One of the many buildings worth visiting in Rome, apart from the Vatican, is the Pantheon. It was first built during the reign of the Emperor Augustus who lived up to the time Jesus was 14 years old. After the building was burned down, it was rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian (of Roman Wall fame here in Northumbria) in 126 AD.
The Pantheon is a circular building with a concrete dome in the middle that opens to the sky. If you stand under it when it rains, you get wet. Some 2,000 years after it was built, this dome is still the world’s largest un-reinforced concrete dome, and is considered to be one of the best preserved of all ancient Rome buildings.
When the Pantheon was built it was dedicated by the Romans to all their gods. However, since the 7th century it has been used as a Christian church, dedicated to St Mary and the Martyrs. The niches and alcoves in the building that once housed images of Roman gods are now occupied by statues of Christian saints.
Today’s feast in the worldwide Church of All Saints began initially in Rome as a commemoration of its Christian martyrs. The names of these martyrs were either unknown or unrecorded so they could not be included by name on the day of their martyrdom. They were not, in the language the Church uses today, “canonized” or officially declared to be saints. So the feast of All Saints was devised to honour all those saints not individually recognised with their own feast days throughout the year them.
Here in the British Isles it is known that about 100 years after the Pantheon was rebuilt, some churches were already celebrating the feast of All Saints on 1 November, as we still do today. Originally, this was officially the date of the Celtic festival of the dead so it is likely that, just as with Christmas and Easter, the Church took over this this festival date and made it its own.
In the Church now we have fewer images of saints than in times past. The images we do have are those of better known women and men who led heroic Christian lives and who, in many cases, were martyred for their faith. Although very few housewives or ‘ordinary’ people like ourselves are mentioned, the names of the saints we do have are those understood to have faithfully lived the way of life summed up in the Beatitudes listed in today’s Gospel.
Each of these Beatitudes falls into two parts. The first describes the present condition the first followers of Jesus were enduring; and the second promises the future blessing or reward that awaits them. These beatitudes were originally addressed not to all people indiscriminately but to those who had left everything to follow Jesus. These people were ‘poor in spirit’, totally dependent on God to provide for them. And if, for example, they were merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and hungering for justice and right, Jesus promised they would be truly blessed or honoured by God. They were already part of God’s kingdom here on earth but now they were promised future blessings.
So today, in union with the worldwide Church, we are honouring all the people or saints of heaven – known and unknown to us – whose lives have been examples of faith and love throughout the ages, the ordinary people like ourselves who have lived the values of the Gospel.
In honouring those not individually recognised throughout the year, it’s an opportunity for us to remember with gratitude the people we have known down the years, now dead, who were not particularly pious but were absolute ‘saints’ in their patience, kindness, support and love of us in hundreds of ways. They are examples and models of faith that, hopefully, inspire us with the resilience and perseverance we need in these still wearying COVID times. May God reward them for their goodness, and may their faith and love live on in our hearts.
Holy Name, Jesmond
31 October 2021