All Saints

So, Halloween was Wednesday, and I’m still recovering from the sugar shock of all the candy I stole while Doan wasn’t watching.  Snickers is still my favorite candy, but Reeses Peanut Butter Cups might be the king of Halloween, and they tend to get the best reaction from the kids when you drop them into their bags.  Reeses Peanut Butter Cups are a delight to the senses: that firm chocolate on the outside, the soft, smooth peanut butter on the outside.  All of which reminded me of the words of the Very Rev. Canon Doctor James Fenhagen, the longtime dean of General Seminary (booo!).  Many years ago, speaking about the Church in American culture, Dr. Fenhagen said that modern Christians tended to have hard crusty exteriors but soft inner cores.  Then he said that the problem is God call us to have a solid core and soft exterior.[1]  That, I guess, is what the dean thought a saint would look like.

So again, Halloween was Wednesday, and so All Saints’ Day was Thursday, but the Church throughout the world celebrates this fabulous feast day not just on November 1, but on the following Sunday as well.  All Saints’ Sunday is a traditional feast day for baptisms – baptism being the first step in the making of a saint.  My first All Saints’ Sunday here, Fr. Salmon baptized eight babies, a record I haven’t yet broken, but I’ll work on that.

So what makes a saint a saint?  “Well, it is difficult to give a simple, straightforward answer.  The word saint is used in so many ways.  We, of course often refer, on the one hand, to those who have led exemplary lives, who serve as an example to all of us of how to live a good and holy life but who have gone on to a wider life in eternity; people like (Mother) Theresa, Dietrich Bonhofer, and many, many others.  We keep days in their honor and frequently recognize them with the honorific title “saint”: St. Peter, St. Andrew and so on.”[2]  And it’s these big-S Saints we celebrate today.

But there is a wider definition.  In the New Testament, the word saint is used 62 times, and St. Paul himself used the word saint 44 times, referring to people who were still on earth, still alive, like you and me.  We, and all Christians everywhere, are called saints of God, holy ones of God.

Well, that just sounds impossible, right?  There must be some kind of mistake.  I don’t feel holy.  Just like most Christians in every place, day, and age, I can be a total disaster, and most of us feel disastrous at one time or another.  We screw up, we hurt ourselves and others, even when we’re trying to do the exact opposite.

St. Paul knew this feeling well.  In his letter to the Romans, he wrote “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.”  Is there anyone who doesn’t understand this problem?[3]

Maybe you want to give up smoking, for your sake and your loved ones, but you keep smoking anyway.  Maybe you react badly to some habit your best friend has, despite promising yourself you’ll ease off.  Perhaps you set the goal of praying more each day or reading the Bible for 15 minutes each morning, but it never really stuck.

And so whatever your problem might be, and we all have one thing, right(?), it can make us feel like anything but a saint, anything but holy.  And so we get a reminder on All Saints’ Day that our holiness, at least while we are here on earth, is more of a process than a state of being.  Only God is holy in and of Himself – remember the song of the angels when in the presence of God, Holy, Holy Holy.

(As an aside, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the word holy essentially means someone or something that has been set apart, sacred.  But one meaning of the word is other; to angels, to humans, to anything created, God is uniquely other – His being is another thing altogether than ours).

But we’re not God, and so our holiness comes not from our own being, but from our relationship with the God who is utter holiness.  Strangely, the closer we get to God, the less holy we feel, but the more holy we get.  When we draw closer to God, our spirits, our inner selves, are made firm in the faith, and our outer selves, the face we show to the world, becomes softer, more patient, more loving, more like what a saint looks like.

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