In the Name…
Once upon a time there was a monk by the name of Damian who lived in a shack in the hills. The vast majority of people dismissed him as odd, if not actually insane. But, Damian had a few admirers who revered him for his simplicity, gentleness, and deep spirituality, and often came to him for advice and guidance.
From time to time, his admirers sought to honour him, but he would have none of it. He would say: ‘Don’t honour me, honour Christ. Don’t imitate me, imitate Christ.’
Eventually, he died. At first, a few people came to visit his grave, most of them drawn only by curiosity. But, in short order, the people who had dismissed him as odd while he was alive now became his greatest advocates and turned his shack into a shrine, hoping that some of Damian’s holiness might somehow rub off on them. One thing they all forgot, though, was his simple injunction ‘Don’t honour me; honour Christ. Don’t imitate me; imitate Christ.’
It’s easy to get devotion to the saints in heaven all out of focus, but the Church sets them up as models precisely because they did imitate Christ and are reminders to us of what our life should be about. They encourage us. They inspire us. And yes, they intercede for us, but only so that we may be strengthened in walking the path of the Gospel ourselves.
Since the earliest years of the Church, there has been a strong desire to affirm the connection between the living and the dead. As early as the 100’s, the tombs of the martyrs were being used as altars. And, St. Jerome wrote at the end of the Fourth Century that Christians venerate those who have gone before, “so that thereby we give honour to Him Whose witness they are: we honour the servants, that the honour shown to them may reflect on their Master.”
Indeed, the saints have played a central role in the growth and development of the Christian faith. They were people who dared to live the life of a Christian. Therefore, it has always been important that the story of their deeds be kept alive in the Christian community. As Dostoyevsky said, “Of what good is the Word of Christ without an example?” And, even someone as agnostic as Thoreau could write, “What great prophets have said is forgotten, but what heroes and saints have done is still remembered.”
Now, I’m going to say something very strange here and that is that over the years I have been amazed at the number of professed Christians I have met who don’t believe in real life after death.
I know that sounds strange since you might think that life after death is what we are all about. After all, Easter is something of a big deal. But, I have to say it’s true. I’ve run into people who believe in the immortality of the soul, but think that after death all our souls are absorbed into a state of non-being; that we lose our personality and individuality and become one with the cosmos, somehow, like nirvana. And, there are others who have a more orthodox view that we do retain our personal identity in heaven, but, say that we are absorbed into a state of constant praise and cease to think for ourselves.
But, we need to remember that Christ never promised us an afterlife. He promised us eternal life and there is a world of difference between the two. Believing in the communion of saints means believing that those on earth and those in heaven are still united around Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Believing in the communion of saints means believing that our friends in heaven are praying for us just as our friends on earth do whom we see every day. Believing in the communion of saints means believing that the communication of saints transcends time and place and dimension because it is not based on who we are, but, on what God has made us.
In today’s reading from Ephesians, we are told of an inheritance that is destined for us “according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things.” The author says that he has heard of the love the Ephesians have for all their fellow Christians who have gone before and that he prays that they will not only love them, but that they will know the hope to which they, too, have been called, a hope that the saints already see in Heaven.
And, he said these things to a struggling church fighting to understand what the Gospel means; whether Gentile Christians are as good as Jewish Christians; whether all those hostile barriers we build up are really destroyed in Christ; a church wondering if God’s glorious power could possibly be at work in them, in their struggles and in their frailties.
And, why not? If we think about the saints that we venerate on the Church Calendar we find that some were born into devout families and others had no church upbringing at all. Some were kings and queens, and others were paupers and orphans. Some had spent many years living dissolute lives, driven by lust and selfishness. Some were bad-tempered. Others were just plain eccentric, even annoying and obnoxious.
And, they made mistakes, but their love of God enabled them to get on with trying to do his will. For, what did stand out for each and every saint we remember was their deep love of Christ, their devotion to him and their desire to do what he wanted them to do, whatever this might involve.
And that might actually be the most amazing thing to realize about the saints. They were not perfect and they did not die perfect. But, Jesus is perfect. And, St. Peter jokes notwithstanding, Jesus met them at the moment of their deaths and welcomed them with open arms because he knew that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they had tried to grow in holiness of life.
In his letters, St Paul frequently addresses all the members of the early church as ‘saints’, not because he believes for a moment that they are perfect, but because he sees anyone who is in relationship with Christ as being sanctified, made holy, by the Holy Spirit.
So, we can begin our journey to holiness at any point in our lives. Whoever we are, God longs for us to open our hearts and minds to him, and allow him, through the Holy Spirit, to guide us and sanctify us.
The only thing we really need to start that journey is to want to; to want to love God a bit more, to try to be more like Christ. And, this will happen if we give time to God - to prayer, reading, worship, thinking about him, talking about him and to him. But, it doesn’t promise to an easy journey. As we try to put Christ before ourselves we will get it wrong – frequently. But, once again the examples of the saints show us that we can trust God’s promise of forgiveness, and his promise to strengthen us to get up and start again when we fail.
So, may we all be granted something of the saints’ love of God and their desire and longing to be like Christ, so that whoever and wherever we are, we can start, or start afresh, our own journey to holiness and take the place that God has already reserved for us in that great multitude of the heavenly host, as one of his closest friends.
In the Name…