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.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

5 thoughts on “All the Saints or Just the 1%?”

  1. Jay,
    In a similar vein, are you familiar with this quote from Susan B. Anthony in regard to a motion to disregard or censure the use of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Women’s Bible?
    “What you should say to outsiders is that a Christian has neither more nor less rights in our association than an atheist. When our platform becomes too narrow for people of all creeds and of no creeds, I myself can not stand upon it. Many things have been said and done by our orthodox friends which I have felt to be extremely harmful to our cause; but I should no more consent to a resolution denouncing them than I shall consent to this. Who is to draw the line? Who can tell now whether these commentaries may not prove a great help to woman’s emancipation from old superstitions which have barred its way?”
    Amazing what we find–even among our imperfect predecessors in the struggle for justice, equality, and acceptance.
    Blessings, dear saint.
    Patricia Wood

  2. Jay – Your last paragraph reminded me so much of that oft sung hymn of my youth, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” It is a bit dorky to me because there are hymns about the saints that I love better and are more grand, but the following lines always make me smile,”They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, in church, by the sea, in the house next door; they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.” It brings to mind all of the regular people who were never recognized and will never be canonized by the church, yet whose kind or heroic acts indeed make them a saint.” I know that my life has been touched by so many of these unnamed saints. I also have a fondness for the concept of The Communion of the Saints – am am always struck — no matter what brand of church I am in— that during the Eucharist we are joined by the multitude of saints and angels singing ,”Holy Holy” around the altar and throne of God. I love those moments where I am made aware of the presence of the saints, because it is like for just a moment, heaven touches earth. I believe that it happens much more often than I notice, but taking time to notice is what is so great about liturgy.

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