The Rev’d. N.J.A. Humphrey
St. John’s & St. George’s Chapel
All Saints Day, Year A
1 & 2 November 2017
Unlike my wife, I did not grow up in the Episcopal Church, so I came in contact with many of its traditions as a young adult. One of these traditions is All Saints Day, which is a big deal in the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in general. While I was raised as a Christian (my father was the pastor of the church I grew up in, and I attended the church-run day school, in fact), within my particular stream of Christianity, the word “saint” meant something very different than what Roman Catholics, or Orthodox Christians, or Anglicans and Episcopalians mean by it.
You see, I was brought up a fundamentalist. Nowadays, fundamentalists prefer the term “evangelical,” but my father was the pastor of a congregation that belonged to the I.F.C.A.: the Independent Fundamental Churches of America. As we liked to say, we put the “fun” in “fundamentalism.” I feel I should add a disclaimer here. When talking about their childhoods, many ex-fundamentalists fall into the habit of “trashing” their former faith community, so I anticipate you might expect me to do the same. But I am, on the whole, grateful for many aspects of my faith formation as a fundamentalist. As such, I wish not to trash but to translate that culture to this one, so that we might learn a bit from each other as well as gain deeper insight and appreciation of our own tradition. Having made that disclaimer, I can tell you that when I was a child, to us, “fundamentalist” was a badge of honor. It meant we took the Bible seriously, unlike a lot of other so-called Christians, and we believed that if it couldn’t be proved from the Bible as we interpreted it, it simply wasn’t true. And so, while deeply faithful people, the fundamentalists I grew up with were also deeply suspicious of any tradition that couldn’t be traced clearly back to the Bible based on our own interpretation of it.
One thing that fundamentalists tend to be suspicious of, interestingly enough, is most things having to do with the saints. It’s not that there aren’t saints in the Bible—among them, chiefly, St. Paul the Apostle—but to fundamentalists, the word “saint” doesn’t conjure up mental images of statues in churches or ikons on walls. Growing up as a fundamentalist, I was taught to think of statues and ikons as idols, kind of like the Golden Calf. In place of this “idolatrous” understanding, to us fundamentalists, the word “saint” was no more than a general term that applied to all (true) Christians, both living and dead, as St. Paul uses the term in several of his epistles.
By contrast, in the Catholic tradition that encompasses the Episcopal Church, the term “saint” is not merely a synonym for “Christian,” but indicates something fuller. The word “saint” itself means “holy,” or “sanctified,” and while all the baptized are indeed sanctified by our baptisms, as St. Paul implies, in the Catholic tradition, the term is particularly reserved to those who have finished their earthly race and been given the crown of eternal life. So a “Saint” with a capital “S” is someone the Church has recognized as having attained the goal that all of the saints, the baptized, are still striving for: eternal union with God.
When I think of Saints with a capital “S,” then, I think of people who are as close to God as it is humanly possible to get without being Jesus Christ himself. Jesus Christ the Son, being fully God and fully human, is united to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit in a unique way, which is what the sermon on Trinity Sunday is supposed to address. Jesus’ Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Saints, received special grace from God in bringing forth the author of our salvation, her Son. And through Mary’s Son, we are all invited to journey into the very heart of God, beginning in this life and continuing forever in the life of the world to come. This is why Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Christians are encouraged by the Church to pray to and with the saints; not because they are some sort of minor gods or goddesses, but because their nearness to the One God joins the living and the dead in a “fellowship of love and prayer,” as the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer puts it.
When we look at a statue or an ikon or a painting of a saint, therefore, and perhaps light a candle, we are not engaging in some sort of idolatry or ancestor worship, but recognizing that the reality of the Church is something that crosses the boundary between this world and the next. Those who are Saints with a big “S” in heaven are intimately connected with those of us who are struggling saints with a small “s” on earth. We can therefore join in fellowship with them and ask them for their prayers, just as I would ask any fellow Christian to pray for me when I am undergoing trials and tribulations, or suffering from temptations and doubts. And when I am joyful, the Saints in heaven rejoice with me, just as my brothers and sisters in Christ here on earth rejoice alongside me. Whether in consolation or desolation, therefore, the Saints in heaven and the saints on earth are one. The major difference is that the Saints in heaven have finished their race, while we are still running the course that has been set before us.
On Halloween, I was interviewed by a junior [at St. George’s School] for a class on “Good and Evil,” taught by the school chaplain. This junior asked me whether I believed in eternal life, and I answered that I believed in eternal life for two main reasons. The first is intellectual: my mind gives assent to the doctrine of eternal life because I believe in the trustworthiness of the Scriptures, specifically, that the accounts of Jesus and his resurrection in the Gospels are true, and that St. Paul’s teaching based on the events recounted in the Gospels is accurate. And second, because my mind trusts in the Jesus of the Gospels and in Paul’s teaching about Jesus, my heart is filled with resurrection hope. So my faith rests not simply in my intellectual understanding or my emotional response to the story of Jesus, but in a sort of concurrence of the two. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you or not. But it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
I have tried to imagine what it would be like to live without resurrection hope, but I have never been able to sustain such an imagination. This is not to say I have not despaired at the horrors of life or felt keenly the existential angst and even dark depression that threaten to cut off all emotional and intellectual access to either the feeling or the concept of “hope.” But somehow, through all the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” through all the suffering that I have either witnessed or experienced, somehow, through the Communion the Saints, both the living and dead, God has sustained me. This, in a word, is what Christians mean when we say “grace.” Amazing grace. It’s what we mean when we “sing a song of the saints of God,” proclaiming, “and I mean, God helping, to be one too.”
When I look back over the (so far) forty-four years of my life, sixteen of which (as of today) have been spent in ordained ministry, it’s not as if faith has alwasy been easy. My earliest memory is of finding my mother bleeding from a wound that she would have died from had her best friend not miraculously appeared at the door in that very moment. “I sing a song of the saints of God.” I am a survivor of a couple of other traumas, both as a child and later in life, that when I reflect on them amaze me that I am even alive, let alone standing here before you preaching about resurrection hope and the Communion of Saints. But still, “I sing a song of the saints of God.” And I believe that whatever life has thrown your way, God’s Saints are there so that, God helping, you may be one, too.