All saints (and sinners)
Have you ever celebrated the feast of All Saints (aka All-Saints Day). It’s today, November 1.
For over a millennia, Christians have celebrated the faithful among us and those who have departed. Our Halloween is All Hallow's Eve (like Christmas Eve), the evening before the big feast day on which the saints of the church are honoured and remembered.
We’re mostly strangers to the notion of saints and uncomfortable with the language, but the term “saints” is a robustly biblical word, one of the most common biblical descriptors for God’s people in general.
But what does it really mean? Popularly understood, a saint is a stained-glass spiritual superhero, someone who has lived an unparalleled life of virtue and holiness. The Bible points us in more modest directions.
Think of the biblical saints, the characters that populate our stories of faith – boozy Noah; shifty-eyed con artist Jacob; Moses, a man on the lam from the law; Rahab, the pagan lady of the evening; David, the royal peeping tom who tries to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes to cover up his crimes.
It doesn’t get any better when we look at the New Testament – disciples bickering of their status; turncoat Peter; skeptical Thomas; and Saul, the persecuting pit-bull who had his first taste of Christian blood at Stephen’s stoning. Sometime later, this Saul – now Paul – writes to the contentious Corinthian church, addressing a community that is at the same time engaged in divisive litigation and illicit sex, a church more often concerned with a spiritual high than with the simple call to help the poor and hungry among them. Yet in these people, whose lives are quite regularly interrupted by vice and moral defect, Paul spies holiness. He names them “saints.”
Being a saint has more to do with what God is doing than with what we do or fail to do. We can call these biblical characters “saints” because, although disfigured by sin, they are animated, to varying degrees, a holy work of God - a virtuoso display of God’s grace.
This is the genius of saints: a grace at work that is available to all, even in the midst of the fallenness and foibles of our own lives. As poet Margaret Avison writes,
must be, on earth
only the worst in course of
being transfigured. (“A Basis” in NOT YET but STILL)
Here’s the truth: you and I, followers of Jesus, we are saints – St. Jeremy and St. Jane, St. Lily and St. Larry. That’s often hard to believe about the cranky senior, the mother who makes her children the target of her temperamental anger, the thirty-something male who creates discomfort among young women with his breast-high gaze or the sullen teenager. Yet by naming you and I as saints, the Bible provides a lens through which we can begin to see one another more clearly. Recovering the status of saints trains us to see in others more of God than of the sin that smudges our lives and trips us up.
But what’s up on All Saints Day? The church takes time to remember ordinary people who have lived godly lives, who have embodied or pictured for us something of how the grace of God works in real life.
North American culture offers up a pantheon of celebrities and politicians who give polished performances in how to live badly. In this “bad as you want to be” world, we could use a few saints to show us how to be as holy, gracious, and human as Christ calls us to be.
Saints, then, are witnesses to grace, calling our attention to the gospel in the ordinary conditions of human living. They are, as author Kathleen Norris notes, “Christian theology torn from the page and brought to life.” (The Cloister Walk).
Maybe they're more like characters from the stories of Flannery O’Connor, who suggested that for people to hear the truth she had to create exaggerated characters. As G.K. Chesterton noted, “a Saint is one who exaggerates what the world neglects.”
Take Therese of Lisieux, for example. In our success-oriented age of “bigger is better,” Therese’s obscure and apparently insignificant life teaches us of the beauty in simplicity and smallness. Or what about Francis of Assisi, who demonstrates a life of abundance not in material wealth but in the sheer goodness and bounty of creation? Saints from ages past provide a needed jolt to our culturally blunted awareness of holiness and grace.
God has placed us in a long and large historical community of believers, the “communion of the saints.” It is a bloodline of sorts, a family tree filled with a fantastic collection of wild and wooly characters, all animated by grace.
On this All-Saint’s Day, take a moment to recall a few saints whose lives freshly displayed the gospel in beautiful ways. Inventory those people - all saints and sinners, living or departed, well-known or barely remembered - whose lives have blessed, in whom the gospel light shone. Light a candle today in their memory, with gratitude for their witness, and let their faith move you to be a living icon of grace, a real-time exhibit of God’s image in flesh and blood.
“Ordinary Saints” - Malcolm Guite
* Everyday saint cards by Rogene Manas
The ordinary saints, the ones we know,
Our too-familiar family and friends,
When shall we see them? Who can truly show
Whilst still rough-hewn, the God who shapes our ends?
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold
That is and always was our common ground,
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound
From which the light we never noticed fell
Into our lives? Remember how we turned
To look at them, and they looked back? That full-
-eyed love unselved us, and we turned around,
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace.
But one day we will see them face to face.