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All the Saints or Just the 1%?

I love All Saints’ Day. I wonder if all the saints do, too.

I imagine many “official” saints of the Church as a bit cranky about their saintly ecclesial status. Many of them were critics, and sometimes severely so, of religious authority (what we might call today the “loyal opposition”). Others railed against poverty or injustice or put both their reputations and their lives on the line for the unwanted and throw-aways of their day – often to the chagrin of their own religious leaders.

Achieving “sainthood” was certainly not why any of them did what they did. And that makes me wonder whether the process of canonization more often resembles domestication. By calling someone a saint, whether religiously (the apostle Paul or Francis of Assisi) or culturally (9/11 heroes, war veterans), a community can regulate how that saintly story is told. The story can be tidied up, scrubbed clean of the troubling bits, or “spun” to advance all sorts of institutional goals, and all for the sake of, well, sanctity.

But “sanctity” according to whom?

Sanctity is related to words like “sacred,” “holy,” and “hallowed” (Halloween!) and more generally to the idea of being “set apart” from the ordinary, the routine, and the expected. Or more simply, holy things are peculiar. Holy things and peculiar people are set aside for sacred purposes. But what counts as “sacred”?

Saint Paul argued vigorously for the inclusion of Gentiles in the early Christian Church, people who were certainly not “holy” by the religious standards of his day (see Acts 15). Saint Francis of Assisi loved animals, but he also loved the poor and all those considered “lepers” – those who were certainly not “holy” by the religious standards of his day.

Saints seem to push on the boundaries between the sacred and the secular, challenging their communities to see God’s amazing grace stretching well beyond where anyone thought it could go.

I love All Saints’ Day for all the peculiar stories of heroic courage and selfless love and even miraculous powers that fill Christian history. And I love All Saints’ Day for the stories of those who realized that doubt is an important part of faith, and those who didn’t always know precisely the right thing to do but but who acted boldly with hope nonetheless, and those who weren’t afraid to love extravagantly, even at the risk of scandal.

Faith, hope, and love – these aren’t the marks of just a few special people. These belong to the whole people of God, to all of us, to all the saints. And the greatest of these, Paul wrote, is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

And I love All Saints’ Day for one of the biblical texts assigned for worship on this day, which comes from the Revelation to John. Yes, that biblical book can be troubling in some respects, but for me, this wonderfully peculiar passage makes up for all the rest:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Rev. 7:9-10).

Saints are not just the religious 1%, nor are they the vast 99%. In the end, saints are all the familiar ones we know, the ones we’ve never heard of, and you and me – a vast multitude no one can count, who boast not in their own faith, or hope, or even love but declare only the amazing grace of God.

Claim that sainthood for yourself on this wonderfully peculiar day.