Since I grew up in Michigan, when I went to college, I attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to take advantage of the in-state tuition rates. Even though that was a long time ago, I still remember the football Saturdays, taking the long trek down to the “Big House,” Michigan Stadium, by some accounts the largest stadium in the U.S., seating over 100,000 (107,601 to be precise). That made for a deafeningly loud and enthusiastic cheering section and a real sense of excitement during the games.
I think of that sometimes on All Saints Day (November 1st), where St. John’s vision of the heavenly gathering of the saints (the “Communion of Saints” – those marked with the seal of baptism) is enumerated as 144,000 (see Revelation 7). But this is not a “capacity count” as one might do to compare stadiums. It is a symbolic number, used much the same way as children will say something like “there are a bazillion mosquitoes out here!” 12 is the number of completeness so 12x12x1000 means more than we could possibly count. Outside of the official list that the Church has declared of those who are certainly in Heaven (the canon of saints or the canonized saints), we don’t know who is in Heaven or how many. But the Scriptures certainly give us every reason to hope that there are countless saints who remained faithful to Christ and are united with Him, seeing Our Lord face to face, unmediated and undisguised.
In the month of November, the Church turns her attention to the “four last things”: death, judgment, heaven [and purgatory], and hell. So it is fitting that we start this month with the most hopeful reflection: the reflection on heaven, by praying with and through all those saints who are already there. I have written a little bit about this on the parish blog, sccrparish.blogspot.com. The short version is that Heaven is not just like the best things we have ever experienced on earth (plus puffy clouds) – the perfect golf course, the most beautiful mountains or beach or sunset, the best concert we have ever heard, and so forth. Instead, at its core, it is experiencing the fullness of the love of the Blessed Trinity, by God’s grace having a love made so pure that we can completely give our love and adoration to Him and receive His love unimpeded. The tradition of the Church has always described this in terms of a vision of sheer happiness and blessedness (the “beatific vision”), being able to worship Jesus the Lamb of God on His throne and see Him face to face. How much better this will be than only seeing Jesus in the Eucharist under the form of bread and wine (as marvelous as that it, and the highlight of our earthly life).
So that brings us to the reasons that the Church has celebrated this feast with great joy since at least the 7th century. The great 18th century English biographer of the saints, Fr. Alban Butler, summed it up this way: Why do we celebrate the feast of all the saints? Four reasons. 1) To give thanks and praise to God for the gifts and grace He gave to His saints. (2) To get ourselves excited about imitating their virtues and their lives – which are quite varied (all ages, both sexes, all nationalities). Related to this, to contemplate the inexpressible joy they share by being united with Christ in Heaven and which we are invited to join if we remain faithful to Christ. 3) To implore the mercy of God on ourselves through their intercession. 4) To make up for the times we haven’t honored the individual saints enough and to glorify God for all the (probably countless) saints that we have never known because they are not recorded in history. [This is from Fr. Butler’s famous and monumental work, The Lives of the Saints (still in print) quoted in the Benedictus devotional magazine (praybenedictus.com).]
St. Bernard says this about the Communion of Saints in Heaven, itemizing some of the different categories of saints: The saints have no need of honor from us; our devotion doesn’t add anything to what is theirs. But when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning..… Calling the saints to mind …arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints.
Let’s pray that we continue to be excited and zealous to do the hard work of remaining in Communion with the Lord on earth, so we can be united with Him and all the Saints in Heaven. The same way an athlete makes many sacrifices to win his gold medal, we ask the Lord to continue to help inspire us to do whatever it takes.