Daily Archives: November 18, 2011

On the Sanctity of Saints

Red State Mystic asks a very leading question at the end of his comment to the previous post:

As a rabbit-trail, perhaps, I’d be interested in your thoughts about whether Saints are Saints primarily because of what they do or because of who they are in Christ. It seems to me that the older-style prefers their identity as definitive of their Saintliness, whereas HWHM sees it for what they do.

I’m sorry that this even has to be asked as a question.

One of the real failures in the theological life of the Episcopal Church is the perspective that we can talk about Christology, ecclesiology, eschatology, the theology of death, and the theology of the sacraments and that we are therefore discussing five different things. We are not. We are discussing one thing: Christology, and are looking at four of its implications.

We celebrate the saints because at the heart of our theology is the principle of incarnation. Incarnation is the belief that the divine and the spiritual do not eschew physical matter and form, but that God has chosen to reveal himself and his realities in flesh and matter, preeminently in Jesus Christ who, as both fully God and fully human, constitutes the ultimate revelation of God’s self-identity. Furthermore, God’s self-revelation through the mode of incarnation did not cease with the end of the physical, visible, sojourn of Christ among humanity. In Baptism we are bound into Christ, as true mystical members of his Body. We are nurtured deeper into the reality of that life through the Eucharist. We are invited in the sacraments to participate deeply and fully within the divine life of God. Not all who are invited choose to participate. Not all who are invite participate as deeply and earnestly as they could (my hand’s up here…). There are those who are invited who even in (and necessary through) their humanity and limitation nevertheless share with those around them the truth of the reality of the life of God. These are the saints. They inhabit the life of God; they reflect the life of God to those around them.

It’s my blog so I’ll give myself permission to be a bit hyperbolic: We do not celebrate the saints because of their virtues. Rather, we celebrate the saints because of Christ’s virtues. Yes, that’s hyperbole but it’s necessary to focus on the main thing: saints are incarnational icons. The self-revelation of God happens in many ways–through their participation in the incarnation, the saints are one of them. Looking at the saints helps us to learn about who Christ is. In particular, I see the saints teaching us two very important lessons about who Christ is and they do it because they’re able to clarify generalities by means of particularities.

First, by looking across the array of the saints, we perceive the patterns that display the virtues of Christ. We learn what faith, hope, and love look like in embodied form. Too often we consider and discuss these virtues in their “ideal” form and any one given person’s understanding of “ideal” can veer quite a bit from the Church’s intended understanding of the term. Love is, of course, the major term here especially given its wide range of possible meanings, only a few of which legitimately capture the Church’s intent.  By looking at a thousand discrete acts in a thousand different situations, we gain a composite understand of the contours and depths of virtues what the virtues of Christ really are. By contemplating the lives of the saints, we learn that love is not just a fluffy feeling but that any definition which does not include and account for sacrifice and discipline is not the kind of love which the Scriptures and the Church affirm.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why inclusion of the unbaptized into our roll of saints is not helpful. It’s not that we believe that only Christians have and exhibit virtue. Rather, we look at these people because we believe that their lives show us the lingering and enduring effects of being bathed in the life of God. We learn Jesus through them by virtue of the baptismal connection. Looking at, say, Gandhi, can teach us about virtue—no doubt!—but does not teach us about Jesus in the same way as when we study the life of the baptized and what a fully Christian understanding of faith, hope, and love is.

Second, we talk about the “full humanity of Christ”. But what exactly is “full humanity”? On one hand we’re affirming an anti-Macedonian position and asserting that Jesus wasn’t a human body with a divine soul or some such nonsense. On the other hand, we get a sense of exactly what “full humanity” means when we survey the catalog of the saints. This is one of the reasons why I welcome as much diversity as possible within the legitimately acceptable roll of the holy ones: we need to see the dazzling array of colors, and histories, and contexts, and trials, and travails in which and through which humans have proclaimed the identity, life, and love of God. We don’t understand what “full humanity” means if we restrict our vision to a set of Mediterranean ecclesiastics (which is a charge that has been laid at the feet of the pre-conciliar Roman kalendar). We are part of the “full humanity” of Christ. In Baptism, we  bring our own humanness to who he is. Not creating it—for he already encompasses within him full humanity—but as visible representatives of exactly what that means.

So–that’s the long answer to the short question: Sainthood is not a profession nor professionally determined, it’s an expression of being.