When I was a small boy I had a wall chart which told the story of British history. My dad occasionally used to read to me before bed, from my wall chart. I went to sleep having heard about some of the great figures in early English history, people like Alfred the Great, who the Church remembered last Monday and, Edward the Confessor whose life the Church of England celebrated on the 13th October. I remember being captivated by such figures. Not all of the Saints departed are as famous as Alfred or Edward or, indeed the biblical saints; the apostles and disciples. Over the course of the next few days the Church will remember several lesser known characters: Winifred, Malachy, Martin of Porres, Cybi and Illtud.
Some may ask ‘why bother?’ Why bother remembering the Saints? I would like to suggest three reasons:
First, they have the ability to captivate us, or enliven us. They bring the Christian story to life. For the most part the Saints are men and women who have taken the gospel at face value and applied it to their daily life. Often applying it to their daily life has involved taking a stand against the prevailing political, religious and social norms of the day. Think of our own Patron Saint, Laurence who refused to bow to the demands of a fat and bloated Roman elite and insisted that wealth should be used to serve the needs of the poor and needy and, not the rich and powerful. In recent times think of Bonheoffer – not an official Saint - who stood up to Hitler or Desmond Tutu – also not an official saint - who refused to accept the legitimacy of apartheid. Bonhoeffer’s commitment cost him mortal life, Tutu’s resistance could easily have done so, but thankfully didn’t.
Secondly, the saints challenge us to ask ourselves ‘what and who do you prize and value.’ The Saints, it appears to me, constantly remind us to go back to the beginning, to Genesis and, in particular Genesis 1 verse 26 in which we are told that God made humankind in the Divine image. All true Saints recognise that all men and all women are made in the image of God and, that this has implications for how we live our lives. In God’s economy there should be no second class citizens. Laurence knew this, as did Bonhoeffer and Tutu. Do we?
Thirdly, the Saints can help strengthen faith and alleviate doubt. If some of the greatest and bravest figures in history can believe in and seek to live a life moulded by Jesus then why shouldn’t I? Why, shouldn’t you? If some of the brightest minds in history can believe in the resurrection what is there to prevent you, or me, from believing in the resurrection?
The ‘saints’ that I have referred to are famous, but not all saints are famous and this leads me to suggest that true saints also possess one further quality; humility. Saints know that their job is to serve and not be served. They know that the one they serve is Jesus and they also know that Jesus is served through the way we respond to others. Saints don’t look for earthy glory, they may in time be remembered by the Church but that can never be part of the saints’ motive. True Saints also know that they are not perfect, far from it; they just like us are in need of forgiveness. I suspect many of the saints would be highly embarrassed to know that they are remembered and celebrated by name.
It is right that we remember the saints, and it is also right that we aspire to one day be counted amongst the saints. When I die I hope that I will join the communion of saints, I hope that the same is true for you. But in the meantime let us open ourselves up to the mercy and forgiveness of God. Let us carry ourselves with humility. Let us learn to value all people as created in the image of God. Let us take a stand for gospel values even when it inconveniences us to do so. And let us live as people who believe in the power of the Resurrection. Then one day, he Jesus, might say to us: ‘come in and take your place in the Communion of Saints,’ Amen.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown