Joy: The Defining Mark of a Saint

Year C, All Saints Sunday, Ephesians 1:11-23 and Luke 6:20-31

The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi

As our family toured Italy this summer, our daughters marveled over the sheer volume of paintings and sculptures of Christ and the Saints. As the girls observed their lives through generations of art and story, “the eyes of their hearts were enlightened with new wisdom and revelation.” As Paul writes, they began to truly appreciate the “glorious inheritance of the Saints.”

In general, they commented on the sheer volume of religious art and literature. In particular, they were mystified by one recurring feature that captured their spiritual imagination: even in the midst of suffering, the Saints radiated the unmistakable mark of joy.

They learned of Catherine of Sienna nearly being assassinated for her peace-making efforts with warring popes. Francis of Assisi becoming discouraged when efforts to reform the church were rejected. Benedict of Nursia weeping over the state of the Roman Empire and its worldly passions. Clare of Assisi embracing both physical and spiritual poverty for the sake of knowing Christ. Teresa of Calcutta suffering through grave doubts, while continuing to love and serve the poor. Even as every one of them struggled, authentic joy sprang forth — not only through their eyes as the windows to their souls, but also through their words and actions.

Instead of becoming discouraged and losing hope, these Saints found meaning in that struggle! There they discovered new purpose – and quite often an irrepressible, irresistible joy!

Think for a moment to recall a saint who has influenced you personally. Have you ever noticed that those whom you consider Saints — both from the past and presently alive today – tend to discover the joy and blessing of living out their faith in the very midst of difficult circumstances?

At Pohick we can look to many Saints – all the way back to the likes of the Washingtons, Fairfaxes and Masons. Throughout several generations, countless Saints here have inspired, encouraged and shaped each succeeding generation. They still do.

Recently, some of us have lost loved ones who exemplified for us this kind of faith in action — and this irrepressible joy. Some of these were Pohickians like Betty Jean, Joan Wayne, Robert, Dick, and Sandi. Sure, their lives were far from perfect. Their love was imperfect, a dim shadow of the love we will experience when we see Christ face to face. That said, in a mysterious way, even as we grieve their absence, our loved ones often seem very near.

Through experiencing personal loss and grief, as well as years as chaplain and priest, I have come to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

In predicting his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus explained, “Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you, If I do go, I will send Him to you.” Sure enough, it was only after Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit descended, that the disciples began to comprehend love and meaning in a whole new way.

Similarly, the beloved Saints who have gone before us now dwell around us and in us in a new way, witnessing and inspiring and guiding us. At times, we can almost hear and feel their presence and love in a way we couldn’t when they were here.

In a few moments, we will read aloud the names of these Saints, and prayerfully give thanks for the entire Great Cloud of Witnesses throughout the ages as well.

In addition to the Saints who have died, we also think of the living Saints who continue to struggle and witness to us the potential for authentic joy. In fact, they seem to live an eternal kind of life now. So can we!

The beauty of Saints in any age, is their laser focus on Christ. Saints intentionally live into the Kingdom kind of life now. These Saints remind us not to wait until we are dying to contemplate Christ and experience Eternal Life.

This is precisely what Jesus is encouraging his disciples to do in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. With urgency, Jesus is teaching his disciples the upside-down (right-side up!) nature of God’s Kingdom. And he is making it clear that we all have access to that Kingdom here, in this life.

First Jesus lists four blessings contrasted with four woes (or curses). On the one hand, the poor, hungry, weeping and rejected are blessed and can leap for joy at experiencing eternal life and the Kingdom of God in this life. Jesus does not minimize their very real suffering. However, in their poverty and vulnerability they discover interdependence, wider receptivity to God’s unconditional love, deeper compassion, and ultimately broader meaning and purpose. In other words, they can experience the joy of heaven.

On the other hand, the rich, full, laughing and proud can count on nothing but woe. They have chosen to chase after the false happiness the world promises. They ignore the poor and others who suffer. They may persecute others – whether for their religion, race or gender. In their self-centeredness they tend to be shallow, resentful, anxious, unforgiving, lost. They can encounter only sorrow – a self-imposed hell of isolation and near despair.

Jesus is adamant about a Saint’s path to blessings – and he lists practical steps to joy. First, He says we can reject hate and turn toward love. We can be transformed. Focusing anew on Christ’s love for us, we can: “love enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us; give to anyone who asks.” Jesus sums up our struggles and the path to eternal life now, with the Rabbi Hallel’s Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Today we will baptize two new Saints into the Body of Christ. Their parents and godparents will take vows for them to go under the waters of baptism and die to the former life – to renounce evil and the ways of the world that are counter to joy. They will turn toward eternal life and vow to welcome, value and love all human beings. Today, we will all renew our covenant to train our eyes on Christ, be transformed into His likeness, and become His active Body on earth.

Using the image of the mirror, St. Clare of Assisi describes how we can be transformed in Christ through contemplation. Contemplation, is a kind of meditative prayer in which we quiet ourselves and see Christ in our mind’s eye, perhaps even gazing at the Cross or at an Icon.

In the 13th century, Clare wrote that “gazing on the crucified Christ” causes us to lose our balance and get caught up in the embrace of divine love. In a letter encouraging a younger saint named Agnes to practice contemplative prayer, Clare wrote:

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!

Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!

Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!

And transform your entire being into the image of the Godhead Itself

Through contemplation.”

Most of you have heard me speak of my beloved spiritual director of 20 years, the late Sister Adeline, who also emphasized silence and contemplation as a means to transformation. Her mantra was, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Her realistic take on human nature, as well as our great potential for the divine, revealed to me the beauty and meaning of Christ’s Incarnation.

Adeline also knew we are immersed in a pervasive cultural and religious dualism. Our lives are filled with distractions: noises, images, busyness, and bitterly divisive messages. Counter to Jesus’ beatitudes, culture teaches us to avoid discomfort, and embrace whatever makes us “happy.”

To combat dualism, Adeline was laser-focused on contemplating Christ and His Suffering Love. For her, the Cross’ horizontal and vertical beams represent the intersection of the Human and Divine. Christ’s incarnation blurs those destructive lines we draw between our physical and spiritual lives, humanity and divinity, prayer and action – and ultimately, sorrow and joy. There are times I still hear Sister Adeline chuckling and insisting in her Irish brogue: “It’s all of a piece.”

Indeed, the defining mark of a Saint is the Joy of the Holy Spirit! Joy encountered in Christ and mirrored in shared suffering and compassion. Many of us have been touched by the unflagging joy of Saints like Clare, Francis, or Adeline – or perhaps a mother, father, spouse, child or friend.

On All Saints Sunday, we embrace with overwhelming gratitude the very near presence of the Communion of Saints. In their honor, we re-commit to focusing the eyes of our hearts upon the mirror of Christ. Today we will go forth rejoicing in the power of the Spirit and living into our transformed life with renewed participation in the Body of Christ.

Rejoice, for you are marked as Christ’s own forever! Joy is the unmistakable mark of a Saint! Amen.