St. Philip Lutheran Church
6 November 2022 + All Saints
Rev. Josh Evans
As you walk into the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, the view is awe-inspiring: cavernous ceilings adorned with painted frescoes of angels … brightly colored stained glass windows … a magnificent organ with thousands of pipes … not just one but three altars … and an array of side chapels, just outside of the sanctuary proper, for more private moments of prayer and devotion.
After walking past the first altar in the Basilica’s transept, and then the high altar behind that, and then the Lady Chapel at the far end of the Basilica, you can visit the Reliquary Chapel. This small and unassuming room, tucked away on a college campus in South Bend, Indiana, just so happens to be home to over 1,600 relics from nearly 800 different saints.
The practice of curating and preserving relics – from the Latin for “remains” – goes back for centuries in the history of the church, and there are even different “classes” of relics. Relics that are parts of a saint’s body are considered “first-class.” Fragments of their clothing or items they used during their lifetime are “second-class.” And still other items that have physically touched a first-class relic become themselves “third-class.”
While most of the relics housed in the Basilica are very tiny fragments of cloth or bone kept in small, quarter-size glass medallions, others are more remarkable – and noticeable. One of the first things you would see upon entering the Reliquary Chapel is a wax model of the body of St. Severa, a second-century Christian martyr from Rome about whom little else is known. Two small boxes on either side of the model hold Severa’s bones. Meanwhile, on the wall just to the right hangs a large wooden cross that contains what is believed to be a splinter of wood from the cross.
Whatever your religious background or personal piety, there is no denying that you are truly in sacred space among such relics … and yet:
With the way the church preserves and venerates the relics of its holy women and men, it’s no wonder our perception of saints has become what it is: Saints are “holy.” Saints are “respectable.” Saints might not be perfect, but they certainly live “model” lives of faith, discipline, and service that we can only aspire to.
In a word, saints are blessed.
The gospel readings for All Saints Day for all three years in the lectionary also suggest something else about saints: They weep.
Last All Saints, we wept with Martha, Mary, and Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus in perhaps one of the most relatable gospel stories about loss and grief. The year before that, we heard Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew encouraging those who mourn “for they will be comforted.”
Today, in the Sermon on the Plain, we hear a similar encouragement in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who weep.”
The differences are subtle but important: Where Matthew speaks generically – “Blessed are those” – Luke speaks directly and more intimately: “Blessed are you.”
And where Matthew speaks more piously of “mourning,” Luke gets more real and raw as he speaks of “weeping.” Mourning is formal, proper, even austere. Weeping is honest, loud, even messy. Mourning hides behind a black veil. Weeping holds shredded and tear-soaked tissues from crying so much.
Saints weep … loudly.
Saints don’t have it all together.
Saints are poor and hungry.
Saints might even be hated, excluded, and reviled just for being who they are.
But we resist these saintly characteristics. We don’t want to be poor or hungry. We certainly don’t want to be hated by anyone. Loud and messy weeping makes us uncomfortable.
Maybe we don’t full-on desire the wealth and laughter and praise that earns us Jesus’s pronouncement of “woe” (or at least not that we’d publicly admit). But more often than not, we much prefer the “respectable” side of sainthood, safely ensconced in glass display cases and reliquaries.
And yet, Jesus reminds us: Blessed are the saints who weep and don’t have it all together. Blessed are the saints who are poor and hungry. Blessed are the saints who are hated and excluded and reviled for being who they are.
It is these saints to whom Jesus comes … and blesses. When life takes an unpredictable turn or is flipped upside-down, Jesus gives us permission to weep and blesses us in our loud and messy weeping.
Jesus gives us permission to be the kind of saints that Luther himself defined as “forgiven sinners.” By that very definition, it should be clear that saints are not perfect – and that’s okay!
Today is a day to commemorate and celebrate All Saints: The saints sitting in these pews this morning. The saints of blessed memory whose names we will soon read aloud. And the saints of the church whose images are preserved in icons and frescoes and whose bones and tunics might even be enshrined in reliquaries.
The caretakers of the relics at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart readily admit that they aren’t 100% certain that all of the relics in their care are authentic. Particularly for relics associated with Jesus or Mary or the apostles, the time gap alone between their first-century world and our 21st-century reality makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to verify their authenticity with complete certainty.
But, as one writer contends, whether a relic is authentic or not, it “does not diminish [its] effectiveness.” Such relics “remind us that real people with real bodies sought lives of faithfulness.”
Today we commemorate and celebrate All Saints. Not as a day to elevate certain saints above others. But to remember what connects us in the communion of saints, past and present, living and dead.
Saints – whoever they are, wherever they’re from, and whenever they lived – are real people, with real flesh-and-bone bodies. We are old, and we are young. We are lifelong Christians, and we ask a lot of questions. We laugh with uncontrollable joy, and we weep loudly.
“You do not have to be good” –
the well-known poem by Mary Oliver begins –
“You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
Take your place in God’s family of blessed saints. Holy, imperfect, beloved.
Blessed are you.