Beatification and canonization ceremonies are occasions for joy and jubilation. Saints serve an important function in our lives—not only by their intercession on our behalf, but also by the inspiration of their exemplary lives. Yet, although we admire, love, and honor, the saints, we can be reluctant to emulate them. Placing saints on an exalted pedestal is one effective way of evading the challenge they pose to our mediocrity as we convince ourselves that they are spiritual heroes whose lives we can only admire but not imitate.
We know that during their life on earth saints are not always popular because they remind us of the spiritually-compromised lives we tend to lead. Thus in the Book of Wisdom we read: Let us lie in wait for the righteous one, because he is annoying to us; he opposes our actions, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. Admittedly, this resentment and annoyance occasioned by the righteous person admits of degrees depending on how seriously we are trying to live our Christian lives. However, unless we are already saints we will probably have some ambivalent feelings towards the holy person we encounter in daily life and at close quarters.
This helps explain what may be the deeper meaning of Jesus’ promise that whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man, will receive a righteous man’s reward. The word “receives” suggests a complete openness that is not superficial, but open to all that his or her entire being represents—that is, righteousness and holiness. Accordingly, if we are not already holy and fully converted, this “receiving” of the righteous person includes allowing his or her life to confront the sin and unrighteousness in our hearts. In this way the righteous person helps expose our spiritual wounds and sin-diseased hearts to those penetrating rays of God’s mercy and forgiveness that heal and transform us from within.
This transformation is integral to and inseparable from the reward promised to the one who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man. For, it is worth noting that Jesus does not just simply say “will receive a reward,” but will receive a righteous man’s reward. The righteous man’s reward is not measured in things, or earthly gifts, but is that total union with God in Christ in whom all the restlessness of our suffering hearts is transformed into that eternal and ineffable peace and joy that the world (and anything in it) can never give.
So let us be on guard against resisting or rejecting righteous persons because they expose our mediocrity and unsettle our complacency. And remember, it is not only the saint who fulfills this sacred purpose: by lovingly receiving any humble person who is truly striving for holiness (however incompletely achieved) we will receive a righteous person’s reward. Initially, yes, it doesn’t feel like a reward as the righteous person’s life confronts our sinfulness and opens our hearts to painful truths. However, all of this is merely a prelude that ends in the attainment of that ultimate goal (that righteous man’s reward), of finally beholding face to face, our loving Lord whom here we have been seeking for so long.