Following on the heels of the first section, here’s the second section on the sanctoral cycle of the Calendar.
Back to Baptism
There are two primary definitions that the church uses for the term “saint.” The first definition is a general one with biblical roots; Paul consistently uses “the saints” to refer to the whole people of God. Those who have been joined to Christ in baptism are “holy ones” (same word in Greek) because they have become part of a holy whole. Thus, there is a general sense in which “saint” is appropriate for every member of the Church.
But there is also a more specific use of the term as well that the Church has used for centuries: a saint is a person who manifests Christ to the world. They are people in whom and through whom Christ can be seen. In a sense—like the icons that regularly represent them—they should be seen both as a window and as a mirror. The saints are windows because the light of Christ flows through them, and their primary purpose is not to reveal themselves but, in their transparency to the divine, reveal to us the heart of God. The saints are mirrors because they offer us an opportunity to see ourselves as we could be—to show us what a life in the service of Christ looks like. Just as we might glance into a mirror before a big meeting, the saints reveal when we still have spinach stuck in our teeth, when and where we fall short of living a life glowing with God.
The saints represent the goal for us. What we receive in the spiritual patterning of the prayer book, in the spiritual patterns of the Church at large, is a sacramental path to discipleship. Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Confession, these things are tools that lead us ever deeper into a relationship of discipleship where we hear and answer God’s call to follow, to learn, to love, to die, to truly live. The saints are images of the wide variety of what Christian maturity looks like. It takes a host of forms in a host of situations but the central qualities never stray far from the pattern of Jesus himself: faith, hope, love, mercy, justice, peace.
Paul, positively influenced by the Stoic teachings of his day, understood that the true transmission of the faith could only be partially accomplished through language; the deeper patterns required examples. Hence, a critical part of his proclamation is captured in this simple (but not easy) call: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). There is an inherently incarnation element in the call to imitation. It contains the recognition that the being of people cannot be reduced to their thoughts or their teachings or even their virtues in an abstract sense; their instruction is incomplete and incompletely taught without gaining a sense of the whole embodied reality with which they engaged the world. The saints are mediators of the faith to us because, as Paul, they call us through themselves to imitate Christ and to learn from his ways what it is to be holy, what it is to be fully human.
Imitation of the saints means learning about lives. Some of the earliest literature about spirituality and teaching spirituality did not appear in the form of treatises or doctrinal essays. Rather, they wrote lives. The fathers of the nascent monastic movement presented their ascetical theology in narrative form: Athanasius gave us the life of Antony; Jerome gave us a number—the more fantastical lives of Paul the Hermit and Malchus as well as the more historically grounded life of Epiphanius and the various examples and remembrances in his letters of people with whom he had lived and to whom he had ministered. Even the first great writings on Christian spirituality sought to retain a connection with lives and stories: John Cassian’s great work is a dialogue that weaves oral teachings with human lives; Sulpicius Severus likewise offers a mediation of eastern monasticism to the West by means of a dialogue about ways of life and means of imitation.
What I’m getting at here is that when we deal with the saints—particularly using the second, more particular, sense of the term—we are talking about and working within the realm of Incarnation. How is Christ made manifest in material means to heal and redeem the world? An answer is in the lives of those called to follow him. We, in turn, learn Christ in and through them.
To return again to the prayer book and to Baptism, the Baptismal Covenant lays out a set of ideas made explicit that have always been implicit in Baptism and in discipleship. The specific promises asked: fidelity to the Church’s creed, persistence in the Church’s worship and gatherings, the practice of repentance, spreading the Good News of what God has done in Christ, humble service to Christ in the person of all humanity, striving for justice, peace, and respect for all are nothing new but reflect a variety of facets of discipleship that the Church has taught through the ages. Some individuals embrace these promises more concretely than others. Some embody them more profoundly than others. These are our exemplars of Christian maturity, these are the stewards of the virtues, from whom we learn Christ and imitate him in them. To the degree that they model the more excellent way, they deserve to be set apart and held up by the Church.
