As a child, I loved to read. Raised as a Roman Catholic, I had a favorite book, a children’s book of saints. I devoured the stories about faithful people who were thrown to the lions instead of recanting their faith. People who sacrificed their livelihood and embraced torture rather than deny the name of Jesus. People who turned down family life and fled to the desert to pray 24/7 in desert caves. Very early on I formed an image of a saint as a super holy person, a spiritually perfect person, who gladly physical and mental cruelties, to live the faith. I devoured stories about famous saints like St. Augustine, St Teresa of Avila, St. Francis who changed the course of western Christianity. I was taught to pray to the saints to get a “in” with Jesus: Then there are many unknown saints over the centuries enough who have risen through the ranks and have achieved esteemed titles such as:
Saint Polycarp of Smyrna: Patron Saint Against Earaches.
Saint Genesius of Rome: Patron Saint of Comedians.
Saint Drogo: Patron Saint of coffee houses
Saint Isidore of Seville: Patron Saint of the Internet.
Saint Barbara: Patron Saint of Fireworks.
Are You Twitching? Pray To St. Cornelius
Have A Hangover? Pray To St. Bibiana
Then of course there was the most useful saint of all, St. Anthony, patron of lost items. We were taught to pray:
“Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost that must be found!”
So, over the centuries there have evolved two different definitions of a saint. The most common definition, the one I believed as a little girl, is a saint as a person who is spiritually perfect, who has been obedient to God in his or her life to such a remarkable degree as to be unattainable to us mere mortals.
However, there’s another, much older definition of a saint. The word saint means one who has been made holy by God. But the understanding in both the Old and New Testaments is that anything is holy that belongs to God. “The Jewish people,” says one theologian, “were said to be holy, not because they were extremely good, but because they belonged to God and were his chosen instrument for effecting his will in the world.
So also, with the Christian fellowship. Members of Christ’s body were certainly expected to be good, but they were members of that body not because they were morally excellent, but because they had been called to share the life which is in Christ. Holiness, in this biblical understanding, does not stem from what a person does, but from what God does.
Thus, we see St. Paul referring to all Christians in Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, Colossae, Philippi, Thessaloniki as saints. Paul would then go on to rant, correct, rebuke, sometimes praise, the actions of the saints. Saint is the most common name for Christians in the New Testament. It is even more common than the name “Christian.”
A cynic once said, “a saint is a dead sinner, revised and edited.” writer Robert Louis Stevenson said, “the saints are merely sinners who kept on going.” William Barclay, the Bible commentator said, “a saint is someone whose life makes it easier to believe in God.” My personal favorite is from Oscar Wilde who observed that every saint has a past, every sinner a future.
The full celebration of the Feast of all Saints is therefore a celebration of all saints down through the ages to include those who are sitting in the pew next to us. It’s a remembrance in which we give thanks for the many heroes of our faith, some who even died for our faith, because through their exemplary lives we see God’s work in beautiful ways. We thank God for the writers of the accounts of the Gospel, through whose efforts we have a knowledge of Jesus’ life among us. We give thanks for the many Christian martyrs who died that the faith might live. We give thanks in a more personal way for those whom we have known and loved, through whose lives and words we have experienced God’s love—parents, teachers, pastors, and friends.
Through these heroes of the faith Christ has come real to us and we come to know him as our Lord and Savior. For this reason, we give thanks for Ruth, who would not abandon Naomi, who became the ancestor of David, the ancestor of Jesus. We give thanks for the faith of Eunice and Lois, the mother and grandmother of the New Testament missionary Timothy, colleague of Paul, who helped shaped the early first century church. We remember all the unknown people down through the centuries, simple ordinary people who planted seeds that would sprout in generations to come.
Some of us may remember the famous life of Helen Keller, the deaf, blind child who would become one of the 20th centuries most celebrated authors, disability rights activist, and humanitarian. Her autobiography was another inspiring book I read as a teen. Some of us know to give thanks for her amazing teacher and lifelong companion, Annie Sullivan, who managed to reach a young Helen and help her to communicate.
However, how many of us know of the unknown maid who showed simple kindness to an uncooperative and defiant Annie Sullivan, once an inmate at the Tewksbury Institute, an almshouse and mental health facility? Simple acts of kindness of this unknown saint brought Annie Sullivan out of her darkness, who in turn brought Helen Keller into the light. Today we remember all those countless saints, known in name only to God, whose contributions have made a better world, if even only for a child.
The Feast of all Saints is a celebration of who all of us are and of whose all of us are. God has made us his people. Through our baptism, we belong to God. That’s why we should celebrate this ancient holy day which has its roots to the 7th century and further back - to remind ourselves who we are, whose we are, and how we have come to this point in our journey of faith, in the footsteps of other believers.
Today let us recall those Super saints. But even more, let us celebrate the extraordinary, ordinary saints who have peopled our lives – grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, co-workers, friends, strangers whose example, whose actions have shaped us and forged us into the believers we are today.
As we look at the names on the stars that are on our church windows, we are profoundly grateful for this cloud of witnesses who have inspired our journey. Let us give thanks for one another, as we seek to support each other on this side of the path of faith. For all the saints we give thanks and praise, grateful that we are numbered in their ranks.
Richard Niell Donovan