4 Nov 2007
“[Zacchaeus] was seeking to see who Jesus was, but he could not see Him because of the crowd for he was a short in stature.” (Luke 19:3) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
Thursday the church celebrated All Saints Day. On this day we rejoice in the promise of eternal life, and we rejoice with those who have already entered into it. The following day is All Souls Day. This occasion allows us to mourn the passing of our loved ones and to keep alive their memory. Every year the second day is better attended than the first day. People seem to connect better with the idea of remembering their own loved ones rather than the general idea of all the saints in heaven. We have a picture in our mind on All Souls Day of exactly who we are praying for. We actually list their names. It’s not a vague concept like all the heavenly saints.
The Christian idea of the saints is sometimes left murky. St. Paul referred to the members of the church as the saints. The term goes back to the idea of a consecrated people, in other words, a people set apart by God and for God. From the moment of our baptisms, we have been consecrated as the people of God. We have been called to saintly lives. To be a saint according to its earliest usage is to be a devout member of the church. Think of the catacombs in Rome. All of these ordinary, early Christians were buried there. Sometimes the grave etchings were a simple fish, just like you see on cars today, or a plain cross scratched into the stone, or maybe a line drawing of a person with hands raised to God in prayer. These were not exceptional Christians; these were ordinary Christians. But those who came after them considered them to be among the saints. Later Christians gathered inside the catacombs to pray and worship because they believed that these ancestors in the faith were now with Christ in heaven. The saints were ordinary believers who now share in Christ’s heavenly glory.
Time has muddied this description of the saints, however. Now when we hear the term we tend to think of people few and far between. We should honour the exceptional people of faith, there is no doubt, but an unwanted consequence of limiting the saints to the few is to let us believe that we are not expected to be among the saints ourselves. To be saintly means to be like Christ, and to let Christ work through us. This is the intent of the prayer that we shared in this morning’s reading from Second Thessalonians: “We always pray for you that our God may make you worthy of His calling, and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him …” (1:11-12)
This same idea of being like Christ may very well be one of the reasons for including stories like today’s Gospel selection about Zacchaeus. If offers us people of faith an example to follow. Saints are supposed to live like Christ, like the way He lived that day in Jericho when He met Zacchaeus. The crowds of Zacchaeus’ neighbours wouldn’t let this little, unpopular man even catch of glimpse of Jesus. They wanted to exclude him. But Jesus stopped beneath that sycamore tree, and called up to Zacchaeus. When everyone else shunned Zacchaeus, Jesus offered to stay at his home and dine with him. When others just assumed that Zacchaeus was crooked, Jesus saw an honest man doing a difficult job. When others thought Zacchaeus was even hated by God, Jesus told him, “‘Today salvation has come to this house …’” (Lk. 19:9) This is what the saints are like. This is what we’re supposed to be like.
I said before that this early idea of the saints as ordinary believers trying to live like Christ is becoming somewhat murkier. Just this past week, for example, nearly 500 Spaniards were beatified by the Pope. These were mainly priests and nuns who were executed during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s. They were murdered by the leftists who viewed the church as an enemy. They would not renounce their faith, even to the point of execution, and for this perseverance they have been put on the path towards sainthood. But …we also need to remember that the cause which earned their sympathy was that of dictator Franco and the fascists, otherwise known in Germany as the Nazis. The Spanish Civil War was brutal and often uncivilized. The innocent were targeted, and the distinction between civilian and soldier ignored – by both sides, that means including the one supported by those who were executed. One of the priests who was beatified, Fr. Zabala, was stationed as a younger clergyman as a missionary in the Philippines. There he was involved in the torture of another priest who was a supporter of the Philippine rebellion against colonial Spanish rule. The person in charge of Fr. Zabala’s case for sainthood said that such a background was not important to the martyr’s cause. Whether or not Fr. Zabala was a torturer, the key fact was that he died for his faith. Is it any wonder then that the idea of the saints has become confused over time? It has moved from imitating Jesus to this kind of forced scenario.
This week I made my monthly nursing home visitations. Some residents just don’t like being there no matter how much they need to be there. One elderly woman almost snuck out of a locked unit when I opened the door to enter. I let a nurse know. They went over to her and got her into a wheelchair and started to bring her back into the unit. Very nicely they said to her, “You want to go for a ride don’t you?” Her response was, “Yes, but you’re going the wrong way.” I think even with the best of intentions we sometimes take our understanding of the saints in the wrong direction. Jesus has to remain the prime example of what being saintly implies. His compassion and welcome of the outcast tax collector Zacchaeus can serve as one example. This is how the saints behave – like Jesus. This is the right direction we need to move in. May Jesus help us all to be more and more like Him, to be more and more like the saints. And for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)