source: What Has "All Saints" to Say to Us Today?
by Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar | From "God's Holiness In Us", in You Crown the Year with Your Goodness: Sermons Through the Liturgical Year
Let us reflect for a while on the feast that the Catholic Church is celebrating today. What has "All Saints" to say to us today? Even describing someone as a "saint'; seems terribly anachronistic to us, like an echo from a world long past; indeed, many people now only use the word in a tone of mockery. It means less to us than, for instance, "a good man", someone who has dedicated himself totally to the common good or to justice, someone to whom people in trouble can go, someone who understands and steps in to help. Is such a person a saint?
Let us begin quite simply with the word saint or holy. In the ancient religions, including that of the Old Testament, it refers to a thing, an animal or a person consecrated to the deity. This thing or being was chosen by the community to be taken over by God and to be at his disposal, or an individual may have personally decided to so consecrate himself.
Thus, in this primitive sense, an animal placed on the altar of sacrifice and consumed by fire is "holy". The Levite also, however, chosen for Temple service, is "holy". And the whole people of Israel, chosen by God from among the nations to be a people for himself, is a "holy" people, consecrated to God.
Why? Because holiness is the prerogative of God, and everything that enters into his sphere is made to participate in his divinity. As far as a person is concerned this means that, if he is called upon by God in this way, he must also adopt the appropriate attitude and disposition: "Be holy", says God to his chosen people, "for I am holy." To give Israel an idea of how a man is to behave when drawn into God's circle, it is given two tables with the Ten Commandments, later to be summed up in the great Commandment, namely, to love God above all else and with all one's strength.
At this point Jesus introduces a twofold deepening and clarification of the concept. In the first place he reveals a new vitality in the nature of the God who concluded a Covenant with Israel: God not only looks for love in response to his gracious condescension to man; he himself is absolute Love, since he has given up his beloved Son for his Covenant partners-and now all men are such. Now "holiness" means being admitted into this sphere of absolute love; it means consciously entering into it and becoming assimilated to the disposition and attitude of this God of love.
In the second place, however, the act of self-giving on the part of the "holy" God is the Incarnation of his Son, who wills to take upon himself the guilt of all men vis-a-vis God; henceforth the guilt of mankind, the sin of the world, can and must be found concentrated in Jesus Christ; henceforth the presence and the forgiving love of God can and must be recognizable behind the person of every fellowman: "What you have done to the least of my brothers, you have done to me"-which is why Jesus, in his preaching, joins the two greatest "Commandments into an inseparable two-in-one: "Love God above all else . . . and your neighbor as yourself."
If we are really speaking about holiness-and not only about the good man, the humanitarian ideal, which men are quite capable of envisaging for themselves—if the word holiness is to have a real content, it must lie in the twofold Commandment of Jesus, precisely as he intends, formulates and lives it. So now, being handed over to God's sphere and laid on his altar means being inflamed by the fire of the love of God, who has gone to his death for love of us, and being assimilated, in the love of neighbor, to God's disposition and attitude, his commitment to the world. This sequence is important if we are to grasp the fundamental meaning: God's love for us is primary; it is the standard by which everything is measured, the flame that ignites our love in response.
The other is the consequence: since God's love for us embraces the whole of mankind, our love for him will also join in that movement; we too will share in his work of salvation for the world. Since the word holiness is now, once and for all, inseparable from the biblical understanding of God, we have no right to separate the love of neighbor from the love of God or (I will not say "to raise it to the level of a criterion") to make it out to be the whole content of holiness. This is true in spite of the words already mentioned on the part of the Judge of the World: "What you have done to the least of my brothers, you have done to me", and in spite of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, who simply performs an act of neighborly love and is exhibited as a model by Jesus.
One only needs to read this parable in depth to see that Jesus is here portraying primarily God's activity on mankind's behalf, his own activity as God's Son for the sake of the sick and half-dead. We only have to compare these words of judgment with the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, and we shall understand what they really mean: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt 7:21). Here too Jesus is speaking expressly as the world's Judge. But the criterion of neighborly love is applied as a test of the genuineness of our love of God. What decides the issue is not words and professions of piety but action that is assimilated to the action of God himself.
Now it becomes clear why All Saints is a distinctively Catholic feast. To call a man "saint" and "holy" presupposes that he can—somehow or other—respond to God in virtue of divine grace. He will always be aware of being infinitely far behind the demand, and the more saintly he is, the more this awareness will burn within him. (Only a philistine could imagine that his response to God is generally satisfactory.) "So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy servants' " (Lk 17:10).
Because man must speak like this, because he experiences his unworthiness more and more deeply the more he responds to God, most nonCatholic Christians prefer not to apply the words saint and holy to men at all, reserving them for God alone. This is very understandable, and it is a view we can respect. Yet it does not correspond entirely to the biblical way of thinking and speaking. In the Old Covenant, as we have seen, things and persons consecrated to God really do bear the epithet "holy"; and when the Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New, Christians are continually challenged to be "holy", "blameless" or "unspotted"; and they do this, as Paul requires, by adopting in themselves the disposition of God and of Jesus Christ. It is everywhere assumed that this is objectively possible; and this, rather than the subjective feeling of one's own unworthiness, is ultimately what counts.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Book Excerpts by Hans Urs von Balthasar:
• The King and His Kingdom | From You Crown the Year with Your Goodness: Sermons Throughout the Liturgical Year
• The Mystery at the Center of Our Faith | From To the Heart of the Mystery of Redemption
• The Conquest of the Bride | From Heart of the World
• Jesus Is Catholic | From In The Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic
• A Résumé of My Thought | From Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work
• Church Authority and the Petrine Element | From In The Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic
• The Cross–For Us | From A Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen
• A Theology of Anxiety? | The Introduction to The Christian and Anxiety
• "Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | From Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed
FEAST OF ALL SAINTS:LITANY OF ALL SAINTS: