Amid the annual fall questions and confusion about the alleged pagan origins of Halloween on October 31, and the role of purgatory in the celebration of All Souls Day (November 2), Catholics pay less attention to the celebration of All Saints Day (November 1) than they should. For, the life of the saints in heaven is really the principle upon which the Church grounds the other two commemorations that go to make up this unofficial Triduum of the Afterlife. For, the Hallows E’en celebration is only an anticipation of All Saints, and we pray for All Souls precisely because they, and we, hope to share in the life of all the saints in heaven. Indeed, it is good and salutary for the Church to remind us of the goal of the Christian life with the celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints, as well as to warn us away from missing the eternal mark.
What Is Eternal Life?
While it is true that Christians often proclaim that “Jesus saves,” what this means is often understood negatively: Jesus saves us from sin, death and, ultimately, hell. Implicit in this, of course, is that salvation consists in life, even eternal life. But, for reasons I have briefly begun to explore elsewhere, non-Catholic understandings of the Gospel give little positive content about what the nature of eternal life is. This is not because the Scriptures do not offer us a positive understanding of salvation and the life of the Blessed in Heaven (because as we will see below, they do). Rather it is because the nominalism that Protestantism absorbed in its foundation sees salvation as beyond having any intelligible universal nature (having only a ‘name’ (nomen)) and so views salvation primarily in terms of God’s sovereign will to ‘save’ sinners who do not, and cannot, merit it. The only criterion and rationale for a sinner not receiving the eternal punishment he deserves is the (ultimately unintelligible, nay arbitrary) will of God mercifully to grant the sinner eternal life in heaven. This same nominalism, likewise, gives rise to the “penal substitution” view of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, which I have also presented the Catholic view as an alternative, and to which I will refer below.
It is especially helpful, then, for the Church to direct the attention of Catholics on one feast day of the year to what it means to attain eternal life, and so receive final salvation. This Catholic understanding is thoroughly Scriptural, and is ultimately grounded in the belief that God reveals His own inner, intrinsic nature, that we can come to have some intelligible grasp of it (though not complete by any means), and most marvelously, we can actually come to share in this nature, becoming adopted sons and daughters.
Who Are Saints?
One way Scripture uses “saints” or “holy ones” is to refer to fellow living Christians (Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 14:33). This is especially true when Saint Paul refers to the ‘saints’ in Jerusalem whose financial support he asks his audience to contribute to (1 Corinthians 16:1-3). But, Scripture also says that the saints in heaven are connected to us, being integral to what is attractive about the salvation found in Jesus Christ and the Church, something that is contrasted with a frightening, threatening God of wrath and vengeance.
You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them. . . . No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect,and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel (Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24).
The Book of Revelation especially talks about Christians who are already in Heaven:
After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:9,14-17).
This depiction includes much symbolic language: ‘white robes’ refers to a purification the saint received because of the ‘blood of the Lamb,’ Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, and they hold ‘palm branches’ as a sign of their victory. As a result of this victory and purity, won through Jesus, they are given life and are freed from hunger, thirst, sorrow and hardship. But the precise nature of the victory, and its relationship to purity is not spelled out.
Jesus, especially, speaks of the salvation he offers in terms of eternal life, but it depends on knowing and believing in Him.
For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day. (John 6:40)
Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ (John 17:3)
And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever possesses the Son has life; whoever does not possess the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:11-12).
Indeed, throughout the New Testament, heaven, while a place of unending life and joy, is often spoken of in terms of mystery.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).
So, while there is a mystery in what the eternal life of heaven will be, Scripture is clear that it involves knowing God in a way He knows us. And furthermore, this knowing and being known will make us like God, and this will require moral purity. This connection between the saints in heaven extends to us here and now, and contributes, it would seem, to our own sanctification.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
So the life that brings us into communion with the saints, the holy ones in heaven, is at once a life in which we are purified of sin through some effort of ours, yet also one through which Jesus perfects us through having faith in Him.
And as the Letter to the Hebrews continues, this comes about by God disciplining us
“for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness . . . that holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:10,14).
