A few years ago, my wife and I were in New Orleans for a conference, and in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel was a massive mural, showing scenes from the history of the city. At the top, in big letters, were the words of that famous jazz spiritual:
“I want to be in that number.”
When the saints go marching in.
Isn’t that what we all want?
The Church takes this day to affirm that, to remind us: that is our goal, our destiny, our hope.
We want to be in that number, counted among the saints.
And if you want to see what that means, visit the City of Angels.
I’ve preached about this before, and it’s worth mentioning again. If you ever have the chance, stop by the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. What you see in that vast, cavernous space has been hailed as one of the great achievements of modern religious art.
It is truly something to behold: a celebration of the Communion of Saints.
To begin with, the cathedral was designed to withstand earthquakes. So there are no big stained glass windows, like we have here. Instead, the concrete walls are lined with tapestries, about two dozen of them — soaring, larger than life, measuring between 14 and 24 feet tall.
In the tapestries, you can see all the familiar saints whose names we know, standing in a row, facing toward the altar, hands folded, as if in line for communion. There is St. Nicholas, St. Gregory, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis, St. Clare…and on and on, with their names over their heads.
It is – literally and figuratively – the Communion of the Saints.
And you realize something you might not have expected. They look just like us.
The man who designed and executed the tapestries is artist John Nava. He found his models everywhere: on the streets of Los Angeles, in friends and family members. He got help, too, from a Hollywood casting director. In some cases, to make the images as accurate as possible, he was able to use death masks from saints.
His aim was realism. As he described it, he wanted people to look at those saints and “see that a saint could look like me.”
But scattered among those figures in the tapestries are people who are unidentified. A teenage girl. A young man from the barrio in blue jeans. Children in contemporary clothes. They are the saints whose names are known only to God.
It is an eloquent and inspiring depiction of the day we celebrate today: All Saints.
And the message of those tapestries is the message of this moment: these unknown saints are just as worthy as the ones who are known. They look like us. They look like people we might pass on the street.
In the words of the psalm we just prayed, “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.”
And we want to be in that number. Because every one of us has the possibility of becoming a saint.
This Gospel from Matthew we just heard tells us how.
Be poor in spirt. Be meek. Hunger and thirst for righteousness. Be merciful and clean of heart. Make peace.
Does this sound familiar? Do we recognize who is being described? We should.
Pope Francis has said “The Beatitudes are a portrait of Jesus… his way of life, and the way to true happiness, that we too can walk with the grace that Jesus gives us.”
I just preached a retreat this weekend to the deacons of Gallup, New Mexico, with the theme of the Eucharist, built around the idea that “We become what we receive.” Well, this Gospel tells us what that means — what it means to become like Christ and, by the grace of the Eucharist, to become Christ.
To become his hands and feet and arms in the world.
To become people of prayer, and humility, and love.
To become men and women of grace who may one day even be considered “blessed.”
This feast day calls us to be something more than we are — and reminds us that others have done it before us.
We can, too.
This is our chance to make a resolution: to amend our lives, and to imitate the saints by imitating Christ — becoming what we receive.
As we stand in line and prepare to receive him this day, we pray to join that line of people, that communion of saints. We look to them and find our eyes, like theirs, directed toward Him — our model, our hope, our greatest desire, our salvation.
We remember and honor the love, the devotion, the sacrifice of the saints.
We dream of where they are today.
Because we want to be in that number.