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Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021

‘Duodecim milia signati’: a Sermon for All Saints

As you’ll recall, Our Lord was once asked whether the saved would be many or few.[1] The question has remained with us ever since. It is by no means an unimportant one. And yet, as we know, all the truths of Divine Revelation from both Scripture and Tradition must be kept in constant balance with one another. Thus, when it comes to the number of the saved, Our Lord’s reply—and today’s feast—offer an essential corrective.

In Luke 13, Our Lord redirects his listeners. ‘Strive to enter by the narrow gate; for many, will strive to enter, but will not be able.’ And we remember Matthew 7: ‘Enter ye at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction.’ All this is evidence enough that suggests the number of the saved will be few.

But as we said before, there is something else to be borne in mind at exactly the same time and with exactly the same seriousness.

The scriptural lessons for today’s Mass, considered from a formal point of view, tell much. You’ll have noticed in both the epistle and Gospel the repetition of certain phrases—made especially evident by the fact that these phrases were sung: the same melody, the same repeated phrases. In the epistle we heard the phrase duodecim milia signati not two or three times, but twelve times. This from the description of St John’s vision of the blessed: twelve thousand servants of God from each tribe of Israel with designating signs on their foreheads. Twelve-thousand times twelve to make 144,000.

As for the Gospel, we hear the word beati repeated nine times, once for each of The Beatitudes. Again the piling up of language signifying the outpouring of grace.

This is where our important spiritual correction becomes necessary. The question of the number of the saved is not a place to begin in the spiritual life. Doubtless it is a mystery that causes wonder, and indeed has the potential to tempt us to doubt or anxiety. That much is certain. But it is a perspective both jaundiced and dangerous to stop there. Today’s Mass reminds us of another truth: the number of the saved is nevertheless a very big number. After enumerating the number of those signed with the sacred seal—the milia signati—St John continues:

After this, I saw a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and in the sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes . . .

St John describes a vision that is especially liturgical: the multitudes begin to sing songs of glory and adoration. And it is the Lamb around whom they are gathered—just as we are now. ‘Behold the Lamb of God,’ says the priest, as he holds the sacred Morsel over the ciborium.

To those who asked him about the number of the saved, Our Lord emphasizes the condition for us to be among the blessed. The kingdom of God is not a matter of statistical controversy, but of devoted perseverance. The liturgy of All Saints, in its own way, puts the same truth before us. Those signed with the grace of election are milia super milia, thousands upon thousands. It would be a gross misunderstanding of the spirit of the Gospel, and indeed of the whole of salvation history, to suggest that we are dealing with a number to be taken at face value. Indeed, there are 144,000, but also a myriad of uncountable saints.

Today is a festive commemoration of the conquering mercy of God and his Church: we rejoice in the saints as the completed masterpieces of grace, indeed. We do not contemplate today an individual saint or a particular feast of Our Lady: we contemplate the whole corporation of the blessed, the Church Triumphant. This is not pious sentiment or merely natural optimism. We rejoice and are encouraged that there are saints at all; and that we have the means, if appropriated, to be among them.

 


[1] Cf Luke 13, 23: ‘And a certain man said to him: Lord, are they few that are saved?’

{Art Credit: St Benedict in Glory, 1748; Johann Jakob Zeiller: Monastery Church, Ettal}

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