In the Name...
The story is told of two brothers who were involved in crime, corruption, and every manner of vice. When the older brother died, his younger brother went all out in planning the funeral. The problem was finding someone willing to do the service. Knowing that one of the local churches was having a capital campaign, the younger brother called upon the pastor and said, "I'd like you to do my brother's funeral and if you'll say he was a saint, I'll give you $100,000." After some thought, the pastor agreed. On the day of the funeral, everyone in town wondered what the pastor would say. After the usual scriptures and hymns it was time for the sermon. At once, the pastor launched into a litany of all the horrible things the deceased had done, how he had been selfish, greedy, corrupt, cruel, adulterous, a drunk, and worse besides. Finally, he concluded with the words, "Yes, my friends, he was a no-good, dirty, rotten scoundrel! But compared to his younger brother, he was a saint!"
Today is the day in the Church's calendar when we affirm our belief in something we call "the communion of saints", a great multitude, as St. John describes it, which no man can number. But what, indeed, is a saint? And why should we celebrate them?
The word "saint" derives from the Latin "sanctus" or "holy.” A saint is a holy, a sanctified person, and many of us have the idea that a saint is someone exceptionally pious, someone so other-worldly that they can literally walk on water, and certainly, a few of those we commemorate in the Church's calendar qualify by those standards. But however lofty that may be, the fact is that that has never been the Church's definition.
You see, in the New Testament, the word "saint" is applied to every baptized person without distinction. Saints are those who have been sanctified, who have been made holy and given eternal life through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. A saint is, basically then, a Christian.
And that makes them special to start with. Those who have been baptized are different from those who have not. Oh, not in any physical way. Baptism doesn't make your hair turn green, for example. That would be interesting. But no, there's no way to tell a Christian from a non-Christian by looking at a photograph. There is, nevertheless, a difference, a substantive difference, on another level.
The Christian has a different relationship with God than other humans do. The Christian can expect to be heard by God as a son or daughter is heard by a parent. The Christian has access to the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit and can receive graces and miracles. The Christian doesn't need a self-help philosophy because the Christian always has help. He can ask other Christians to pray for him and his needs. And he's not restricted to just relying on the prayers of those he knows, or even those who live in some other town or country. He can also ask those who live in Heaven. The communion, the communication, of saints, of the baptized, transcends time and place and dimension because it is not based on who we are, but on what God has made us.
When we celebrate All Saints' Day, what we're really celebrating is not just a lot of good people in the past; we're celebrating the good work of God in our own lives today. I've always been amused that St. Paul begins several of his letters with the words, "Paul, to the saints in... Wherever", meaning the local Christian community. I've been amused because he usually then goes on to tell them how unsaintly they're behaving - fornicating, cheating, lying, arguing, and so forth. But the point he's making is that there are only two places to spend eternal life and not all the "saints", not all the baptized, will, sadly, spend it in Heaven.
Baptism, you see, is a gift which carries a risk. It guarantees we live forever, but the choice of neighbourhood is ours. And, if a baptized person adopts a worldly lifestyle, if a saint decides to go his or her own way and not follow the way of Christ, that's not a good thing. That's why it is so important for Christians to realize what being a saint means.
In today's Gospel, we heard the famous beatitudes. "Blessed are the .... fill in the blanks.” These are the qualities of life which Jesus said every saint, every Christian, should exhibit. They aren't about eight special kinds of people. They're about the special qualities which make us saints.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. That doesn't mean depressed, that means humble. Here's an example. One day, when St. Thomas Aquinas was a young monk, he read aloud an Old Testament lesson and afterwards an elderly brother corrected him on the pronunciation of a name. The thing is that Thomas had pronounced it correctly and the old monk was wrong. But when Thomas read that same name on another occasion, he pronounced it as the old monk wanted. His friends were confused and asked why. He replied, "It doesn't matter to me, but it means a great deal to him." That is having a poor spirit as opposed to a puffed-up one.
Blessed are those who mourn. This is nothing to do with tragedy or the loss of loved ones. It means blessed are those who know they have done wrong and need God's forgiveness. Call it a reality check on our faith. After all, if we don't mourn our sins, why do we need a Saviour? Those who don't feel sorry for anything don't need Christ.
Blessed is the geek, I mean meek. But the word we translate "meek" is a word which means "well-trained" and refers to soldiers. Tell a Marine he's meek. In other words, blessed are those who are disciplined, who know how and when to use their energies for the most good.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In other words, blessed are those who hunger for what is right and stay hungry until what is right is done. A famous lawyer once said, "It's easy to do justice. Very hard to do right."
And the rest are the same. The Beatitudes are about how real people, living real lives, can imitate the life of Christ. And that is how we should live - as the saints we really are.
Saints are people who love and serve God, and love and serve God's world. Different people making a positive difference. Leading the hearts and minds of others to praise and worship God. And, yes, at times it can be difficult to live up to this calling. At times it's hard to do the things that show God's action in our lives. At times it's hard to act on our faith. At times it's hard even to have faith. But those are the very times we need our fellow saints more than ever. Those are the times we need those who lived the struggle, who went before us, and who won the crown of glory that fadeth not away.
Let's join, then, and celebrate the saints of the past who are in Heaven, the saints of today, and the saints yet to be born. One communion and fellowship, a multitude which no man can number.
In the Name...