The first reading for the feast of All Saints opens, See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; (1 John 3:1-2)
This epistle repeatedly stresses our relationship to God as his children. We are more than related, we are beloved. This word, “beloved”, is key to understanding the gospel…but first a context.
Henri Nouwen tells a story in his book, Life of the Beloved, that occurred when he was at the Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario where people with handicaps live, in community, as residents with other assistants.
Shortly before an evening prayer service Janet, a resident with developmental disabilities, asked for a blessing. Nouwen responded somewhat automatically tracing a cross with his thumb on her forehead. But Janet pushed his hand away and said, “No. I want a real blessing.”
Nouwen apologized and said, “I’m sorry… Let me give you a real blessing when we gather for the prayer service.” Janet nodded and smiled but Nouwen realized that something special was required, something that went beyond the usual.
After the service, with about 30 people sitting in a circle, Nouwen said, “Janet has asked for a special blessing.” It appeared that Janet had her own idea of what this should be. She stood up and came to him.
He was wearing a long white robe with ample sleeves covering his arms and hands. Janet surprised Nouwen by putting her arms around him and laying her head on his chest. He hugged her spontaneously, enveloping her in the folds of his rob, and said, “Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s beloved daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to people in your house, and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are. I know that you feel low these days and there is sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember that you are a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people here with you.
As he spoke, Janet looked up at him and smiled, indicating that this is what she had needed, and she had understood that she was beloved by God.
When she returned to her seat another resident, Jane, said “I want a blessing too”. She came forward and, like Janet, leaned against Nouwen who told her that she was unique in the eyes of God. She was special and beloved by God for the way that she, and only she, could touch other people with her joy. After he had blessed Jane many other residents came forward for a personal blessing, affirming their special status in God’s eyes.
After he finished blessing the residents, one of the assistants, raised his hand and asked if he, too, could be blessed. Nouwen said, “come” and he put his arms around him and told him how good it was that he was here. “You are God’s beloved Son. When things are hard, always remember that you are loved with an everlasting love.”
Nouwen said that Janet and all of the people reminded him, in their own sweet ways, how God regards each person as distinctly beloved and that a blessing verifies that truth and also, how important it is to know that each one of us is uniquely beloved in God’s sight.
Here is how Nouwen’s story connects to the gospel (Matt. 5: 1-12) about the beatitudes.
Early on in Jesus’ ministry, word about him had begun to spread like a wildfire. People were drawn to him, because of his abilities to cure but also his teaching. The gospel for All Saints begins. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain… Then he began to speak to them.
As I thought about Nouwen’s story about blessing each person in the community, I imagined Jesus walking among the people and looking into the heart of each person and speaking a blessing that was meant for that person. The beatitudes remain a set of teachings, but that is secondary to Jesus telling each one he spoke to that they were a beloved child of Godin a unique way.
He may have noted someone dressed in torn clothes, but smiling up at him and said, “You are beloved you who are poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
Then he looked at the next person who was visibly sad, and said, “You are beloved, you who mourn, for you will be comforted.
As he turned, he noticed someone who had shrunk back from the crowd and who looked down as Jesus approached, so he knelt to look them in the eye and said, “Beloved are you for your meekness, for you will inherit the earth.
Jesus, identified the character of each person, perhaps noting someone whose face said that they wanted to be good but who struggled with feelings of unworthiness and guilt and he said, Beloved are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be filled.
Seeing two people together who looked like a mis-matched pair, maybe Jesus went to one and said, “Beloved are you who are merciful, for you will receive mercy, knowing that the person he blessed had been wronged by the other but cared for him regardless.
Next, sensing a woman of great personal integrity, Jesus said, “Beloved are you who are pure in heart, for you will see God.
Noting parents standing between two sullen teens, whom they had brought but who clearly needed to be separated from one another he said, “Beloved are you who are peacemakers, for you will be called children of God.
Knowing that one of the people had been mocked for his piety, he may have said, “Beloved are you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
Then, looking at his disciples, he may have said, “Beloved are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Each person experienced Jesus’ blessing as something deeply personal and calming.
Thinking of each beatitude as a personal blessing on the people who gathered on that mountainside, rather than as a set of teachings, may not be supported by the text, but I think it was experienced that way by the people who had come to hear Jesus.
For each saint, on the Feast of All Saints, Christ has, doubtlessly, spoken a similar, personal blessing.
· Which blessing would you most like to hear?
· Which blessing seems furthest from your personal experience?
· Can you think of other synonyms for “blessed”? What about “holy” or “happy”? Could you substitute a verb, such as “rejoice” or something else, for the word blessed?