Words on the Word
Apocalypse 7.2-14: They have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb.
1 John 3.1-3: We shall be like him.
Matthew 5.1-12: Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the mount.
Our thinking about saints is visually conditioned. We envisage venerable personages in pious postures, gorgeously dressed and aureoled. In churches, images of saints are normally placed high up, on plinths and in niches. The saints can seem remote, as if they belonged to a species other than our own. They can seem to reflect a sheen of unreality. This is most clearly evidenced when Christian culture erodes and only the images are left. I guess that is why Protestant, secularised Norway finds it hard to see Olav Haraldsson, for example, as a saint. He appears too human, too much like ourselves. But that is the point. The call to sanctity, addressed to us all, is not a call to be more than a human being — or something else, be it an angel. It is about becoming, by Christ’s grace, a human being through and through.
Today the Church lets us read a passage from the Apocalypse. It relates John’s vision of the saints who worship before God’s throne. The apostle is perplexed. Who are they? Where do they all come from? Let us note carefully the answer given him: ‘These are the ones who have come from the great tribulation. They have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb.’ The question about origins is not answered with geographical or biographical reference. What matters in a perspective of sanctity is not where a person was born, what profession he or she exercised. The determining factor is the tribulation endured. John writes as an old man, having seen the systematic persecution of Christians. It is natural to him to use the vocabulary of battles.
Forty years earlier, Paul referred to the same process by means of the image of a woman in labour (Romans 8.22). Both approaches are valid. To be a Christian is to be taking part in a genesis introducing a new reality: the kingdom of God in our midst and within us. This genesis will often enough appear like a battle. We must position ourselves between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and untruth. When absolute values are at stakes, a middle path is no option.
It is often far from obvious, though, to recognise the terms of such discernment. Man is complex. Human society is complex. Again and again we must re-root ourselves in our criterion for life and action: the sacrifice of Jesus. Tribulation as such is not sanctifying; any suffering is scandalous, objectively speaking. Yet suffering offered up in the name of Jesus, washed in his blood, can be transformative; it can let light shine in darkness; it can change processes that in and of themselves are of death into a force for life, even though it happens in secret. This is true even if we our not personally exposed to tribulation.
The Church is one body in Christ. What happens to one limb affects the whole organism (1 Cor 12.26). By our prayer and sacrifice we can bring effective consolation to brothers and sisters in tribulation, who may not be able to pray themselves, being overwhelmed. This touches the heart of the communion of saints: we bear one another’s burdens in a communion that defies time and space in all-encompassing fellowship.
Do you find me sounding a bit sombre on this glorious day? It is not my purpose. No, I want to point towards a wonderful hope unfolding in the midst of our present limitation. I am simply keen that we do not reduce the image of Christian sanctity to a pastel-coloured romance.
This morning, having prayed the divine office, I listened to the BBC news. I heard a conversation with a man in Gaza who, in the course of a bombing, had lost his father, two sisters, brother and sister-in-law, two nieces, as well as his own four children, aged between 18 months and nine years. I found myself nailed to the kitchen floor, not knowing what to do. When you hear a thing like that and perceive, even in an infinitesimal degree, what it means for a man to endure such experience, you feel paralysed. You feel poor, you mourn, a thirst for justice surges; but there is no evident beatitude in sight. How, then, can you sit down in comfort to sip your coffee?
Only awareness that tribulation is mysteriously part of an ongoing work of redemption gives strength to break out of paralysis, to invoke the cleansing power of Jesus’s Blood on this pain and on all the world’s pain. The new life before us, the call to be holy, is rendered possible by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. Each of us must, like St Olav, find our point of anchorage there, nowhere else; then meaning can issue even from terrifying chaos, then even death can turn into life.
I once read a story from the great terror during Stalin’s rule. A Russian nun conveyed a message to believers outside the Soviet Union. She urged them to pray fervently. It was essential, she said,
that they should keep burning on the altars of their hearts the flame that is tortured out of ours. If
only some of them keep it burning, we will find it in our prayers, in our sleep and in our flight away from our tormented bodies. It will shine to us as a glowing beacon of light in the numbing darkness, and we shall be comforted and Christ will rejoice.
That such a spread of comfort is possible is what we commemorate and celebrate today.
The call to holiness is about assuming responsibility, not just for our own need, but for all that the mystical Body of Christ might need now in the midst of tribulation. The more deliberately we are incorporated into the saving work of Christ Jesus, the more aware we shall be of being bound to a communion that exceeds every boundary. We shall see that the world is held by grace despite all. The saints’ hymn of victory will echo even in what here and now may seem like senseless defeats. Thank God for that. Amen.