The poet, T.S. Eliot once said that April was the cruelest month. I don’t know what he had against April, but surely the cold dark winter months of November, December and January have a better claim. Indeed, I sometimes think that the only good thing about November is that my birthday falls then!
We are approaching the end of one year and the beginning of another. Advent starts the Church year a month earlier. It’s a season for reflecting on endings and beginnings. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls which we celebrate at the beginning of November, are a reminder that our time on earth is limited – that we have here, as Scripture tells us, no lasting city but seek the one that is to come. It’s a time for reflecting on our mortality – not in any morbid way but in a way that helps us make sense of the here and now and the hereafter.
The two feasts have so much in common that they might more usefully be taken as one. They celebrate the struggle of ordinary people like ourselves and what God can do for us when we turn to Him. To understand this better, we have to peel back crusted layers on perceptions about holiness that are unreal. Indeed, a closer look at some of the great saints gives us grounds for hope.
Augustine, for example, led a reckless and dissolute youth and Francis ran away from a loving and wealthy family. Paul persecuted the early Church and Therese feared that God had abandoned her. Here we see frail humanity being transformed by God. Like stained-glass windows, the light of God’s love shines through unusual and unlikely people.
I used to think that holiness was only for a select few. I now believe that it is something real and solid and made of flesh and blood. The real test of holiness is a deep awareness of one’s own weakness. The brighter the light, the more evident are the cracks and splinters. Holiness in not what we achieve but rather what God does to us when we let him deal with us.
And it has no favourite place or climate: we blossom where we are. And it has a human face. It walks the bedroom at night with a sick child. It is in the home with a family trying to make ends meet and the father out of work. It sits by a hospital bed. It is in the kindness and support of friends during a bereavement. It is tested in the struggle to be honest, just and forgiving.
That’s why All Saints and All Souls are the right feasts for the winter season. They remind us that the people we remember during this season have gone home to God, or been “Called back” as the poet Emily Dickinson put it. And they tell us powerfully that our deceased loved ones are saints now because they were once sinners like us who just refused to give up trying to be good.
Fr. Gerry McFlynn