Hanging on the walls of the house I grew up in are my Grandmother’s paintings. Carefully represented portraits, vivid and luminous landscapes, her artwork adorns every room in that house. As a child (and even as an adult), I don’t think I paid much attention. I didn’t take the time to deeply reflect on the aesthetic motifs at play, the various depictions of old grimacing men, horses in their stables, ships in the harbor with a looming squall in the distance. I didn’t even bother to speculate what was driving her to paint such striking scenes. They were just the canvases that were perpetually present, the canvases that happened to be still and silent witnesses to my child and adolescent years.
It has only been in recent years that I’ve come to better appreciate these works of art that hang on the walls of the house I grew up in. More and more, I am able to see afresh the many ways that each of her works have formed my unrelenting curiosity and imagination, even when, and perhaps especially when, I was most unaware. Before I ever was conscious of art, of musical tonalities or how words came to together to fashion nests of poetics and prose, the creative work that she labored over was already instilling in me a love of the true, the good, and the beautiful. It was almost as if her brushstrokes were somehow, mysteriously, willing my creative life into being, even though I was very much unaware.
But this is not an accolade or eulogy to my late Grandmother, and yet in a way I suppose it is. Today we mark time together as a community as we celebrate All Saints’ Day. Together, in this space, we seek to both remember and anticipate, with a sense of honor and gratitude, all who bear the collective identity, the communion of saints. In doing so, we attempt to name both the known and the unknown personalities that have deeply impacted each and every one of us. In this way, All Saints’ Day is a communal practice of narrating and giving thanks for all who have mysteriously and concretely formed us into the people we are and are becoming. And yet, All Saints’ Day is so much more than mere memorial. Rather it is, I think, an act of defiant hope and an invitation for us to see the world with fresh eyes.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus orients (or perhaps disorients) his disciples to a new way of seeing the world. Who does he called blessed, but the poor, the hungry, and those who weep, a striking counter-testimony to the woes that he unleashes against the rich and the full, those who think they have the last laugh. Luke’s Beatitudes, although reminiscent to the Beatitudes found within Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, contain a much sharper edge to them, particularly when concerning issues of wealth and poverty. In this way, the Gospel writer makes it abundantly clear that God’s commitment to the poor and the hungry, the ostracized and those who weep, is no spiritual aphorism, but rather is to be a tangible manifested reality. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Jesus makes this personal, he speaks in the 2nd rather than the 3rd person. The poor are not just the poor in spirit, but rather, the poor. The use of the present when Jesus says, “you who are hungry now” and “you who weep now” indicates that this isn’t just about one day, but rather right here, right now.
The concrete and tangible manifestation of both blessing and warning that Jesus announces to his disciples are not isolated realities for an isolated group of people. Jesus’ words would have been felt acutely in the present, but the Gospel writer makes sure we know that this new way of seeing the world connects to the past just as it flows on into the future. If we go back, we see this in how Israel’s prophetic tradition never ceases to proclaim God’s resolute commitment to the poor, hungry, and destitute. If we jump forward from Jesus’ words, we see those who continue to challenge the status quo, those women and men who persist in their work for equity, justice, and reconciliation. It is the seen and unseen acts of these known and unknown people, slowly working towards the concrete manifestation of God’s blessing for all, that constitutes the communion of saints.
Our tendency seems to relegate the word saint to just those whose lives seem over the top and extra-ordinary. We’ll list off the Gahndis, the Kings, the Mother Theresas as models and heroes to adore and admire in such a way that actually distances them from us. In doing so, we minimize both their and our humanity. Dorothy Day once said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” To be a saint isn’t to be a superhero or to spiritually supersede reality, but rather to live fully present lives that impact real people, lives well lived that always find a way to know God’s blessedness and unfaltering love for the poor, the hungry, and those who weep.
Cornel West once said, “I am not a self-made man. I am who I am because somebody loved me.” Some of us may not always feel that way, and that’s important to wrestle with as each of us carries a unique story filled with beauty and heartache. All Saints’ Day is reckoning with the invitation to name our gratitude for all who have participated in making us who we are, all who have loved us into being. But it is also about extending that love to others, perhaps even to those Jesus calls, “your enemies.”
Our lives are deeply impacted by people, both known and unknown. It is their subtle seen and unseen works, whether they be your grandmother’s paintings or a simple act of goodness, that encourages and inspires us. May we always be surprised and astonished at the known and unknown saints who fill our hunger, and turn our weeping into laughing. May we seek to live ordinary and wild lives that extend such hospitality, that each of our lives may be a thread in the exceptional and yet concrete and ordinary fabric that is the communion of saints.