Just as the days are getting shorter and the air is getting cooler, our world grows darker, human feeling grows colder, and people from every tribe, tongue, and nation brace themselves for whatever it is that will happen next.
At this time of year, we close our doors. Pull our blinds against the chill of autumn. The temptation is to do the same with our hearts. When history is unfolding at such a break-neck pace, how could we not? Humans are wired for survival. We excel at detecting threats. And now, they’re everywhere we look. After all, the war in the Gaza Strip, the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Myanmar, the battles stretching across Africa — they’re not simply overseas. Each one is playing out in our back pockets.
And so it is that it’s that much more important, that much more providential that today, now, at the turn of the seasons, when the harvest is over and the plants have died, when sunlight is scarce and the winds of change drive us indoors, that the Church flips on the lights and cries with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.”
Much as we might believe that what we see is all there is; much as we might fear that evil will triumph even if good wins, the reality of our life, of our world, of all history is summed up in the shout of the saints. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have come before us, who stand even now in the throne room of God — and they will not let us forget the truth.
The saints, our brothers and sisters in Christ, are people throughout the centuries who have shown us what it means to live a life totally devoted to Christ. The saints saw Empires rise and Empires fall. Some fought against heresy. Others fought against demons. But they all weathered the same catastrophes, the same hatreds, the same fears as we do today.
Gathered at the tombs of the martyrs, the early Christians would meditate on their witness and come to believe that they, too, could persevere, even amidst great suffering. “If they can do it, so can I.” And so it has gone from person to person, saint to saint from the earliest days of the church until now. Whether a martyr of third century Rome or a wealthy merchant’s son of 12th century Italy or an expatriate nun in 20th century Paris, the diverse and different people of God speak as though with one voice. “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.”
These are the words the saints must cry, the witness they must give, the good news that bursts forth from them because they know with their whole being that the One who makes the hills to dance, who brings rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, who names the stars and knows each sparrow as it falls — He is the one to whom the worst has already happened and been repaired (St. Julian of Norwich), and he is beside us every step of the way .
Salvation belongs to him. It is in God’s nature to save, to heal, to love past the point of death itself. In God alone is our hope — and we see that embodied, incarnate, in the communion of saints. When faced with famine, pestilence, war, and death, the saints knew that no one and nothing could offer them shelter but God. The things of this earth will always fail. Money can’t always buy us out of our troubles; family can’t always love us back. Power, passion, pleasure: They all pass away in the end. Only God remains and remains the same. And only he can give that which the world cannot take away.
Dwelling within us, the Lord reworks our hearts and reshapes our wills, turning earthenware pots into precious vessels of His mercy and fine instruments of his peace, never doubting or departing from us as he removes the scales from our eyes.
Step by step, moment by moment, the Lord works, and in the light of his presence, we see the truth (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein]): God is everywhere we look, in all things and in every place. In the good and in the bad, in the garden and on the cross — we learn to see Christ in all that is (Alexander Schmemann). This is what the saints teach us. It’s how each one of them lived. And it is the wisdom we need so desperately today.
Because anger and hatred and violence breed darkness; and in the fading light, the temptation to take the very weapons of our enemies and recast them as the sacred servants of justice is deeply attractive. Even the best people can be corrupted by the desire for vengeance. Even the holiest, in her own strength, can forget the image of God in her neighbor. The saints teach us to not be numbed or hardened by the cruelty we behold (Etty Hillesum) but to go on seeing, even if it causes us pain — because when forgiveness, when mercy, when love disappear, the best of the human dies, and what we are left with is weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
The saints knew this. They knew, more than most, the depths to which humankind can sink — but nevertheless be redeemed. Holiness does not mean perfection. It means becoming whole. Holiness is a process. A path. A long obedience in the same direction (Eugene Peterson). When we follow our Lord on his way, we dare to risk our life — which doesn’t usually happen in an arena, surrounded by wild beasts, but in the hidden, secret death of dying to our own desires, deliberately sacrificing our own ego, for the sake of Christ and our neighbor.
And yet, in losing our life, we shall find it. Paradoxical as it may sound, what we learn from our teachers the saints is what Jesus was saying all along: We must hate the world so that God can teach us to love it aright (St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalyvia).
This is the constant conversion our lives in Christ will take: Turning, always turning, away from the things of this world toward the love that knows no end, the foolish love of God (St. Nicholas Cabasilas), that changes the world by changing us.
Even the smallest among us — the youngest in terms of age or in terms of faith — can do this good work. Take courage, the saints say, for the most insignificant act done in pure love makes visible the grace of God (St. John of the Cross and Brother Lawrence). That witness to the truth makes present the One who holds us in his hand, who has promised to bring great good even out of great evil, and who has done it in the resurrection of his Son.
To act in such a way may smart from time to time. It may cost us our pride or our self-righteousness, but what we gain vastly outweighs whatever we lose; for with every act of love, with every step on the path of life we come more fully awake to the fact that we live and move and breath in a world charged with the grandeur of God (Gerard Manley Hopkins). We walk amongst a great cloud of witnesses, who sing with endless praise, who know the truth and that truth has set them free, to take what they were given — the good and the bad — and give it back to God with thanksgiving for this miracle that is life now.
Even now, when the world is dark, when the days are short. God speaks in his Word and in his saints. He calls us to persevere in our faith, to imitate the ones who came before us, who are praying for us that we might see what they see and taste what they taste — for they know that all things pass away; God never changes (St. Teresa of Ávila). And those who have God lack nothing because Christ is everything: Joy and life and light, transforming every moment of every day into a foretaste of his kingdom (St. Porphyrios Kafsokalyvia and Alexander Men). This is ours, even now, as we open our hands to pick up our cross and join the great crowd, the numerous throng, in singing “Salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb.” Despite what the world might say and what we might fear, it is finished. Truly, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (St. Julian of Norwich) for those who cling to Christ. AMEN.