Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The great feast which we mark today, All Saints’, has become a sort of hybrid celebration. On the one hand, we remember the faithful departed, which is really what All Souls’ Day (the day after All Saints’) is about, but it’s good and proper as far as I can tell because Scripture tells us that we are all saints (with a small “s”) by virtue of our Baptism.

That said, the historic focus on this Holy Day has not been on all the faithful departed but on that peculiar group of women and men before whose names we put a capital “S”, “Saint”. We are all, scripture tells us small “s” saints, but we also recognize that there are women and men of special virtue whose memory ought to be celebrated. It is a great part of our tradition, so I’d like us to focus on that for just a minute.

First, what does it mean to be a Saint? Well it comes from the Latin “Sanctus” meaning “holy”. The word in New Testament Greek which was eventually translated into “sanctus” or “holy” is “hagios” which simply means “set apart”. From an anthropological standpoint, there has since humanity became civilized six or seven millenia ago been a sort of preternatural drive to set certain things apart from ordinary, profane things. This probably started with reverence for the dead, but developed to include tribal rituals and the like which were defined by what French sociologist Emile Durkheim termed “communal effervescence.” So, it seems that something about us means that we need to be able to set things apart, to distinguish the sacred from the profane.

As Christians, though, we believe that there is something in addition to the way we evolved as a species and became civilized which creates this need. In short, we set things apart because there really are “holy things.” There is something objectively, ontologically different about certain aspects of our individual and communal lives. There is something different and special and real about what goes on at the altar, which is why we have a sanctus (or “holy”) candle up there and why we ring sanctus (or holy) bells and why we have holy water fonts right by the church doors to remind the faithful both of the fact that this space is holy (set aside for worship) and that we are holy (set aside for God in Baptism).

But why holy people? Why capital “S” Saints if we are already set apart, made small “s” saints in Baptism? It seems somewhat undemocratic, doesn’t it. Well, first of all, there are some ways in which Christianity as we have received it from Jesus and the Apostles is egalitarian and some ways in which it just isn’t. We are all part of the body, of the priesthood of all believers and there isn’t any human being who is superior or inferior to any other in the final analysis. But we do have a hierarchical church and a hierarchical priesthood and it seems to me that a faithful reading of Scripture and of the Tradition of the Church suggests that this is as it should be. Most importantly, we have Christ as the head of our body. Christ is our King, not our duly elected president who happened to get enough votes from the apostolic electoral college.

There are those whom Christ calls to a special order of ministry, to represent Himself to the people. For one thing, that’s why we have an educated, trained, ordained, professional college of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons in the Church. This is (to me, anyway) not a source of pride but of the most intense terror and sense of unworthiness imaginable.

There are also those whom Christ calls to be His most special representatives to a particular time and place and situation and whose lives of devotion can serve as a model for the rest of us. Or, as our Book of Common Prayer eloquently puts it, there are some called to be “the chosen vessels of [God’s] grace, and the lights of the world in their generations.” Some of us, myself included, call on these men and women to intercede for us, just as many ask a friend or a priest to pray for them or a loved one. For others, this is not a part of their piety, but the examples of the Saints can still instruct and inspire us. The courage of the martyrs, the wisdom of church doctors, the temperance of virgins, the fervor of evangelists, the conviction of those who work for Christ’s reign of justice and peace, should stir up in us the will and wherewithal to be vessels of God’s grace in our own generation. Their emulation of and commitment to our Lord and Savior should inspire us to be a little bit unsatisfied being small “s” saints. Our godly discomfiture should spur us on to try to be capital “S” Saints [just like that sweet hymn we just sang said , “I mean to be one, too]. Most of us won’t make it, which is okay, but we may find a greater satisfaction when we rest from all our labors, and know that we did our level best to confess before this world the name of Jesus.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.