And, in making that connection, we come full circle to the issue of the two buckets—the saints, the departed, and who goes where. The good news, of course, is that it’s not our decision. We can’t put anyone into these buckets—that’s God’s work. And, at the end of the day, even the metaphor of buckets fails as being overly concrete. Here’s what we can say: God knows his own far better than we ever will. Recognizing that fundamental truth, no church or ecclesial body has ever said (or at least not properly or wisely…) that it can state the contents of the buckets. Even when churches declare saints, they are not attempting to identify the whole population of the holy. There are far more of every kind who enjoy the fullness of the presence of God than we can imagine. And, if God’s ways are true to what we find in Scripture and in the Tradition, some of those enjoying that nearer presence will come as quite a shock to us! No, the most that churches can—and should—do is to state that there are strong positive signs that certain individuals are among the blessed. Not so that whole company can be catalogued, but to have a sense of whom to hold up as exemplars and representatives of the holiness and spiritual maturity to which all of us are called.
Now, what may these “strong positive signs” be? Well—I’d like to focus on the one that makes us the most nervous… In Late Antiquity and through the medieval periods, one of the key signs of sanctity was identified as miraculous power. The saints could be known and identified because they were agents of supernatural power. For most of Christian history, in fact, sanctity was something declared on the local level by people who were convinced that one who was dead was still serve as an agent of God’s power in their community. Bishops might ratify this by proclaiming a feast, pilgrimage centers would spring up or cool down as healings or apparitions or other manifestations occurred. When the Roman Catholic Church centralized the process of sanctity in the mid-fourteenth century—in a way that the Christian East never did—it incorporated this principle in the famous criterion requiring three documented miracles. To this day, this is the part of the process that most modern people feel uncomfortable about. Significantly, among the various Anglican churches who recognize saints no such criterion exists. Rather than getting bogged down in the whole question of miracles, it’s more useful for our purposes to ask, not how and to what degree it gets fulfilled, but why this criterion is important in the first place. How does this connect back into everything else?
Truthfully—it’s all about connections. The point about miracles originally was that it established proof that the saint was hooked into the life of God and was serving as a conduit of God’s grace and power to the local community. Not only that, most of the miracles that are described in the medieval lives of the saints aren’t terribly original. You’ll have a disciple of St. Benedict do something that Elisha did, or healings and meal multiplications that mirror what Jesus did. What were these people doing, just copying Scripture? No—they were, in fact, imitating Scripture. When the saints either performed or were thought to have performed biblical sorts of miracles it confirmed that they were participating within a continuity of sanctity that points directly back to Scripture and to Christ himself. The Christian life—the holy life—was about embodying Scripture, not only in terms of following its guidelines but in receiving the same graces the biblical personages enjoyed. Imitation of the saints and imitation of the Scriptures ultimately points to the imitation of Christ who is the source and pattern of both the saints and the Scriptures.
Now, it’s one thing to show evidence of holy power when you’re alive—it’s another to do so when you’re dead. Because it’s precisely proof that you’re not dead, at least not in the usual sense. And that’s precisely the difference between secular culture and church culture. The secular culture has days that celebrate certain individuals—Presidents’ Day, Columbus Day, and so forth—and they do it to celebrate important historical figures who are a significant part of our national story. They are dead, gone, and fondly remembered. It’s not so with the Church. When we remember the saints, we’re remembering those around us whom we see no longer—but who are still fellow workers with us in the Kingdom of God. Recovering a truly baptismal ecclesiology requires the recognition that that baptismal connection is not severed by physical death. The prayer book encapsulates this notion in these two collects:
Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intersessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen. (BCP, 250)
O God, the King of saints, we praise and glorify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear: for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all your other righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 504)
The proper theme here is fellowship, connection, continuity. The saints pray for us, love and remember us, just as we love, remember, and pray for those we see no longer. The celebration of saints’ days gives us an opportunity to honor and thank those who pray for us, to lift up their examples before our eyes, and to point back to Christ himself who gave them gifts of grace, and courage in their trials.