All Saints Day
E. Bevan Stanley
November 1, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is a saint? A saint is a holy person. The word “saint” comes from the Latin “sanctus.” And “holy” means set apart for God’s purposes.
It seems to me that there are two components or aspects of being holy. First there is a given quality about a saint. Such a person has given him or herself away. There is a passion, a love that is lived out and followed, even at great cost. Now such a givenness is not always to other people, although that may be the most common. People such as Mother Theresa clearly exemplify in a wonderful way the possibility of divine love being incarnated in human life. But some saints are given to other things. St. Jerome was a nasty man. But he was given to his studies and that was a gift not only to the church but to the world. Joan of Arc was a stubborn teenager, and we have all been tempted to do something drastic about such insufferable punks. But she was given to her vision and to her conscience and to the removal of foreign oppression from her country.
Second, a saint is real. They are themselves and not somebody else. They embody that wonderful apothegm: “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” That is why so many of the saints seem so odd. Most of us try to find some compromise between what we are and what makes everyone else around us comfortable. Saints will tend to be uncomfortable to have around because they are who they are. They are the unique and undiluted individuals that God has made everyone of us to be. They have sharply drawn characters. Some are known for their simple acceptance such as St. Lawrence, who, while being martyred by being burned on a huge griddle, told his executioners, “Turn me over now, I’m done on this side.” Some are known for their intimate relationship with God. The great mystic and spiritual directress, Theresa of Avila, after falling in a mud puddle one day, “If this is how you treat your friends, Lord, it is small wonder you have so few.” Saints speak their minds and the hearts clearly. There is no pretext.
Saints are gifts to the Church and to the world to help us glimpse the love of God. Frederick Buechner says, “In his holy flirtation with the world, God from time to time drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are what we call saints.”There is the story of the small child who was asked in Sunday school what a saint was. Since in that church there were elaborate and very beautiful stained glass windows depicting the saints, this child answered, “A saint is a person the light shines through.” We celebrate the saints not for their benefit but for ours. By taking time to remember the saints we have a chance to see what holiness looks like when it takes on human flesh in particular people in particular situations. And what a wonderful diversity there is! From the boldness of St. Paul to the gentleness of Francis. From the simple integrity of Thomas Ken to the intellect of Thomas Aquinas. From the mysticism of John of the Cross to the practicality of Benedict. From the strong voice of John Chrysostom to the diplomacy of Hilda of Whitby. From the spiritual struggles of Antony to the acceptance of divine love by Julian of Norwich. The saints come in all styles.
But while the light streaming through a stain glass window is beautiful, and we can admire the picture as we gaze, there is more. For as we gaze up at that picture, made all bright by the light, the same light falls upon us too. Every time that the story of a saint moves us, every time we feel a small tug on our hearts, that is a call. For as the hymn we just sang reminds us, we are all called to be saints. That is, we are called to become what we already are, what God has made us to be.
All of us are saints. We are a holy people, a royal priesthood. It doesn’t matter that we don’t feel holy. It is an objective fact. We are set apart from the rest of the world when we are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. And we are given the Holy Spirit also at baptism to be the seed of divine life that will grow in us all through this life and the next, always conforming us more closely to the image of Christ. Sanctity is the goal of human life. The only question is to what degree we will help or hinder the growth of that seed.
Today I want end with the epitaph of a modest saint. Although this person is fictional, there are many whom we have known in real life who resemble him. In Antony Trollope’s famous Barchester novels, there is a character named Mr. Harding. Mr. Harding is an elderly priest of the Church of England. He is very gentle and caring. At the beginning of the series he is the Warden of nursing home for old indigent men. Here cares for them and they love him in return. Because of church politics he is removed from that position and retires. Through most of the rest of the novels he is a minor character, appearing to support his younger daughter or to offer a word of advice. But his main work is done. He grows feebler and feebler. In the “Last Chronicle of Barsett” the author writes of Mr. Harding’s death.
“The author now leaves him in the hands of his readers, not as a man to be admired and talked of, not as a man who should be toasted at public dinners and spoken of with conventional absurdity as a perfect divine, but as a good man without guile, believing humbly in the religion which he has striven to teach, and guided by the precepts which he has striven to learn.” A good man without guile.
Only God can make a person holy. What we can do is put ourselves in the way of grace. By our choice to pray, to give, to worship, and to serve, we make room for the Holy Spirit to act in our lives and remake us. The great principle of religion is that we are shaped by our worship. We remember the holy ones in our worship so that we might become more like them. We remember all saints, so that we might become holy. Today we celebrate all saints. All of them. The ones we find attractive and the ones who present a challenge to us. The ones we know among our friends and family. And we celebrate our own sainthood, still being nurtured and built by the Holy Spirit as we strive to obey the two great commandments: Love God. Love your neighbor.
 Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking, p. 83