Saints are "holy ones" (Greek: hagioi), the "blessed of God" (Greek: makarioi: Luke 6:20-22). But who are they really?
Most traditions have their spiritual icons and martyrs, and reverence is paid to many larger-than-life heroes, even those who were emphatically not "holy ones." For centuries after his death, the followers of Epicurus gathered for a feast on his birthday, celebrating the simple joys of living and protesting the oppression of all official forms of religion. And what about the hordes filing past Elvis' grave at Graceland on the anniversary of his death? Or the outpouring at Michael Jackson's funeral? Popular icons carry emotional meanings. When speaking of the departed, Working Preachers will be wise to avoid arguments about who isn't "blessed of God."
It is probably also imprudent to invest energy critiquing the official lists of the saints. The Roman Catholic Church has long exercised legal diligence in who meets their canonical standards for sainthood. Although their list is somewhat institutionally self-serving, who would argue with placing Mother Theresa on the fast track for canonization? On the other hand, non-Roman traditions will protest some worship practices of "saints days" and calling on the saints for intercession or benefits. More significantly, has an ecclesiastical election process presumed to identify who God includes and excludes as the blessed and holy ones?
In the Gospel reading from Luke 6 for All Saints Day, Jesus identifies the blessed in stunning particularity. Jesus' words stand at the beginning of his "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew (5:1-7:29) and his "Sermon on the Plain" in Luke (6:17-49). Luke's version of the address is briefer, more sharply stated, marked by contrasts between "you" who are blessed and "you" who are judged. In Luke, Jesus spoke directly to his followers. Matthew's version is preferred for its poetic elegance. In Luke's account, this is Jesus' second major policy statement of his reign (see also Luke 4:14-30) in the force of prophetic address.
Jesus' direct speech is disquieting, compelling the listener to ask, "Who me?" Jesus focuses first on his disciples (6:20) within "a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon" (6:17). With the crowds, we overhear his words, wondering if he means it only for the twelve. Then we find ourselves specifically included in verse 27 among "you that listen." Jesus is not delivering an abstract definition of discipleship or sainthood. He is not listing the qualifications to "get into heaven." He is calling all to hear to become faithful and effective agents of God's reign here and now.
The problem for the hearer is not that Jesus' words are hard to understand but that their clear meaning is so challenging. The "rules of engagement" of Jesus' reign stand in sharp contrast to the presumed rights of the prosperous to wealth, abundant food, and good times, "because I earned it!" In their practice of non-violence, Tolstoy, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. enacted Jesus' words as a social critique and strategy for change. Ghandi admired Jesus, but when asked his opinion of Christianity, he reportedly said, "Oh, it would be wonderful!" In hearing Jesus' words, rich and poor alike glimpse a realm at odds with the way things are.
All Saints Day is a witness to God's way of blessing the world, not simply reinforcing the entitlement of the privileged to the way things are, but revealing God's justice fulfilled in mercy. As in his kingdom prayer (Luke 11:2-4; Matthew 6:9-13), Jesus brought God's way of ruling the world down to earth and invited his disciples into this holy venture. This is not an ideological agenda or a political platform, but a vision of God's reign which he embodied. Jesus knew that people are possessed by their possessions. He lamented "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" But he also concluded that "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God." (Luke 18:24, 27).
That is the first miracle of All Saints Day! As the people of God pray in thanksgiving for the saints or light candles in remembrance of those who have died, Jesus has shown how his reign works. It's not about how a few achieved perfection as the "holy ones" who are "blessed of God." When we die, the prayer is the same for the most pious and those regarded as rascals, including us. Trusting in God's love in Jesus Christ, we are all commended to God as "lambs of your own flock and sinners of your own redeeming."
Biblical realism about sinners who are saints means no one needs to pretend perfection. Jesus knew his disciples were about to get it wrong by putting themselves in the way, and God knows that we mere mortals all have the same predicament. But as we remember the saints who have gone, our thanksgiving is also aware sometimes they got it right and the living Christ was at work in them. Through Christ, and that is the miracle, God's reign of mercy showed through their lives. It is also true that those with little claim to privilege have often blessed us and the world with their Christ-like kindness. The car that stopped to help us when we broke down was not a fancy model, but the old heap driven by a rough looking character. She is gone now, and we thank God for how holy mercy shone through her just when we needed it.
Make sure your observance of All Saints Day celebrates the times when ordinary sinners conveyed God's holy love to you and to the world, probably in unexpected times and places. The first miracle of All Saints Day is about God whose holy reign is still at work in the lives of the likes of us.
And the second miracle of All Saints Day is about us and how our lives are transformed. We forgiven sinners are called and sent to be ordinary saints in God's world, enacting God's love and justice.!" "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). The saints, "the holy ones" who are "beloved of God" are, by God's grace, mere mortals like us. The old Anglican children's hymn has it right: "I sing a song of the saints of God ... and I want to be one too." Indeed, by the Spirit of the living Christ, we get to be saints too!