Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, part 2”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of All Saints.

I said previously that I would be exploring the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity as a kind of running theme over the course of several sermons. Recall that I said that these three virtues are potentials in every human being, gifts given us when we were knit by God in our mother’s womb, and that the cultivation of these virtues through religious practice makes us not like the Pharisee who exalts himself, but like the tax collector, who humbles himself and can only say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

It is also true that cultivation of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity makes us more like the Saints of the Church. It is very helpful, I think, to recall that the Saints, and not intellectual biblical theologians, are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture. The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out. The Saints are those of the baptized who have lived out their membership in Christ most fully. Doing that, making that journey, living out our membership in Christ to the fullest extent possible, is really what the Bible is for. The purpose of Holy Scripture is to help us love Jesus more and more; when we contemplate Holy Scripture, we allow the Holy Spirit to throw logs on the fire in our heart.

We hear in our Gospel that portion of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus teaches what are called the Beatitudes. Our familiarity with the Beatitudes might for some obscure what a glorious and extraordinary list it is. It is extraordinary particularly when we hear it in the context of our celebration of All Saints’ Day. These beatitudes allow us to acknowledge, celebrate and savor the tremendous richness and diversity within the two-thousand-year history of the Church. Even in the relatively streamlined and consolidated Calendar of The Episcopal Church in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the diversity in the saints is quite impressive. We have monks who lived in deserts, highly intellectual theologians, martyrs tortured for their love for Jesus, cultured English gentlemen, mystics, popes, children—and that’s only our official Calendar. Extraordinary diversity, yes—but what all of them display in one sense or another are these attributes named by Jesus in his sermon on the mount, the beatitudes. For in this list are named joyful humility, spiritual sensitivity, intercessory prayer, a deep craving for union with God, compassion, constancy in religion, the search for harmony in relationships, and the ability to have fortitude amid suffering, and indeed to regard that suffering as creative.

In other words, what we have in the beatitudes are religious qualities of saints. The beatitudes are lived out in the course of the saints’ time on earth. This list from Jesus is uncompromising and perhaps even intimidating, when seen in the religious context. We should expect the Son of God, when he teaches on the demands of the religious life, at times to be uncompromising. And, surely, when we look at saints like Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa, to name but two, we see that same uncompromising spirit displayed in their actions, words and presence. And of course the martyrs of the Church, including Saint Lucy on whose feast day I will be ordained to the priesthood, God-willing, display the uncompromising spirit of the Gospel in a rather direct and unmistakable way.

As even the most superficial and even simplistic book of saints’ lives shows, there is no end to what saints can teach us. Saints have riches inexhaustible. While it is quite likely that not a few saints will not seem to particularly relate to us, it is even more unlikely that none will. The Church calendar presents us with the opportunity to look at a number of the saints over the course of a year, and the Church has chosen these in particular because their stories are riveting, and their lessons to us direct. Saint Francis of Assisi, in his ability to love all things, all creatures, as his brother and sister, yet possess none of them; Mother Teresa, in her ability to serve the poorest of the poor despite profound doubts about the existence of God. In these and all the Saints, we see the Word of God, we see Jesus, truly represented.

What’s more, in all the Saints, we see people, normal people like you and me, not a group of super-human beings, who by the grace of God opened themselves to the guidance of God. This is the virtue of Faith—it is openness and susceptibility to God, so that we are influenced by Him and come to deeper understanding of the things of God. All of the theological virtues are habits. Faith particularly is an attitude, a disposition of openness, a habit of desire and willingness to yield to the truth of God. The specific focus or emphasis of Faith is God’s active and loving care for us at all times and in all places, of God involved in history on our behalf—that is, God’s providence, his loving hand always present for us, his loving arms always ready to receive us. Faith is the virtue by which we become learners of God through the guidance of God.

Let me conclude by noting that it is quite fitting, and not unintentional, that today, on this Feast of All Saints, that we are updating the words said by all of us during Holy Communion, just before we receive the actual Body and Blood of Christ. The words, “Blessed are those called to his supper” are rightly understood as a liturgical beatitude. It is the supper of the lamb—that is, the Eucharist—that most actively binds us together as the People of God. The Eucharist, along with the daily Offices and our devotion to the whole world, are the repeatable aspects of our Baptism.

To be called to the supper of the Lamb summarizes everything that can be said about the religion in this life. And to be called to the supper of the Lamb summarizes everything that the Beatitudes given by Jesus in the sermon of the mount can mean for us. Joyful humility, spiritual sensitivity, intercessory prayer, a deep craving for union with God, compassion, constancy in religion, the search for harmony in relationships, and the ability to have fortitude amid creative suffering—to receive Holy Communion both demands and renews each of these qualities.