Some saints are more famous than others. Oscar Romero, who was martyred in San Salvador in 1980, is one who looms large. In his final 3 years of life, after being appointed archbishop of El Salvador, he spoke out for peace and justice, in the face of a brutal repression that he only truly came to know after accepting that post. He did not start out to be that voice when he became a priest. He grew up middle class and privileged, but the “eyes of his heart became enlightened,” and his “love for all the saints,” gave him “hope” in his “calling.”
In the last weeks of his life he recorded this in his journal: “Let us not think that our dead have gone away from us. Their heaven, their eternal reward, makes them perfect in love; they keep on loving the same causes for which they died. Thus in El Salvador the force of liberation involves not only those who remain alive, but also all those whom others have tried to kill and who are more present than before in the people’s movement.”
By that time, Romero had already initiated a tradition in the parish of reading the names of those who had been “disappeared,” or died, in the past week, at the Eucharist Prayer, of holy communion. As the names were lifted up, one at a time, the congregation would respond after each one: “Presente.” Present. Here--with us today. They had a sort of, All Saints celebration, every Sunday.
Today we lift up the names of our loved ones who have gone before us in the promise of Christ’s resurrection to eternal life, and remember that they are also, “present” with us. In Christ we are made alive. There is on this day a very thin veil between heaven and earth, and all souls, all saints, it is said, are able to move back and forth. Jesus proclaimed that, ‘the kingdom of God is dawning here among us!’ And, James Alison, the brilliant young theologian said about our reading from Ephesians today, “The point of Christ’s coming and of our redemption was the bringing into being of a new fullness, a uniting of heaven and earth, a fullness in which we should be [children] in [God’s] Son.”
So this is not just some cosmological convergence, but it’s a linking of our lives with God’s. A way of perceiving and understanding what is otherwise mystical and unknowable, like a prayer. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him…” the writer of our Second Reading says. This letter is a prayer for the Ephesians that, through faith they may receive wisdom and insight. Not just any wisdom, knowledge, and insight, but the wisdom to know God. Fred Craddock, the Lutheran homilitician says that, the longest journey any of us will ever make is from the head to the heart. It’s a crucial journey, none-the-less, that we are all embarked on. We are all on the way, and as we go, we are marked ‘present.’
And so our faith is strengthened, that with “the eyes of your heart enlightened,” as the prayer in Ephesians continues, “you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints…” And still, even with such a strong faith, death, can be disorienting. And this is where Daniel’s vision of “the four great beasts that came up out of the sea,” comes in! “The visions of my head terrified me,” said Daniel. Like an ancient Video game, Daniel expressed in apocalyptic language his experiences of loss and death. The death of a loved one, or friend, can feel like that, for us.
And so it is that, the life of the saints, the famous ones like Oscar Romero, can help to orient us when we lose our bearings over the grief of death. We remember that bishop Romero faced up to death, knowingly. He loved his people and served them faithfully. When he spoke the truth as a public figure, he did so knowing his life was on the line. Thirty years later, we remember that it happened at Mass, as he was speaking the words of Christ, to “do this in remembrance of me,” as he lifted the cup of the blood of Christ, and, his blood was spilled too, but, not in vain. It produced a flood of truth telling in El Salvador and all the way to Washington, and the beginning of the end of the death squads. And so today, we remember that Bishop Romero is, ‘present.’
But, most of the faithful who are saints, are not martyrs. Most of us confess the faith and then live lives in the world, unnoticed, and are not known outside our circle of family, friends and church.
I remember a year ago at Thanksgiving, when my family gathered at my sister’s house, how my dad came in a wheelchair for the very first time. He was obviously still delighting in family, especially his grandkids, and one brand new great-grand-daughter. But he was just getting too weak and out of breath to walk very far, or even stand up long. It was disorienting for me even to see him like that, when I had always thought of him as strong and steady, and taller than his three sons.
At New Year’s, we visited again, which was to be the last time I saw him at home. I didn’t know it would be, but somehow, he must have, because as I was saying good-bye, he rose from the wheelchair to give me a hug and a blessing. A real final blessing, that he was proud of me and of my dedication to my calling as a pastor. That kind of frankness was not his usual style, and, it disoriented me again. But it was a gift I know many don’t get, for any number of reasons. He died in hospice care a couple weeks later. But, like all the saints that come and go in our lives, all our loved ones and friends, he is here, ‘present.’
“God put the power of [life] to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,” says the writer of Ephesians, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
Even those saints who aren’t famous, the brothers and sisters in the faith that we know and love, are still blessed every bit as much as those who are. We call out their names, and mark them present with us, in Christ.
This is the promise and power of Jesus, the name above every name, in every age: that he reconciles us with All the Saints, the great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us, and even those yet unborn, and that, Christ will be with us, Present, always!