Saints bother me and I’m not quite sure why.
It is not difficult to describe what a Saint is. A Saint is one
· By whom God’s Word speaks to the World
· By whom God’s Light shines on the World
· By whom God’s Life lives in the World.
Furthermore, we have little difficulty defining who the Saints are, given that they feature on a year by year/ week by week/ day by day basis in our liturgical calendar. In addition to those named there are also those who are known to each one of us as guides and mentors to us in our own journeys of faith and discipleship. They, too, are numbered amongst the Saints. By no means least, the New Testament does not shirk from naming all people of faith as Saints even if, in effect, we are simply re-cycled sinners!
All that is well and good, so why do Saints still bother me?
I think it is because we have turned them into spiritual celebrities – Christians with the X-Factor when X equals super-holy and otherworldly.
The rot set in quite early.
In the first and second centuries of the Christian era it was the way they died which determined who would be a Saint – martyrdom was the gateway to sainthood. But soon not only how you died but how you lived began to define a Saint, and especially one living a life of self-imposed hardship – a kind of living death if you like.
Then throw into the mix the belief that Saints could intercede for us in order that we may be found fit for heaven rather than hell. Now they were venerated less for what they did in their lives and more for what they could do in ours.
The Protestant Reformers generally rejected the cult of the Saints and taught people to stick to Scripture as the gateway to salvation rather than seeking to piggy-back into heaven on the backs of those who have gone before us. Typically, Anglicans chose a middle way by electing to remember year on year a hand-picked selection of pre-Reformation Saints whilst at the same time deciding not to add to their number. We Anglicans operate a sort of mixed economy when it comes to celebrating Sainthood so that we affirm the New Testament view that all Christians are Saints, whilst also affirming that some Christians are more saintly than others!
This is all a bit of a muddle, but it’s not that which bothers me – being in a bit of a muddle is what makes being an Anglican so much fun.
No, I think I am bothered because we have gradually drifted away from Saints as defined by their deaths, and recruited them to the ranks of life-coaches i.e. people who can show us how to live, when what we really need are lessons in how to die.
When sainthood was about martyrdom then it was about teaching us something about the Christian way of death. Over time it has come to be more about Saints teaching us the Christian way of life and important though that is, this shift in emphasis has colluded with modern day fear of death and refusal to talk about it. The eve of All Saints – Hallowe’en – has become a mere rehearsal for the Pantomime season, and Saints have been reduced to somewhat saccharine and anaemic mannequins in a spiritual lifestyle fashion parade.
That is why it is good to remind ourselves that All Saints Day is followed by All Souls Day – the day when we commemorate the faithful departed. This enables our death-denying and death-defying culture to recapture that full-on approach to death which the original cult of Saints managed to capture and which we have sadly lost.
So Saints bother me, or rather, the way the cult of Saints has developed bothers me. But a verse from one of the Psalms comes to my rescue:
“Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of His faithful servant” (Psalm 116 verse 8)
We would do well to re-capture that sense of death as precious – something to be venerated, or even sometimes celebrated as it was in the case of the early Saints, rather than death being shunted into a siding so as to be both out of sight and out of mind.
Dying is a lifetime’s work if you do it properly, and thank God for the Saints who are those faithful servants whose deaths are precious not only in the sight of the Lord, but in the sight of those of us who are not only dying to live well, but living to die well.
May God give us grace to follow His Saints in faith and hope and love, and to follow them through the adventure of death and so join them in the eternal song of heaven:
“Hallelujah! The Lord our God, sovereign over all, has entered on His reign! Let us rejoice and shout for joy.” (Revelation chapter 19 verse 6).
May God Bless you as you seek to live your lives so that, as with the Saints of old, you will not be afraid to die.
Rt Rev Dr John Saxbee, Bishop of Lincoln
31st October 2010