All of these elements of eternal life come together if one understands the saints are the holy ones who share in the fullness of God’s life in heaven by becoming the completion of Jesus’ saving mission. For they now manifest in themselves the true, intrinsic nature that God manifested in His Son by becoming one of us in Jesus. For as the Son of God shares in our human nature in Jesus, so through Him, the saints share in His divine nature in Heaven (2 Peter 1:4). But this divine nature is not unintelligible, and inaccessible in nominalistic obscurity, but rather the saints ‘see’ and ‘know as they are known’ and share in the divine nature, but mysteriously so. And they have been brought to this glory precisely through the Son of God manifesting God’s love and redeeming humanity. As Jesus says of Himself and His mission,
“For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28).
The cross of Jesus thus manifests the true, intrinsic nature of God, a God Who is Love
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us (1 John 4:7-12).
And the cross not only manifests God’s nature, it effects the saints’ sharing in that nature. The cross reconciles sinners to God, for those who accept what Jesus does on their behalf, in faith, are incorporated into Him and participate in His saving act. His life of obedience to the Father becomes the life of obedience for everyone who, as His disciple, places their faith and trust in Him. As St. Paul says,
“Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).
As He shares in our humanity, we share in His divinity, and are empowered by grace to love our neighbors, indeed even our enemies, with supernatural love, and bear our crosses as his cross. The saints, as a cloud of faithful witnesses surrounding us, live out this divine life in Heaven.
In this way, the whole of Jesus’s incarnation, but as culminated on the cross, is precisely how we come to be sharers is his divine life. Through the cross, through our sin and hate and selfishness and pride, God, in Jesus, loves us sinners into becoming His beloved children, brothers of the Eternal Son of God. The cross of Christ heals our estrangement from God, not by satisfying the blood requirement of a vengeful deity, but by fulfilling on our behalf the plan and purpose for which God created free creatures, capable but failing of human love. Not only does Jesus’ sacrificial love overcome our failure to love, through faith and being incorporated into Him Himself, as members of His very Body, we become sanctified, and by His grace, able to love with a superhuman, divine love – the very Love between the Father and the Son which is the God’s own inner life, the life of the Holy Trinity.
Prayers of the Saints
All Saints Day also reminds us to pray to the saints to intercede for us. Just as we are encouraged to pray for each other and so we benefit from the prayers of other Christians on earth, we Catholics believe that we can also be helped by the prayers of those who have been made perfect in following Christ, the saints in heaven. It is clear that we should pray for, and ask for the prayers of, each other.
First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human. (1 Timothy 2:1-5).
But since all who follow Christ are bound together as His Body, the saints who have gone before us are in an especially good position to present our prayers and petitions to God. If it is good and pleasing to pray for each other here on earth, so much more can those in the presence of God in heaven hear and present our prayers on our behalf. As it says in Revelation, the saints in heaven offer our prayers to God under the form of “gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones” (5:8).
Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel (Revelation 8:3-4).
Mary, the Mother of God
The unique, and privileged place of Jesus’ mother, Mary, among His disciples is also clearly presented in Scripture. The angel Gabriel, in announcing that she would play a special role of bringing Christ and His redemption to the world addresses her, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28) and tells her “you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). The special favor and grace that God gave her is confirmed in the exchange with her cousin, Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:41-43)
And Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:46-49).
Mary was blessed by God in this unique way in order that she would be worthy to bear in herself, and raise as a human boy, the Son of God.
To become the mother of the Savior, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the Annunciation salutes her as “full of grace”. In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace. (CCC 490)
In order to be the Mother of the Son of God who would redeem the world from sin, she was kept free from sin by the very redemption her Son would bring about on the cross.
Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854: The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin. (CCC 491)
The honor given to Mary, the Mother of God, should not be confused with the worship which is reserved for God alone. The Church honors her for the grace God showed her in preserving her from sin, in choosing her to be the earthly mother of His Son, and her obedience to and faith in His word. We also ask for her to pray to God on our behalf. But the Church never offers her praise, adoration, sacrifice or worship; all of the honor given to her is on account of the favor God showed her.
The Church rightly honors the Blessed Virgin with special devotion.
From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of ‘Mother of God,’ to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs. . .. This very special devotion . . . differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration. (CCC 971)
Indeed, it is from two Scripture passages in particular that the Church understands that Jesus gave His Blessed Mother to be our mother, and so she is due maternal honor.
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. . . .She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. . . . [H]er offspring [are] those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus (Revelation 12:1-2,5,17).
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home (John 19:26-27).