In her short story “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor tells of Mrs. Turpin, an upright if not self-righteous woman, who gives thanks to God for not having made her like so many other people upon whom she looks down. Then a disturbing incident in a doctor’s office shakes her. A young woman calls her “an old wart hog from hell” and tries to choke her. That evening, as Mrs. Turpin watches the sunset at the edge of her hog pen, she has a vision of a “vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven” (The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, 1982). Mrs. Turpin sees a whole parade of the most unexpected and motley people all clapping and leaping and shouting hallelujah. Bringing up the rear were herself and her husband and others like them.
Today’s feast, in like manner, celebrates the whole company of saints, including all those not recognized by name in the church calendar, all those who are part of the great multitude that now leaps for joy eternally in God’s presence, shouting hallelujah!
The author of the Book of Revelation describes a vision not too different from Mrs. Turpin’s: those of every nation, race, people and tongue are there, purified and robed in white, waving palm branches in gestures of thanks and victory, crying out exuberantly, acclaiming the salvation that comes from God. There are so many they cannot be counted. All have the protective divine seal emblazoned on their foreheads, marked as God’s own beloved possession. They include 144,000 from every tribe of the children of Israel. This is not an actual total, but rather a symbolic number for a vast group that cannot be counted. It is a multiple of 12—the number of the tribes of Israel and a representative number of Jesus’ disciples in the renewed Israel times 1,000, an unimaginably large number in antiquity.
At the end of the reading from Revelation this question is posed: Who are these wearing white robes and where did they come from? The second reading and the gospel answer in part: These are all the beloved children of God, whose family likeness to the Holy One is now revealed. They are the ones who have been poor in spirit, have mourned without comfort, have longed for their inheritance with meekness, have hungered and thirsted unsated for justice, have been merciful and clean of heart, have tried to build peace and have suffered for all these choices. Their striving to live this way in imitation of Jesus has not always been perfect. They have stumbled and erred but have asked forgiveness and have tried again. They are the ones whom others may never have thought of as saints but who have placed their trust and hope in God, knowing that only by God’s grace can they be washed clean and clothed in radiance. Many people, not only people like Mrs. Turpin, may be surprised to find themselves among this heavenly multitude.
Today’s feast assures us of a place within this great heavenly chorus when we accept the grace of being sealed as God’s own and then choose to live in accord with that grace. It also reminds us that none of us is an only child. We belong to an immense family, a great cloud of witnesses, who constantly surround us and are in communion with us, praying for us and with us, urging us onward toward our final reunion with God and them.