From the Book of Second Esdras:
I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude that I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, “Who are these, my lord?” He answered and said to me, “These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God. Now they are being crowned, and receive palms.” Then I said to the angel, “Who is that young man who is placing crowns on them and putting palms in their hands?” He answered and said to me, “He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.” So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord.
(From the Calendar of Saints – 2 Esdras 2:42-47 – November 1, 2012)
I have to admit that I’m not sure how to treat the so-called Second Book of Esdras. Although counted among the apocryphal books, it seems more to me to be what is technically called pseudopigrapha (“false writings”). It is not recognized by any western church; neither the Roman church nor the Protestants recognize it, although it is annexed as part of an appendix to the Vulgate. Only the Greek and Russian Orthodox accept it as Scripture. If I recall correctly, it is actually made up of three different writings all from the 2nd or 3rd Centuries of the Christian era; it’s not “Old Testament”or “Hebrew Scripture”, at all! So what does one do with it? Here it is in the lectionary for All Saints Day for obvious reasons, but what does one do with it?
Well, of course, one notes the similarity of this vision with that of John of Patmos set out in Revelation 7:9-17: angel talking to the one having the vision, question about who the crowd is, white robed saints, palms in their hands. What’s different here is the presence of the Son of God among the crowd, crowning them and putting the palms in their hands. And, I have to say, I rather prefer this vision to John’s because of that difference. There is something compelling about the Son of God being there with the saints, not high and exalted on a throne, as the Lamb is in John’s oracle, but down with the crowds. This seems much more like the Jesus described in the Gospels, much more like the God he revealed. I am reminded of a couple of hymns:
All praise to thee, for thou, O King divine,
didst yield the glory that of right was thine,
that in our darkened hearts thygrace might shine.
Thou cam’st to us in lowliness of thought;
by thee the outcast and the poor were sought;
and by thy death was God’s salvation wrought.
(Words by F. Bland Tucker)
Not here for high and holy things
we render thanks to thee,
but for the common things of earth,
the purple pageantry
of dawning and of dying days,
the splendor of the sea,
the royal robes of autumn moors,
the golden gates of spring,
the velvet of soft summer nights,
the silver glistering
of all the million million stars,
the silent song they sing….
(Words by Geoffrey Anketel Studdert-Kennedy)
This vision of Christ with the masses, yielding his glory and mixing in with “the common (people and) things of earth,” seems somehow quite in keeping with today’s celebration of all the saints. Today we don’t commemorate only those whose names are known, those who are portrayed in art with golden halos, those in whose particular memory churches and schools are dedicated; today we commemorate those whose names are not known.
I’m particularly fond of the text of Chapter 44 of the Wisdom of Sirach which begins “Let us now praise famous men….” I chose that text to read at the graveside when we buried my older brother in 1993. In it are found these words, “But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten….” (Sirach 44:9-10) Ezra’s vision in Second Esdras of Christ mingling with these unknown but godly people appeals to me. An early 20th Century Roman Catholic Lithuanian archbishop, George Matulaitis, once wrote:
May our model be Jesus Christ: not only working quietly in His home at Nazareth, not only Christ denying Himself, fasting forty days in the desert, not only Christ spending the night in prayer; but also Christ working, weeping, suffering; Christ among the crowds; Christ visiting the cities and villages.
This is the Christ of Ezra’s vision; this is the Christ of the saints whom we remember today, Christ among the crowds.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.