Remembering the Martyrs on All Saints Day

by Edmond Lo

“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” – Revelation 7:14

Through John’s apocalyptic vision we witness what we see happening almost daily in our world today: people are suppressed and targeted - some even tortured and murdered –simply because of their Christian faith. In ancient history, we read about the cruelty of religious persecution. But who would have thought that in this day and age such savagery is still running rampant? Worse still, the persecutions are happening not only in certain countries torn apart by political and religious strife, but also right here in this very continent where we live!

What is interesting is that the “great multitude” of people that John saw in his vision had their robes washed white “in the Blood of the Lamb” (cf.7:9). How can robes be washed white in blood? The literary overtone is meant to draw our attention to the power of Jesus’ saving grace. By virtue of the blood that Jesus - the Lamb of God – shed for all men, they were cleansed of their sins and purified. The Christians who survived the fierce Roman persecution, especially the martyrs, were the first in line to receive Jesus’ saving grace in John’s heavenly vision. As Jesus taught us in the Beatitudes, “blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:10). We believe that the modern day martyrs will also be granted this special blessing.

The feast we celebrate this Sunday has its origin in the early Christians’ practice of remembering and honoring the martyrs. After the age of Christian persecution, other saints were gradually included in this annual commemoration, which eventually became the feast of All Saints under Pope Boniface (d. 615) (Catechist Manual Catechumenate Year B – Foundation in Faith, p. 284.)

It is not by accident that the great multitude of people who survived the Roman persecution in John’s vision were “holding palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7:9). Like Jesus, the Lamb of God who “seemed to have been slain” but was somehow “standing” and triumphant (Rev 5:6), these Christians who suffered because of their Christian faith somehow also emerged victorious (symbolized by the palm branches in their hands) and vindicated. On this feast of All Saints, let’s pray in particular for our world and for all of humanity, that we will take to heart the cruelty of religious persecution and the terrible mistakes that the human race has committed and regretted so many times in the course of history; let’s respect each other’s religious freedom.