For All the Saints

· Theology,Bible,Ethics

As a Christian ethicist, the word “saint” perks up my ears. What on earth (what in heaven?) is a saint?

“What a saint!” This is an informal way we use the word. It’s typically used to refer to a person who habitually does good things especially at their own expense. Of course, sometimes it’s directed in a less than honorific manner.

Catholic Christians are much more formal about sainthood. Saints are canonized, that is, honoured as persons whose lives are particularly holy. Among the more well-known saints is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. (Wikipedia has a helpful alphabetized list of Catholic saints. There are thousands.) To be a saint, one must fulfill a number of criteria. Among them, one must be quite virtuous. One must perform at least two posthumous miracles. Given this, we can also conclude that a saint must be dead.

Some of these saints are chosen to protect certain aspects of the human life such as occupations or locations, or even the ways people suffer. Saint Lawrence (225–258 CE), for instance, is the patron saint of cooks and comics. Living in a time when martyrdom was more common, he is alleged to have been roasted to death, saying with dark, defiant humor, “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.”

The martyrdom of St. Laurence of Rome, Book of Hours of Simon de Varie

I speak lightly of this to take our senses away from the sting of torture. But, although I am not Catholic, I think there is something important about saints and their patronages. It helps to know that, no matter who, where, or when we are, someone else has worked like us. Someone else has suffered like us. And on days when God—even God incarnate in Jesus Christ—seems distant, patron saints remind us that we are not alone.

Saints are also present in the Bible. They’re all over the New Testament. And they’re not all dead. The way Paul uses the word in his letters to Christian communities is inclusive: Anyone who believes in and follows Jesus is a saint. The word he uses for saint is the Greek hagios. Hagios means “holy one,” someone whose life is set apart to follow Jesus. The Apostle’s Creed claims a belief “in the communion of saints”—a fellowship of followers, both living and dead, that Paul describes as being joined together in the body of Christ.

Who are these saints? What are they known for?

They worship God by offering their whole lives as a sacrifice and by calling others to sainthood. They are hospitable to friends and strangers. They pray for others. They provide for the poor, sometimes even beyond their own means. They treat others with patience, kindness, and compassion. When there is tension, they work toward reconciliation and peace. Most importantly, saints don’t do any of this on their own. The Holy Spirit gives them the strength to live this way.

This is evident in the Apostle Paul’s letters. Paul writes to churches that act in very saintly ways as well as to those that don’t. He doesn’t let the latter off the hook. He calls them out. But he still calls them saints! Why? Maybe it’s because he wants them to shape up and learn to be faithful. Maybe it’s because he believes God remains faithful. And that if God is not done with them, neither is he.

For that reason, when I think of the word saint, I try not to let my mind wander toward those few people among us who are especially good at following Jesus. Instead, I think of you and me. And I’m reminded that to follow Jesus means to follow him faithfully. It means that, despite our inability to transform all suffering into joy, we hope in a God who can. And this hope lends us strength to live on earth as in heaven.