This day we commemorate all the saints who have gone before us, the blessed company of all faithful people. It is natural then to ask the questions, Who are the saints? And where do they come from?
To approach an answer I would like to tell a story that comes down to us from the earliest generations of monasticism in ancient Egypt. One of the abbas, the spiritual fathers of the desert monastic communities went to Abba Joseph of Panephysis, an old and saintly man. He said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” In reply the old and saintly Abba Joseph, stood up and stretched his hands up toward heaven. His fingers shone like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you wish, you can become all flame.’”
A saint is someone who has become all flame. We see this in today’s reading from the book of the revelation of Saint John. In his vision Saint John sees the assembly of the saints.
The elder addresses Saint John with the same questions I posed just now: Who are these? And where did they come from?
Notice what he does not say. The elder does not say, “These are they who achieved success.” He does not even say, “These are they who did more good deeds than bad deeds.”
He says: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The Greek word “leukas” here translated as “white,” really means something else. It does not in the first instance mean white, like the color; it means bright.
Shining. Like flame. And the word “wash” doesn’t occur here at all. The word is literally “they brightened.” “These are they who have brightened their robes in the blood of the Lamb.”
In many ancient languages, Greek included, there are strong associations between brightness and liquid. To be bright is to shimmer, like fire, like light playing off the surface of water. In Hebrew the same verb “neher” means to shine, like fire, and to flow, like blood. The saints are those who shine like flame because they have been immersed in the blood of Christ.
Where have they come from? Saint John tells us they are a great multitude, innumerably many. They come from every nation, every tribe and people and tongue. And not just that: “They have come out of great tribulation.”
The Greek word here for “tribulation” means constriction or compression. The saints have been constricted. It’s the same word our Lord Jesus uses when in the Gospel of Matthew he asserts that the gate that leads to life is narrow and hard to enter. The word “hard” is formed from the same word here that Saint John uses, tribulation, which again just means constricting. The gate that leads to life is narrow, and it is hard to pass through because by passing through the narrow gate that leads to life you will have to be constricted.
The saints come from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, but they have one thing in common: They have been constricted. This is how saints are made. This is where they come from. Constriction is necessary for making saints, who are people who have been squeezed through the gate that leads to new life. When we are born into our natural lives we are constricted by our mother’s birth canal; we are squeezed so that we can be pushed into life. The same thing must happen for us to be born into new and eternal life; we have to pass through the narrow gate, we have to be constricted so that we can born anew as saints.
Just like our natural birth, that process of new birth is a painful and difficult one. We must be constricted though so that everything that does not truly belong to us can be stripped away. To become all flame is to have the dross of our lives, everything impure, everything unworthy, burned away. In our ignorance and rebelliousness we resist this constriction; we recoil at its painful difficulty.
A friend in Australia gave me a book when we found out that Tristan had special needs. This book was written with such brutal honesty, and it applied to my situation so precisely, that I literally could not stand to read more than a few pages a day. It’s a memoir, written by the father of an adopted son who suffered permanent brain injury as a result of a series of seizures in infancy; the son, a boy named Jake, was later diagnosed with autism and with mental disability and a host of other problems that made even the simplest daily activities a torment for him. Bath time was particularly upsetting for Jake and for his father. Jake would have to be stripped naked and dunked in the tub; he would thrash violently, lashing out in incomprehension and pain. Frustrated and exhausted by this daily ordeal, Jake’s father finally realized that dealing with his son was a perfect metaphor for how our Father in heaven must be put to the test by our rebellious outbursts.
Our Father in heaven just wants us to be clean, to be washed in the blood of his Son, to be baptized into water, into the Holy Spirit; he wants us to be holy like him, to become all flame. But we lash out against this, thrashing and flailing against what hurts us, what we don’t understand, like little broken Jake. One time though, Jake’s father tells us in his book, one time, Jake is ready to go into the tub on his own. He undresses and sinks into the tub of warm water calmly. He lies back and actually relaxes. He relaxes and is at peace. And his father looks at him, and he says specifically that it is in the play of the light on the surface of the water, in that shimmering, Jake’s father says it’s as if his son has no disabilities at all. He has been brightened.
