are, like kids themselves, more interested in the truth than in the facts.
The truth was that from that moment humans were no longer capable of friendship with God; that they could not undo the damage they had done; that a Saviour was now needed, and as the story went on to tell us, he would one day come down from heaven to do the saving.
In more adult terms we are back once again to the theme of communion, or oneness with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our feast today celebrates all those who are one with Christ, particularly those who have reached heaven, and of those, particularly the canonised saints. It may be helpful to some to recall here that a ‘canonised’ saint is one who has been authoritatively declared by the Church to have lived in a heroic degree of communion with Christ during his or her life.
St Paul routinely refers to the ‘saints’ living in Jerusalem or in Lydda, and so on. He means all those who are in union with Christ in the Church. In the same way, he would have called all those of us here in this church who are in the state of grace the 'saints at Camperdown'. However, we are ‘saints-at-risk’ since our freedom has not yet confirmed us in the friendship of Christ and sin can cause us to lose it.
The first reading today comes from the book of Revelation. It presents us with two visions, one on earth and one in heaven. Heavy with the same kind of symbolism found in my father’s stories the word of God directs us to divine truth.
And yet, though we all know God does not sit on a throne in heaven because he is pure spirit and that the elect don’t stand around in white gowns holding palm branches, we do not insist on this awareness. My father never pointed out to us that heaven doesn’t really have gates. He understood all too well that symbols are ‘a way of talking’ and that biblical symbolism is the language offered us by the inspiring Spirit of God to enable us to speak of heavenly realities.
And so, the ‘seal’ of God, usually worn on a ring, is pressed to the foreheads of God’s servants. Do you think God really wears a ring? You do? On which finger? No, he doesn’t wear a ring but he can claim as his own and protect from harm all who live in his friendship.
The one hundred and forty-four thousand are the New Israel. They are the twelve tribes of the Old Israel squared and then multiplied by a thousand for good measure.
The white robes and the palm branches are symbolic of purity before God and of victory over evil.
The great persecution is not meant to refer to just one historical moment but rather the experience of every Christian in every age who seeks to overcome evil and enter into communion with God and his saints.
The Lamb is Christ - the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. It is the blood of the Lamb which alone can restore innocence before God and the saints in heaven are those who have washed their robes white again in the blood of the Lamb – perhaps the most powerful image of all.
In a homily for this feast in 2006 Pope Benedict referred to a homily of the great St Bernard who said: The Saints have no need of honour from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs.... But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.
Yes, that is certainly so. We might adapt the words of Preface IV for weekdays and say: Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to their greatness but makes us desire to grow in your grace.
At heart this desire is for growth in communion and the road to this communion is traced out in the Gospel today. The beatitudes are really a description of Jesus. He is truly the gentle, the merciful, the pure One who was abused and persecuted because he hungered and thirsted for what is right. It goes without saying that those of us who seek him must walk the way of the beatitudes.
The Church is God’s household - in heaven, on earth and in purgatory. To celebrate one part of it is to celebrate the whole because we are all one in him, bearing his seal on our foreheads. Let this feast inflame each one of us with the tremendous yearning St Bernard spoke of and may it renew our desire to walk the Christian way.