What is a “saint”? That’s the question before us on this day in the liturgical calendar when we celebrate the feast of All Saints.
“She’s such a saint!” We’ve all heard laudatory exclamations like this before; we’ve probably even made them ourselves. Saints, as it is widely believed, are those extraordinary people who stand out for their sacrificial virtue and steadfast faith. The Roman Catholic Church identifies saints through a rigorous process called canonization. All of this happens, of course, after the saint has died. There is a long, intensive investigation of every aspect of the saint’s life, which must display “heroic virtue.” And then the clincher is that the saint must have performed at least two verifiable posthumous miracles. What sort of miracle might a saint perform after death? Often it has to do with someone experiencing healing of terminal illness after prayers are made to the saint for intercession. If all of this is confirmed and verifiable, then the saint is canonized—officially recognized as a saint by the Church. Now, it’s important to remember that all those who have died in the faith are saints. The destiny of each of us is sainthood, to join the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. The purpose of canonization, however, is to hold up those who stand out as exemplars of faith, so that we might be inspired by God’s Spirit to follow them into our own sainthood.
I’m wondering whether you have a favorite saint. Is there a saint who emulates for you what it means to be a follower of Jesus? When this particular parish church was established, it was named for St. Aidan. I’m sure there’s an interesting story about why St. Aidan was chosen and not some other saint, but clearly St. Aidan held a special place in the hearts of those who were instrumental in the formation of this place. Some of you know that St. Francis of Assisi is someone I admire—for many reasons. (I won’t get sidetracked by that now because I don’t want this homily to go over an hour.)
But the way we view saints in the light of canonization can be very problematic. Saints are too often held in such high esteem that they become inaccessible, acquiring a kind of super-human status that separates them from all the rest of us. Who they are and what they represent is seen as unattainable. And so all we can do is admire them wistfully. It can sometimes even border on idolatry. What we need, however, is a recovery of sainthood that allows us to view saints as humans—just like each of us—who struggled and persevered in faith, in such a way that we also can do likewise. If we cannot claim the faith of St. Francis of Assisi, or of St. Teresa of Calcutta, for ourselves, then no saint should be canonized. Saints don’t stand by themselves on their own pinnacle. No, they give us a vision of the Christian life that we, by the grace of God, can live out as well—just like they did.
We get a glimpse of that vision in today’s Gospel, which is an excerpt of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus makes it clear that wealth and success is not an indicator that one is blessed by God. In fact, quite the opposite. According to Jesus, those who are blessed are the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, those hated and reviled because of their loyalty to Jesus. And then Jesus speaks out against conventional assumptions of retributive justice. Love your enemies, he says; when someone slaps you across the cheek, offer the other cheek too. Give away your coat to those in need. This vision is what saints embody, and they inspire each of us to do the same.
But we need not look only to those canonized, those deceased heroes, for such inspiration and guidance. Saints are alive right now, following Jesus in radical ways, some well known and others known only to a few. There are saints in this very building! Indeed, all of us who seek to follow the Way of Jesus are saints, regardless of how far along we are on the journey of faith. Not only is sainthood our destiny; it is our identity in the present moment. To be a Christian is to lay hold of that identity and to live into it fully. We do that by learning from each other. Yes, we learn from those the Church has canonized. But we also learn from those alive, especially those whom we rub shoulders with, shake hands with, embrace, and talk to.
So today as we celebrate All Saints, we are celebrating those saints who have inspired so many throughout the world across time. We give thanks for them. We also celebrate an even wider company of saints—all those who have died in the faith, that great cloud of witnesses, among whom some were martyred for their perseverance. And finally, we celebrate each other, for each one of us, by virtue of the life that our baptism calls us into, is a saint. When I say celebrate, let’s do exactly that. If there’s someone here at St. Aidan’s who has helped you navigate the Christian journey or inspired you, pull them aside and let them know. If this is a day for celebrating All Saints, then surely it’s an opportunity to include ourselves in that company, to remind ourselves of who we are, and to thank those who help us figure it all out.