There is a tension in the celebration of All Saints Day. On the one hand, the term “saint” calls to mind those honored and revered persons in history who have lived as exemplars of faith and faithfulness. On the other hand, many churches will read the names of members who will not be remembered by history or officially canonized. Yet, they, too, will be called “saints.” I believe that both these trajectories are needed for the life of faith.
On the formal side, we need the witness of historical saints, both those who are canonized by a faith community and those canonized by tradition and remembrance. Joan Chittister, an American Benedictine nun, writes in A Passion for Life, “So why do we honor the saints, those who have been recognized by the institutional church as possessing great faith and those who have wisely used their gift of faith to advance to cause of Christ? We call them saints when what we really often mean to say is ‘icon,’ ‘star,’ ‘hero,’ ones so possessed by an internal vision of divine goodness that they give us a glimpse of the face of God in the center of the human. They give us a taste of the possibilities of greatness in ourselves.” (My emphasis). Thus, the canonized saints remind us what the power of God’s sanctifying grace can do in us and through us. As such, they are signs beckoning us onward in our journey into God’s heart and on to perfection.
Unfortunately, their example can have the opposite effect. The saints can seem so pious, so dedicated, so faithful that though we might admire them, we do not actually believe that we could ever aspire to their level of faithfulness. This is why we need the celebration of local “saints,” who, though imperfect, nevertheless lived in such a way that God’s grace was seen in them and experienced through them.
Recall that Paul uses the term “saint” expansively. In the books of Ephesians, Romans, and Corinthians, he addresses the letters to the “saints” of each church. Reading through these epistles, it is clear that these congregations were hardly filled with perfected people. Quite the opposite, there were many problems in these churches. Scripturally speaking, the term “saint” is connected to the Hebrew and Greek words meaning “holy.” The term “holy” is used for things that are separate from common reality or consecrated to the purposes of God. Hence, Paul applies the term “saint” to the company of those who believe in Christ Jesus and who strive to live faithfully according to his teachings and his example.
Biblically speaking, then, saints are not perfect individuals, they are simply persons who are committed to the cause of Christ. They are persons who are a part of God’s covenant community of faith. Saints are persons who know themselves to be loved by God, forgiven through Christ Jesus, and sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit. Saints are those who have found themselves embraced by a life-giving relationship with God, offered through Jesus Christ. Once Nelson Mandela was asked about being a saint. He replied, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
It is important to hold tightly both the ideal canonized saint and the imperfect, but grace-filled, church member. One reminds us of the highest ideals to which we can aspire. The other reminds us that even in our imperfections God can use us, our lives, to make a difference for the Kingdom. We need both “All Saints” and “Our Saints” to help us grow in our faith and faithfulness.
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