all saints: already and not yet
Jesus came proclaiming the reign of God, or the kingdom of heaven, and he says it is “at hand.” There are all kinds of different translations and understandings of those few words––“the reign of God is among you, the kingdom of heaven is within you.” But any way you slice it, it’s now somehow. The reign of God is now. Heaven is already here. In the beatitudes of Matthew Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is yours.’ How can that be when all evidence points to the contrary? Many days it’s still hard for me to believe that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The explanation that gives me consolation is the little phrase that our Fr. Joseph Wong always used about heaven and the reign of God: “already and not yet.” The reign of God is already and not yet.
And the same applies to holiness, our holiness. Paul uses the words “saints” almost 40 times in his epistles, but he is never talking about the saints in heaven. Paul uses it to refer to members of the church, of the churches to whom he is writing: how the Spirit intercedes for the saints; how we ought to contribute to the needs of the saints, especially the poor among the saints; how he himself is ministering to the saints; how the followers of Christ ought to take grievances before the saints instead of bringing lawsuits. Paul is not speaking about the saints in heaven. He is speaking about the saints on earth, the holy ones in the church. He also uses that word when he’s talking to the members of the church, as in the Letter to the Romans when he says he is writing To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints or to the Corinthians––those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. There too is a kind of “already and not yet.” You are saints; you are called to be saints; you are called to be what you are.
Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from Vatican II) chapter five is entitled “The Universal Call to Holiness.” What’s remarkable about that chapter, actually about that whole constitution, is that there is a concerted effort to bring holiness down to earth, you might say. It had been the tendency of the Church to venerate first just martyrs as saints. Then around the time of the Peace of Constantine more bishops and teachers, confessors were added to the list, and then the ascetics, some of the early monks. By the medieval times canonization was expanded but still usually reserved for founders of religious orders like Francis and Dominic, or great teachers such as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. And then with the Counter-Reformation a lot of folks were canonized who were recognized for their heroic virtues, but for the most part there weren’t a lot of ordinary folks.
With Lumen Gentium the Church wanted to re-emphasize what was already there in Saint Paul, that everyone is called to holiness. Sanctity, holiness, is not reserved for a select few, but held out to all of us as our “already and not yet.” Just look at those beautiful words from the Letter of John: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are… Beloved, we are God’s children now. There’s the “already.” But then he says what we will be has not yet been revealed… when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is. There’s the “not yet.” And therefore, he says, since it is not yet––purify yourself!
One of the words that comes up often in our new translations of the presidential prayers in our Missal that gives me pause is the word “merit.” I’m sure the translators are using that word to convey something theologically sound, but it sounds a lot like we need to climb our way to heaven of our own accord, which is one of the oldest heresies in Christianity––Pelagianism, and it was usually monks that got accused of it. So when we hear that word “merit” we have to be careful and understand what it means. I like the word “realize” instead, because it means two things at the same time––to become aware of something, and to make something real, as in “to realize a plan.” And maybe, just maybe, to become aware of something is to make it real. And so this feast today is meant to make us aware of something––to realize our sanctity, to be aware of it, and make it real.
I think one definition of holiness could simply be “union with God.” Martin Laird, in his wonderful book on meditation, wrote that even union with God is not something we accomplish, or––God forbid––merit; it’s something we need to realize. It has already been accomplished for us, the Christian tradition teaches––by Jesus the Christ. It’s already poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us and in the sacramental life of the Church. We need to realize it. It too is an “already and not yet.”
There is an ancient liturgical acclamation that comes from the 4th century Apostolic Constitutions; the bishop holds up the Eucharistic bread and says “Holy things to the holy!” That’s all I ever knew about it. I didn’t know until recently that there was an answer. The people say, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ who is blessed forever!” That’s the same thing we mean when we sing in the Glory to God, “You alone are the holy one.” Just as in the Catholic understanding there is only one priesthood––the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and all of our priesthood––the ordained ministerial priesthood as well as the ordinary priesthood of the baptized––is a sharing in the priesthood of Jesus; so the same thing applies to holiness: there is only one holiness, the holiness of God, the holiness of God made manifest in Jesus. As soon as we start to think of ourselves as holy, we next have to think, “Already and not yet.”
And so Lumen Gentium says that, “The followers of Christ, called by God not in virtue of their works but by [God’s] design and grace, have been made children of God in the baptism of faith and partakers of the divine nature”: there’s the “already.” “Therefore they must hold on to and perfect in their lives that sanctification which they have received from God.” There’s the “not yet.” We are not completely passive in the process. We have to hold on to that sanctification which we have received from God, and perfect it in our lives––we have to realize that we are partakers of the divine nature, become aware of our union with God and make it real.
How do we do that? In the Letter to the Colossians we’re told as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved––there’s the “already”––put on compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience”––there’s the “not yet.”
The saints are those who we believe are in union with God, and they stand before us as intercessors but also as models and inspirations, archetypes of who we are and who we are meant to be––the saints and the called-to-be-saints, already and not yet. Our union with God is accomplished through our union with Jesus who is the holiness of God, Jesus who is the vine and we the branches. Our union with God is made real through our union with the Word and in our receiving and becoming Eucharist; union with God is also realized through our koinonia–our communion, the communion of the saints in heaven but also our communion with the saints in the sense that Paul talks about––our communion with each other, the ordinary saints, all of us called to be saints. What we are to be has not been revealed to us––not yet, but we are God’s children––already.
cyprian / 1 nov 17