Readings: Revelation 7:2-4,9-14; Ps 24; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12a
A few days before he died my father said to me ‘I know my sins but still I hope some day to see God’. He said a lot of other things in those days but I treasure these as his last words to me, a kind of legacy. They express succinctly and accurately what Christian hope means. He did not despair and he did not presume.
I recall it here because the readings for the Feast of All Saints have so much to say about seeing God. A saint is someone who sees God. The first reading presents us with the great crowd of witnesses who stand before the throne of God, seeing the divine glory. The psalm speaks about a people ‘that longs to see my face’. The second reading tells us that, although we are already the children of God, there is a moment yet to come when ‘we shall be like him for we shall see him as he really is’. And the most extraordinary blessing promised to those who live the life of the beatitudes is what is promised to the pure of heart: ‘they shall see God’.
The notion of ‘grace’ can seem abstract but its biblical origins are in this very ordinary experience of seeing another person and being seen by them. Whenever we come across the expression ‘finding favour in the sight of’ it is this experience that is involved. Noah, for example, found favour in the sight of God, and this led to him and his family surviving the great flood. Esther found favour in the sight of the king who was looking for a new queen: in his eyes she stood out among all the other women gathered before him. Mary finds favour in the sight of God the angel Gabriel tells her, and so she is full of grace. The great blessing of the Book of Numbers seems very simple: may the Lord turn his face towards you. It is a way of wishing a person grace: may God see you, recognise you, acknowledge you, remember you, be gracious to you.
If God sees people what about people seeing God? ‘No one can see God and live’ is a statement that echoes through the Bible. Moses and Elijah come closest but even then it is a qualified seeing: Moses sees God’s back, Elijah ‘sees’ God in the sound of fine silence. There are other visions by prophets and patriarchs but never of God himself, always of an angel or some other creaturely manifestation of the divine glory. No one has ever seen God, the Gospel of John tells us, but the only Son who is nearest the Father’s heart, has made him known. Grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ, an access to God not available before Christ and not available apart from Christ.
So Paul, in writing to the saints in Corinth, reminds them that they are people who have seen the glory of God shining on the face of Christ. Obviously those who lived with Jesus and came to believe in him as the Son of God were in a special position: they can say that they have already seen the face of the Incarnate Son and whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father. Our faith depends on the testimony of these apostolic witnesses. But all who receive the Spirit of Jesus are introduced to this intimacy: they see that Jesus is the Lord and they may speak to the Father and call him ‘Abba’. Already we are the children of God, as today’s second reading puts it, already saints therefore, because by faith we see God working in Christ, in the Church, and in the world.
But there is also the ‘not yet’, what we are to be in the future. If the saints are those who see God, then whoever has the gift of faith already shares this vision, though for now ‘in a glass darkly’. The saints in heaven have been brought through faith to its flourishing in the clear vision of God. They have come to see as they are seen, to know as they are known, and to love as they are loved. They see God, as the Bible says, ‘face to face’.
Even in our sins we are seen by God and are blessed by that loving gaze. By grace – the impact in us of God’s loving gaze – we are enabled to look towards God, to turn away from our sins, and to purify our hearts so as to live in sincerity. This is what it means to be holy, in the fullest meaning of some very simple words: a saint is someone who, held in God’s loving gaze, comes to see God.