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.

7 Replies to “On the Sanctity of Saints”

  1. As a Christology “freak,” I want to affirm what Derek writes: We are discussing one thing: Christology…” All of these other matters are in Him and flow from Him. And we daren’t divorce Christology from Trinitarianism, for the latter is revealed out of the Church’s experience of and reflection on the former.

    We Anglicans have what I written elsewhere not only a kenotic Christology, but a pleromatic Christology, in the One Jesus Christ is Many, for his is full humanity, and it is distinct from how other Reformation traditions discuss such things precisely because we refuse to separate out Jesus’ continuing to come to us as Bread and Wine, continuing to be present as a Body (the baptized), and connected in Christ to all who have gone before in faith, and especially, every time we “Do this….” At our deepest, our Christology does not divorce us from all creatures and the whole of creation either. Indeed, in being conceived, Jesus Christ, underwent all of the stages of creatures “by means of himself” to quote St. Irenaeus, and this microcosmic understanding of the human being has macrocosmic implications when this fully human one is also fully divine in one Person. It makes clear that God so loved the cosmos, that redemption is for all creatures and the whole of creation, for you and me and us certainly, but not just for you and me and us, but for all.

    This is a salvation that does not divorce redemption from creation, but frees creatures and creation. It is closer to the Orthodox in this regard. In other words God not only comes to us (the Incarnational emphasis of say Luther or our own Andrewes), but God takes us into God’s own life (the Trinitarian emphasis of say Hooker or Ascension emphasis of certain SSJE theologians or FD Maurice) and we participate in God’s life through Christ in the Spirit here and now. As Derek notes, our participation varies, and finally we cannot delve the mystery of how it is a saint becomes because it varies by person and often has much to do with their growing dependence on God, a growing liberty that includes being able to say, “I am a sinner” and know oneself loved beyond all measure. The manifestation of sanctity is homely in our tradition, meaning everyday, and everyday means that it may look artistic, musical, administrative, or of baking bread and cleaning diapers.

    While couched in the Medieval language of merit, compare sometime the collects for saints feasts between the Roman Church and our own. Our collects close always and only on Christ’s merits, never on those of the saints.

    Mother Mary and the saints triumphant. But we extend this to ourselves. We are not only called to veneration of those in heaven, we are called to greet each other as Christ, and indeed, meet all as Christ’s–for that is so at the heart of creation and redemption, even if they reject Christ. That is to say we act in the words of Carol Jacobson, a Lutheran theologian, subjunctively or as I have noted Consummationally, as if.

    While I affirm our not coopting the nonbaptized, I would point out that several Old Testament folks end up on calendars of saints…

  2. Derek, there’s another personal dimension for me, and it seems so simple that it hardly need be said, but….when I am conscious of an actual personal sense of love and devotion for a saint, I am overwhelmed sometimes with the sense of the millions of Christians who over the years/centuries have felt the same love and devotion and are sharing it with me at the moment—a very powerful awareness of the vast community of prayer. And of course, I don’t/can’t experience that with saints from last week or last year….one of the reasons I just do not find myself attracted to many of the fine and upright folk in HWHM—they haven’t been prayed to/with long enough by enough people!

  3. This is off topic but you came first to mind for an answer to this question. I have an “The English Office Book”, revised edition, Canterbury Press, 2006 and would like to know what the source of the psalm antiphons beginning on page 243. I am assuming that the antiphons for season or saint,etc come from the Anglican Breviary. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. Feel free to email me if that is more convenient. Thanks

Comments are closed.