October 30, 2022

What is a Saint?

A sermon for the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, preached at St. Margaret of Antioch, Toxteth

Epistle: Ephesians 1:11-23
Gospel: Luke 6:20-31

The Hebrew word for saint is קדש, in Greek, ἁγιος, and in Latin sanctus. When these words appear in the Bible we usually translate them “holy”, so a saint is really just a holy person.

Who are these saints?

Recently, I went on holiday to Rome with my best friend. One of the highlights of our trip was a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica from an American seminarian named Gerard (pictured).

The tour began in the square, where we queued for about an hour, with Gerard telling stories and answering questions about Christianity. As he spoke, 154 statues of saints looked down on us from the colonnade, facade, and plinths, and continually steered Gerard’s words towards the topic of saints and saintliness. He began by saying “It’s important to draw a distinction between saints, and people whom the church proclaims to be saints. A saint is just somebody who is in heaven, and from time to time if the Vatican can confirm that someone is definitely in heaven they will be proclaimed as a saint.”

He went on to describe the criteria for sainthood: saints are with the Father and thus, if we ask them to pray for us miracles can happen, providing a method of verifying their location in heaven rather than purgatory. This is a rather attractive answer to the question. Straightforward, with a catch all that we can never be sure of who all the saints are, but pleasing in the simple verification method that means that we can know sometimes.

So perhaps a saint is someone who is in heaven. But what of the relics I saw in the basilica? As our tour continued inside, Gerard pointed out the remains of several saints, kept and preserved in full view of all who would come to see. These bodies are clearly not in heaven, so in what way are these people there?

The trouble with talk of souls and heaven is that it can really undermine the way we talk about people and the obvious pain we feel around death. People aren’t spirits that live inside flesh vessels, they are their bodies. Anyone who has seen a dead body knows that there is something fundamentally wrong about it. Bodies and souls are not made to be apart, and when they are torn from each other in death it is the ultimate crime against nature. It is so tempting to wave away how disturbing and upsetting this is for the family and the community with glib assurances of the soul being ok now, but something fundamentally wrong has happened.

St. Paul in his epistle today talks about the saints somewhat differently to Gerard, and in a way that avoids the problem of talking about a whole person after death. He seems to assume these saints are alive and interacting with the church at Ephesus. These saints are the “holy ones” whom it is good to love, and people whose bodies and souls are intact. For Paul, a saint is someone who enacts the will of God in the here and now, regardless of whether this will place them in heaven at the end. Can Paul’s and Gerard’s saints be the same people?

Saints, I think, are simply those who seek the will of God. Whether they are Gerard’s people whose prayers are heard at the foot of the throne, or Paul’s people who are distinctive in their holiness, they are examples to be followed and aspirational people.

What the relics reminded me of is that these people whose virtuous and godly living we hope to follow had bodies, were human, and succumbed in the end to the most fundamental expression of brokenness in our world. In the gospel we heard today, Jesus’ beatitudes are not shy about the reality of living a blessed life in broken world. We are to expect hunger, weeping, and defamation. It is hard to live in a world that God is remaking, that groans with the birth pangs of the new age. But the reading from the epistle today has some comfort.

In the death and resurrection of Christ which we celebrate at this table, the power of God is put to work. It is a power over this age and the age to come. There is a radical continuity between our time and the resurrection, one which none of us can truly grasp, but one which means that our souls and bodies will not be torn apart for long but will be reunited on that glorious day.

This is why it is good to celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls together as we are doing today, for a saint is someone who seeks the Father’s will, and a soul is one who has died, and whose very being seeks the wholeness for which God created them.

Let us therefore aspire to be saints, let us seek after the will of God, through all the pain and difficulty of this fallen world, and look with hope to that day when body and soul will be one, and we will join in the eternal song:

קדש קדש קדש, ἁγιος ἁγιος ἁγιος, sanctus sanctus sanctus, Holy. Holy. Holy.

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