All the saints are made this way. This is where they come from. They come from great constriction. They are squeezed under pressure. The saints are persecuted, tormented, harassed, fired from their jobs, kicked out of polite society. They are an embarrassment, a freak show, clowns and rejects and fools and martyrs.
When I was in high school I met a man at church who had been repeatedly arrested by the Romanian secret police for his relentless work as a Christian minister. In the interrogation room they had a row of bricks embedded in one corner at an oblique angle. That sharp ridge that stuck out from the corner of the room is where the police would try to split your skull open by driving you head first into the bricks with your hands cuffed behind your back so you couldn’t do anything to stop the force of the blow. The Romanian pastor had a bright red scar running down the center of his bald forehead. A permanent injury, there for all to see. But the look on his face was one of perfect peace. They arrested him because he would not stop preaching Jesus; and now his scarred body itself preached Jesus all the time.
Or what about the monk at the Grand Chartreuse monastery in Grenoble, France. After decades of daily prayer and worship, almost all of it in profound silence, he slowly went blind. When asked about his handicap he said, “I often thank God that he let me be blinded.” Not, “I have learned to cope with being blind;” not, “I guess I am OK with being blind;” no, “I thank God that he let me be blind.” And his sightless eyes shone with an unnatural light. Now all he could see was God.
Or consider one of the great martyrs, the bishop Polycarp, a disciple of the disciples of Christ himself. When threatened with death for his refusal to acclaim Caesar as a god and curse Christ, he said, “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury, how then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?” For this refusal he was burned alive at the stake before a screaming, infuriated, bloodthirsty mob; but witnesses to his execution attested that his body did not appear like burned flesh at all but rather like gold or silver, shining in a furnace. Liquid. Bright.
The saints go into the flames of martyrdom singing hymns and glorifying God because they already are on fire.
They shed their blood, but they were already shining, bathed with the blood of Christ.
At the dawn of human history blood was shed in anger and envy. And the blood of Abel called out to God from the ground.
God answered that cry by shedding his own blood. The blood of Christ was shed on the cross, and it soaked the ground outside Jerusalem, and from there it flooded the entire world.
The blood of Christ still cries out to this day, but it cries out not for vengeance, but for forgiveness, for peace, for meekness. The blood of Christ cries out with the same voice he raised on the cross itself, as he was dying, “Father, forgive them.” They hated that voice, they killed him for saying those words; the world hates that voice, the world lays violent hands on the saints who speak with the same voice, and it puts them to death for it.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers.” These words do not belong on a greeting card. They are not to be embroidered on a throw pillow. Because these words are written in blood.
Those who live by them do so because they have been brightened by the blood of the slaughtered lamb, whose death and resurrection opened a narrow gate to new life. The saints have been constricted through this narrow gate and have passed through to the other side, where everything foolish and maimed and broken shines with an unearthly brightness.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, blessed are you…”
Blessed are you. Blessed are you…when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. The saints are those who have been blessed for these reasons. And so it can be for us too. Jesus is speaking to his disciples on the mountain, but at the very end of this passage he is speaking to you too.
Because there are no special qualifications needed to be a saint. Anyone can do it. You know what words in this Gospel passage stun me every time? “Rejoice and be glad.” We don’t face much real persecution; it’s probably why there aren’t many saints around to inspire us. Beaten, blinded, burned alive: They rejoiced. They were glad. But we all suffer, and in whatever we are suffering, we can rejoice and be glad. And when we do we will look ridiculous and contemptible to the world, serene in our scars, at peace in our disfigured bodies, singing as all our filth is burned away.
You will notice that the Abba who came to Abba John for advice was doing all the right things already. He said his daily office and fasted and purified his thoughts. And Abba John didn’t tell him to stop doing those things. I would tell you to do the same. We should be saying our daily office and fasting and purifying our thoughts and if you want to know how to get in the game then come talk to me. But the goal is not to learn how to do more spiritual stuff or even do more good deeds. The goal is to turn into fire. Then we will be all rejoicing, all gladness, and like the saints before us, bathed in the blood of Christ, we will shine with his light.