By Jeff Harris
I’m Baptist, so when All Saints’ Day rolls around on Nov. 1 my first response is, “Huh?” All Saints’ Day was not observed in the church of my birth, but we had saints in that church. They were not officially canonized saints, but there were three ladies whose picture was hanging on the wall of the senior women’s classroom and that was close enough for us.
These women lived lives worthy of emulation, except for the one who I later learned spread gossip faster than Facebook. Still, these women had reached a level of spiritual maturity to which we could all aspire. I thought these saintly women managed, perhaps by sheer willpower, to overcome the temptations of this world and to live as saints among the rest of us sinners.
And there are such persons. There are persons who embody the way of Jesus so deeply you wonder how they do it. While the rest of us mortals flounder along, perhaps doing more harm to the faith than good, these saints manage to live faithfully. As inspiring as it is to be around such people, it can also be depressing. As in — I try my best but I consistently come up short, way short. How do you saints do it?
According to Paul the Apostle (who is also known as St. Paul) saints don’t do it. Borrowing from Psalms and Ecclesiastes, Paul writes, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10-12). In case you were wondering, Paul included himself among the unrighteous: “Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost” (I Timothy 1:15b). St. Paul understood that saints are as broken as anyone else, and that their sainthood is less about what they have done than it is about what God has done through them. It was after all, St. Augustine, who famously prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Not exactly model behavior.
Followers of Jesus should aspire to virtuous living (Lord knows, we could use more virtue in the world), but we should never confuse virtue with achievement. Nor should we equate sainthood with self-actualization because the truth is, we are far from saints. And we should be honest about that. The novelist Marilynne Robinson explains it beautifully: “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards that all of us fail to obtain.” “Sinner” may seem harsh and judgmental, but Robinson is correct, it is kindlier than saint. If you want to curse someone, call him a saint, and he’ll spend the rest of his life falling from that pedestal.
The saints that we remember and celebrate are not self-made men and women; they are instead, men and women transformed by the grace and mercy of God. All Saints’ Day celebrates the goodness of God, not of humanity. The good news is not that we can obtain sainthood if we just try a little harder. The good news is that God can work through prigs like us, for in Christ even the self-righteous can become righteous. As Frederick Buechner writes, “Maybe there’s nobody God can’t use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.”