- Parish House
Sermon for All Saints’ Day – Matthew 5:1-12
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
There is no shortage of images for heaven. Deep down in our imaginations are imbedded such things as the pearly gates, the Book of Life, fluffy white clouds, and angels with wings and haloes and harps. I imagine that I am not the only preacher who googled images of heaven for tonight, since heaven is such a ready theme for All Saints’ Day. A search quickly offers images of sunbeams streaming through clouds, stairways leading upward, and sometimes Jesus with flowing hair and arms outstretched, filling the entire sky. A few even have unicorns. Some are kitschy at best, and I don’t think these images do much for our religious imagination.
There are more compelling accounts of heaven, of course. Take our requiem tonight. Through words and music, a requiem has the power to help us imagine and feel connected to the communion of saints and to heaven itself. John Rutter wrote tonight’s setting after his father died. He wanted to remember him through music, preferably in a way that his father might have enjoyed. In an interview, Rutter described coming to understand death as a great universal. We all experience loss. A requiem comforts us in our grief. When we listen to a one, we weave our own thoughts and memories and experiences into the music. And as we do, a requiem might offer a glimpse of heaven and the communion of saints.
Rutter’s Requiem ends with the movement, Lux Aeterna, “May light eternal shine upon them, Lord, with thy saints in eternity.” He was asked if this was a bit too presumptuous, since it suggests that everything is resolved in light and peace at the end. His critics asked, what can we possibly know about eternal light on this side of heaven? Rutter responded that eternal light is our hope, and it’s also a promise from Christ. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, “for your reward is great in heaven.”
That promise of heavenly reward is part of the Beatitudes, which offer another unexpected kind of roadmap for our imaginations on the subject of heaven. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the peacemakers and the pure in heart. Jesus says they will inherit the kingdom of heaven, receive mercy, be called children of God. There is a sense of some future culmination yet to come. One way to hear these words is that those who follow the way of blessedness in this life will be comforted in the life to come.
However, it seems to me that the blessedness is, for us, both an earthly and a heavenly suggestion. Blessedness in Hebrew has the sense of being on the right path. Jesus invites us onto a path that is the way to peace, to healing, to comfort, and to divine mercy. Like all saints before us, this is the path we can follow toward the kingdom of God, the in-breaking of heaven here and now. That’s a glimpse of heaven.
If I had to choose a favorite description of heavenly reward, it would be St. Augustine’s vision from the fourth century. He explored what life in heaven, particularly what humanity perfected, would be like.
He went into fantastic detail, from the profound to the seemingly trivial. He discussed what children who died young would be like, and also those who die in old age. He determined that everyone will be in their prime in the resurrection, somewhere around 33 to be exact, the same age of Christ when he was raised. Angels will still be men and women, but there will be no lust or shame. And in my favorite side detail, he tackled the question of whether men would have beards. And if that is a measure of perfection, women will also have beards in their heavenly perfection. I don’t recall whether he commented on baldness. But most importantly, there will be no deformities, no disabilities, no pain. Nothing of the sufferings of our bodies and of our hearts in this life. The exception to this is that we will still see the scars of the martyrs, those perfect saints, and those scars shine with dignity and valor in the life to come.
But for all his specificity, St. Augustine speculated that the best we can do is try to imagine heaven using what we can from this life. He believed that we cannot know for certain what it will be like, but like Rutter, we can trust the promise of the Beatitudes. “It is in heaven,” Augustine wrote, “that we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise.”
If you mourn tonight, take comfort that Jesus has called you blessed. Take comfort in the knowledge that those whom we have loved and lost have received their promised reward in heaven, which is undoubtedly greater than even Augustine could imagine.
If you long to see something of heaven tonight, let your imagination wander the entire path of blessedness in the Beatitudes. Imagine the peace, and the mercy, and the righteousness to be found in Jesus’ teaching. Imagine stepping more fully onto that path of blessedness in our own lives, a well-trodden heavenly path in and of itself.
And, finally, let your imagination wander through the requiem tonight. May it lift your soul heavenward and give you a foretaste of light eternal. With music this beautiful, it seems to me that this is entirely possible.