by the Rt. Rev. David Reed
The problem with naming names around All Saints’ Day, as many of our churches do, is that once you start, you might not be able to stop. So, for example, think of John, one of the first four disciples, brother of James, one of the “sons of thunder,” author of the Gospel that bears his name. But if you do that, crowding right into your mind with him are likely to be the other three Evangelists: Matthew, Mark and Luke; and then, you almost have to think of the 12 disciples (even if you can’t name them).
Or maybe when you think of St. John, what comes to mind is one of our St. John’s churches in New Braunfels, McAllen, and Sonora. Or maybe the name brings to mind some dearly departed John you knew ― I think of John Jay of St. Francis, Victoria, and Johnny Rayburn, caretaker of the old Bishop Elliott Conference Center in Rockport.
Or maybe you think of someone who is presently part of your life and journey with Christ. If we start naming saints ― the quick and the dead ― we could be at it till next Tuesday.
And all of those ways of thinking about the saints of God ― living, dead, ancient, modern, world-famous, locally known, great and small ― fit well within New Testament teaching and the tradition of the Church. The way most Episcopalians celebrate All Saints’ Day now is actually a commingling of All Saints’ (November 1) and All Souls’ Day or the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed (November 2), better known in these parts as Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
All Saints’ Day has been observed since the third century and was a feast celebrating the big-name, capital-S saints ― the ones who get their own day on the Church’s calendar and who get their pictures in stained-glass windows. All Souls’ originally was to remember those countless faithful who build churches and worship in them and serve the Lord from them. All Souls’ would draw us to look not at the stained-glass windows but at the little brass plaques and at church cemeteries and columbaria. The combining of the two feasts in our day has given us a fuller sense of the New Testament understanding of sainthood.
As St. Paul looks at it, the saints are everyone who’s been baptized, the entire membership of the Christian community. According to the witness of his epistles, you don’t have to have a stained-glass face to be in that number, when the saints go marching in. You don’t have to get eaten by a lion, or burned at the stake, or have taught Sunday School for 50 years. You don’t even have to be dead. Most of Paul’s letters are addressed “to the saints” of a particular place, and he is writing to the whole community of Christians ― the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. He is no more hesitant to call them all saints in Christ Jesus than he is to call them out for their sinful, divisive, un-Christlike behavior.
To be a saint, you just have to be baptized. Because sainthood, finally, isn’t something we figure out, or earn. It is what God intends for us, is making of us, by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. An oversimplified summary of St. Paul’s ethical teaching is, “Become what you are baptized to be.” Now, God is fully aware of what a mixed-bag he’s chosen to redeem, and he knows how un-saintly we can behave, and how we try to squirm away from such labels as “saints” and “sanctified” and “holy.” But still he sees us not only as we are, but as we shall be, and he loves us with the same love with which he loves Jesus. And what we shall become is what we are: ― those whose lives are hidden with God in Christ, those who have immigrated to the Kingdom of heaven.
I grew up in an area heavily populated by saints. Ireland’s got nothing on el monte of South Texas. I don’t mean that la gente of the Rio Grande Valley are any more or less virtuous and pious than people in other places, but that an abiding awareness of los santos, and appeals to them, were and are part of the fabric of the culture in which I was raised (though less obviously on my Protestant Episcopal Sunday mornings).
As a child, I was taught about the big saints and their examples of moral courage and heroic faith. I learned to sing that the “saints of God are just folk like me,” and though the words to that children’s hymn are quaintly British (meeting saints at tea is more poetic than meeting them at Luby’s or Starbucks), it remains Gospel truth for all of us. It reminds us of what God intends for us: that we be made into saints.
It seems to me to be no great leap from that childhood awareness of saints to our regular experience at the Eucharist, where we join our voices with “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven,” and sing like kids singing to their parents who delight in them. “All the company of heaven” means church is pretty crowded ― that it’s not only the local and familiar people we gather with; it’s the 12 apostles, Paul and Barnabas, la Virgen Maria and Queen Margaret of Scotland, Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente, Mother Teresa and my mom and my grandmothers, my friends who died too young, and the ancient stranger I visited in the nursing home.
And it’s no great leap from our worship to the places where we work and live and love, finding ourselves “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), living in a world heavily populated by saints. They crowd round the altar, these saints of God, and they crowd into our lives, gathering with the likes of you and me and . . .
Well, like I said, if I started naming names, we’d be here till next Tuesday. “For the saints of God are just folk like me. And I mean, God helping, to be one, too.”
The Rt. Rev. Daivid Reed is suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas