Some don’t honor them enough, and some give them too much glory
The month of November starts for Christians with the celebration of All Saints Day (Nov. 1). We celebrate saints because their lives pointed beyond themselves to God, and because in them, we see what more is possible for us, too.
Saints are heroes of faith. They didn’t set out to be heroes; they set out to be faithful — to live faithfully, to keep faith with God and fellow human beings. We look up to them, in a way, but our gaze never stays fixed on them when we do. Saints are constitutionally shy. They perpetually deflect attention toward God, and at the same time, they reflect our human capability back on us.
The British journalist, novelist, biographer, literary critic and pithy Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton put his finger on this elusive quality: “Alone of all superiors, the saint does not depress the human dignity of others. He is not conscious of his superiority to them; but only more conscious of his inferiority than they are.” In other words, humility is their chief virtue.
Christian attitudes toward saints range between two extremes: those who make too much of them, and those who make too little. Those who make too much of them make them solid when they should be translucent. They pray to them instead of through them. They see the saints as marvels in the world instead of seeing the marvels of the world through the saints.
John the Baptist was a saint, not because he lived in the dangerous wilderness instead of the safety of the city, not because he wore itchy camel’s hair garments to remind him of spiritual discipline, or because he ate locusts and honey for God knows what reason. He was a saint because he was a finger man: He pointed away from himself and toward Christ. “He must increase, and I must decrease,” he said. “Here comes one of whom I am not worthy to unlash his sandals.” “He should baptize me, not I him.”
There’s a famous painting on the altar in the Isenheim, Germany, church by Matthew Gruenewald in which John is standing below and beside Jesus on the cross. John cuts a frail figure, but with his bony finger he points to the one who most deserves our attention. This is what saints are really good for: They are like signposts that beg us to look at them only long enough to know better where we should be looking and what direction we should be going.
Some make too little of saints. My brethren, Baptists, are among those who insist that every Christian is a saint. In the matter of saints, we are democrats with no elected leaders. Since we are all saved by grace and all equal at the foot of the cross, we make no distinction among saints.
And yet even Baptists look up to some more than others as examples to emulate. A grandmother who loved us unconditionally and never missed a Sunday at church. A pastor who showed up at every important moment of joy and sadness in a family’s life. A missionary who gave up her life of privilege to share the good news with the people of China, then gave up her life doing it. We don’t call them saints, exactly, because we don’t set aside days for them or put their names or images on charms, but they serve the purpose nonetheless of helping us see God in the world and see how we might be better ourselves.
Saints know their place — a little lower than the angels, a little higher than the animals. They don’t aspire to be God, only godlike. And they care for all creation the way St. Francis did when he preached even to the birds about their salvation.
Frederick Buechner put it beautifully: “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.”