The Saints Before Us
I saw a meme on Facebook a little while ago that came to mind this week while I was thinking about All Saints Day. It was a story about a younger person having a conversation with an elderly person, talking about the times we live in. The younger person talked about all the difficulties of the pandemic, about the pain of not getting to spend time with family and friends, how people were having a hard time paying the bills when the economy came to a crashing halt, how it’s all layered on top of all the other issues going on this year—civil unrest, angry elections, global climate change, all of it.
And the elderly person gave them some perspective based on their lived experience. They had lived through a world war. They’d seen the world brought to the brink of nuclear apocalypse. They’d experienced Vietnam, Watergate, Kent State, and the oil crisis. They’d seen so many upheavals and difficulties, but in the end, things have always turned out okay. Somehow, even if we come out with bruises, the bad things in the world can’t overtake the good things—not in the end.
Today we are celebrating all the saints—all the Christians who have gone before us. That’s saints who lived a decade ago, and a century ago, and a millennium ago. The Church has been around for two thousand years, and as much as the elderly person in that meme talked about what they’d been through just in the last century, the saints together have experienced two thousand years of it. Two thousand years is a long time, and a lot of disasters, crises, pandemics, and collapses have happened in between. The saints over time have experienced all kinds of terrible and disastrous things.
But the thing about that meme I mentioned earlier that I appreciated was that the elderly person didn’t chastise the younger, claiming they had it so much worse so the younger person should just stop complaining about what’s happening. There wasn’t any judgment. Instead, they were sharing this rich and deep lived experience of living in and through crises to tell a deeper truth: goodness is stronger than evil. It’s not a question of who’s had it worse; it’s a call to know it gets better.
Which, really, is embodied in the beatitudes that Jesus spoke in the gospel reading. These people who have experienced the worst that life can throw at you—these are the people who are blessed. They’re the people that God favors: the poor, the mournful, the brokenhearted, the peacemakers, the hungry, the people at the bottom. These people that the world ignores or thinks of as anything but blessed are really the ones that God loves the most. But it’s not because being ground up under the wheels of oppression somehow makes you more holy. It’s not a case of who’s got it worse to know who’s more favored. It’s a call to know who to turn to.
When Jesus names the people he names in the beatitudes, he’s not just saying pretty things that would go well in a Hallmark card. Jesus is naming people, specific people, whose lived experience gives them a different perspective on God. People who are hungry or mournful are people who turn to God for food and comfort. People who long for peace and live genuine, vulnerable lives know that they have to lean on God for everything they need. Adversity alone doesn’t make you blessed; it’s what adversity does to change you.
That’s why it’s always good to look at the lives of the saints on All Saints Day. We can look back on how they reacted to the hard times and terrible disasters that have happened throughout history, and see what we are called to do. When Christians experience disaster, we do our best work when we turn to God and let God work through us to share hope and life with others.
We see the example of saints like the Beguine Society of the Rhine River Valley, women who kept making clothes for the poor even as the plague descended all around them. We see the example of saints like Augustine, who wrote The City of God in the wake of the sack of Rome, a reminder that God’s kingdom isn’t tied to the survival of any earthly state. We can see the example of saints like Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered his life in place of a stranger’s at Auschwitz.
The times we are living in are difficult. We face one of the most contentious elections in our country’s history. We face the greatest social upheaval in a half-century. We face a pandemic that has rocked the entire world and shows no signs of stopping. We face the ogre of climate change. We are the midst of a crisis that has so many layers, many of us have gone numb to it. But we have the communion of saints to look to in these times. We have the hope of two thousand years’ worth of experiences, two thousand years’ worth of stories of how evil was faced down and overcome, two thousand years’ worth of examples of how the bad things can’t overtake the good, not in the end.
And we can trust in that because we trust in the same one that the saints over those two thousand years trusted in. And even more, we are connected to that great cloud of witnesses by our baptisms, so that when we look to how God inspired our mothers and fathers in the faith, it’s not just stories of people from long ago. When we look to the example of the saints and how they overcame terrible circumstances, we know that the same Spirit they received in baptism is the same Spirit we have today. God unites us in one great communion of saints from one end of history to the other, knitting us together in one body to shine the hope of Jesus Christ in a world desperately in need of hope.
So when the world feels overwhelming, and when the shadow of crisis looms too large to see, remember the communion of saints. Remember that bad things have happened before, and bad things will happen in the future. Remember that trials will come, but Christ is with us through it all. Christ has been with us through it all. And just as Christ carried the communion of saints through all the crises of the past, he will carry us through this too. Lean on him. Turn to God for your needs. Know that whatever happens, God will be with us just as God has always been with us, no matter what.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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