In 1977, Oscar Romero was appointed Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador in the Central American nation of El Salvador – “the Savior” – at a time when his country was ruled by a military dictatorship that served a small number of elite families who controlled most of the country’s economic infrastructure. In a nation divided between the small number of leaders who claimed to be “pure blood” Spaniards and the large number of poor indigenous peasants, Romero’s appointment was applauded by the ruling class because they hoped that Romero and other church leaders would “stick to religion,” to spiritual things, to a vague notion of “spirituality” and thus support the status quo. If, indeed, this were the case, Romero’s view changed dramatically after one of his priests, who worked among the poor, was murdered by an army death squad, murdered because he taught that God is with the poor, with those who mourn, and with those who hunger for justice and peace.
In the film made of Romero’s life, one sees a “pure blood” Spanish mother meet with the archbishop to schedule the baptism of her newborn child. “When can he be baptized?” she asks. “Why on the Sunday afternoon when we baptize all babies,” responds Romero. A troubled look then appears on her face as she says, “But wouldn’t that be when those poor Indian babies are baptized? Archbishop!” she exclaims, “we want a private baptism with you alone; we can’t possibly have our baby baptized by an ordinary priest in the same water with those, those other children.”
It goes without saying that Jesus knew something about “pure blood” persons and the distinctions created by individuals and groups to distinguish themselves from others. He knew that his society, too, was divided and tragically divided by racial conflict, gender disparity, and income inequality – and that such divisions were considered “normal” by many, a part of the status quo. And he knew this, too: that the practice of religion could easily support such divisions. It should not surprise us then that in the Beatitudes, in today’s gospel reading, he does something very odd by turning cultural “wisdom” upside down: for in that “cultural” view of life, prosperity, health, happiness, and children were considered a sign of God’s blessing. But, then, in the cruel calculus of this conventional view, what about those persons or groups who did not enjoy prosperity or health or happiness or children: were they somehow distant from or out of favor with God? How odd, then, that Jesus draws attention to the poor, to those who mourn their condition in life, and to those who hunger and thirst for justice, for peace. It is these God notices though they may well be unseen or disfavored by those very persons who claim to practice religion. Thus, in suggesting that God is with “the least of these,” he also suggests that his followers enter this world in which so-called “normal” values are called into question and frequently turned upside down.
Consider, on this feast of All Saints, the unconventional personalities we claim as sisters and brothers, as members of the household of faith. Here with us is Peter who abandoned Jesus and yet was put to death because, in the end, he could not abandon the One who loved him fiercely. Here with us is Thomas Aquinas, the brilliant medieval theologian who died morbidly obese, his writings condemned and burned by his colleagues for what they considered his dangerous innovations. Here with us is Absalom Jones, the first African American ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church yet scorned by white Episcopalians for his fiery sermons on freedom. Here with us is Perpetua, the aristocratic mother who abandoned her newborn child in order to become an early Christian martyr. Here with us is Catherine of Siena who, in a medieval culture that silenced women, spoke her mind freely, argued with popes, and found her only nourishment – her only nourishment – in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Here with us is William Wilberforce, English abolitionist who, though vilified by bishops and aristocrats, led the struggle in Parliament against slave trade in the British Empire. Here is Ambrose of Milan, the lawyer and bishop, who gave away his fortune to the poor for he desired only one thing: the Gospel of Justice and Peace. And here with us is the family of Jesus, with Mary, his mother, who in the earliest gospel account thought him crazy – confused and deranged – for his novel teaching and thus tried to restrain him, to silence him. It is this eclectic and colorful group we call the saints of God.
Rather than rubbing shoulders with like-minded saints who share our political and social views or with those who left behind a trail of stunning miracles, we actually find ourselves immersed in something far more interesting and challenging: a communion of peculiar and eccentric persons who, in the midst of economic collapse, epidemics, climate change, poverty, religious conflict, persecution, and political failure, were simply yet amazingly faithful to the teaching and practice of Jesus, a faithfulness marked by gritty determination, by a holy flamboyance that caused more rational and proper souls to cringe, by a steadfast devotion to the One who welcomed both the insurgent and the pacifist, both the corrupt tax agent and the impoverished peasant, both wealthy women and poor men into his diverse and colorful communion. I wonder, then: does that Space you call your life have room for such eccentricity, for those who might surprise you by revealing the presence of God in ways that you have no yet imagined? Among the many voices that make a claim on you and your time, is there room for this unconventional voice that invites you to pay attention to those who are poor, who mourn, and who thirst for a greater measure of justice and peace?
It’s odd, isn’t it, that here in church we join our voices with the whole company of heaven as we sing praises to a lamb, certainly one of God’s weakest creatures. But, then, maybe that’s the point: that God is present to you, to me, and to the world when and where we least expect it; certainly in our strength but most clearly when we are weak or in need; present to you and to me only with love in this strange and wonderful communion of the saints.