To be a Christian is to live in relationship. There is no way, even for the most dedicated, ascetic of hermits, to be an entirely dislocated, removed member of the Body of Christ. The relationship may be one with a great distance in it, but there will be a relationship there. Even if it is simply the community who come to check on the hermitage's denizen once or twice a year and who will, one day, preside at the funeral and bury the hermit's remains, there is a living relationship present.
For most of us, thankfully, the relationships that are foundational to our lives as Christians are rather more present than seasonal check-ins or the preparation for final Christian rites. If I were trying to be a clever marketer, dishing out platitudes, I might say "There is no 'I' in Christian!" Some clever soul would undoubtedly retort that there is an 'i' in Christian, two of them in fact. And therein would be my clever marketing point: When one is a Christian, even the first person singular has a close, identifiable relationship with the next member, just a couple of doors over. We live as Christians, always, in relationship.
The Church has marked four days of the year as especially appropriate for baptisms, the sacrament when one formally takes on life in Christ and forges a particular relationship with God and with all other baptized people. The first of these days is the Baptism of the Lord. The reasoning here is obvious enough, I think. As Christians, we seek to be like Christ and imitate his life and ministry, including his baptism in the River Jordan. The second of these days is Easter, specifically the Great Vigil of Easter the night before Easter morning. This is the first of the celebrations of Easter and is full of drama and mystery, including the emergence of Christ in resurrected glory from the dark tomb. This night is the model for all of our liturgies, including baptisms. It is a very good thing, at the principal celebration of the Resurrection, to make new Christians who leave behind lives bound to Death and take on new lives, bound only to the resurrected Christ. The third of the great baptismal days is Pentecost, the great celebration of the Holy Spirit given to us as our advocate and guide in these days between the first and second comings of Christ. When one is baptized, one is emptied of what one carries from the life before and then filled with the Holy Spirit, making Pentecost an ideal day for the sacrament of belonging.
The fourth day especially appropriate to baptism is today, All Saints Day. This day is especially about relationship and the ways in which we Christians reflect Christ into the lives of one another. A day when we remember all of the saints that the Church has known, both through history and those who live among us today. Saint is a word which, like most words, has changed its meaning over time. When Christians first began using it, or its equivalents in other languages, it simply referred to a holy thing or person. Christians, being filled with the Holy Spirit at baptism, are all saints by this definition. We see this in Paul's letters to the church in Corinth where he refers to its members as "those called to be saints". You and I may not think of ourselves as saints today, but somewhere between Paul's understanding of the word and ours, perhaps we can think of ourselves as saints-in-the-making.
Over time, presumably because of its association with holiness, the term "saint" began to be reserved for people who had demonstrated especially Christlike examples in their lives. These were people who, after their deaths, were remembered by their communities as those who had demonstrated in powerful ways what it meant to live and die like Christ himself. They are people whose stories are inspiring and many of which are still told today as a means of teaching newer Christians what it might mean to be like Christ in their own lives. What is important to remember about these saints, the kind that we name churches for and put pictures of in stained glass windows, is that they are not people with extraordinary advantages. Saints are not superhuman. That is, in fact, the point of why they are so special. Saints are ordinary Christians, just like you and me, who, when presented with the opportunity, consistently responded with the grace, mercy, and love of Christ in their words and actions. And there are a great many saints who don't make it on to church signs or into stained glass windows. Each of us can probably call to mind a person or two who, in our lives, has consistently set an admirable example of what it means to be a Christian. These people, when they die, will be remembered by those who love them and will certainly be held dearly in our hearts, but will probably never make it to a great litany sung in Rome or Canterbury, nor to an artist's glasswork anywhere. They are no less saintly in God's eyes for lack of a reputation among humanity, I can assure you of this.
What do we, today, the saints of Holy Trinity have to say to people who are being baptized on this great festival? How will we model for them the tenets of our faith and the life of Christ as it ought to be lived in Winnipeg in 2022? I am turning for help on this, without any shame, to both St Paul the Apostle and Rowan Williams. When writing to the churches he has helped to found and foster, addressing the troubles they are having within their relationships with one another and, consequently, with God, Paul reminds them that when all other mortal concerns pass away, those things that are left are faith, hope, and love. These are at the core of the human relationship with God and must be at the core of our relationships with one another. Which is a lovely theological sentiment, but what does it mean when, as it were, the rubber hits the road? For this, with deep appreciation, we turn to the Archbishop Williams.
Faith is the cornerstone of a dependable relationship. We must believe in the relationship if we are going to invest anything into it. As is so often the case with God, what we think of first in our own human priority is not necessarily how it plays out with our creator. Faith is not a system of propositions that we can think our way into, nor is it a certainty that we have mastered some hold on a portion of truth. Faith is the confidence that we can be mastered, that we can be changed into something greater than we started as when we encounter the truth. Faith is the belief that we can be held even when we don't feel that we can hold on. But whether we are seeking to understand the truth or understanding ourselves in it, faith happens in relationship.
Hope is a similar phenomenon. Hope in our relationship with God is why we can be sure that God does not turn away from us and abandon us, no matter where or in what state we find ourselves. Hope exists because we have a relationship with a God who knows and sees and holds all that we are, all that we have been, and all that we will be. Our very identities are given to us; we have not invented them, nor do we have some immutable tiny piece of ourselves that is always unchanging. We have identities because we are in relationship with God who is unchanging and who witnesses who we are, holding that truth outside of time, outside of the changes and chances of this life. For the Christian, it is our relationship with God that sustains us in faith and which is our identity in hope.
Of course, when St Paul lists these three qualities, the greatest of the three is love. And he is very clear that simple acts of being "nice" or "doing good" are not sufficient to truly be love. They may be small parts of love, but they are not the whole thing by any stretch of the imagination. Love is, like faith and hope, a relationship. It is the relationship that delights in another. It is the relationship that refuses to enjoy another's failure. It is the relationship that acknowledges that we are, indeed, all relations of one another and that receives truth as a living, joyful gift. Love is born of being loved and, as says the first letter of John, it is not that we loved God, but that God loved us first.
We baptize on All Saints Day because it is this relationship, rooted in the infinite depths of faith, hope, and love, into which we baptize people. We know these things most deeply and most thoroughly in our relationship with God, but we are called to know them and to be them in our relationships with all people and with all of God's creation. We baptize on All Saints Day because on the other side of those fertile waters of new life lies a new family of saints, siblings in Christ. Some known across the world by generations of people. Others known only to us. Still others known only to God. But all are our examples, our siblings and ancestors who cheer us on and hold us up as we run the race that is set before us. We celebrate these witness to faith, hope, and love and we baptize every one who, through the grace of God would join their number.
Photo by fauxels.