So often, when we speak of saints, the image that we are presented with is some version of a super-Christian. Someone who lived in such a way as to be an impossibly holy example of Christian virtue. People who transcend the human experience of fallibility and flaw and sin and ought to be venerated as examples of unattainable perfection. So perfect are these saints that we name churches, hospitals, orphanages, schools, even natural features for them.
Alas, while this is the popular perception of saints, this is not what they were ever intended to be. In fact, this idea about saints as unattainably perfect Christians is precisely the opposite of why we talk about saints, why they're held up as examples of Christian virtue, and why we venerate them in our calendars and liturgies.
The original saints were martyrs. Those Christians in the who were executed by authorities, rather than give up their faith. These were sometimes clergy, but more often every day people who ran afoul of the law. A new provincial governor needed to make a point or provide an example of his authority, so rounding up a few technically illegal Christians and executing them was a good way to get it done. Those to be executed were usually given a chance to apostatize rather than die. Some took the opportunity and preserved their lives at the expense of their faith communities. To give up faith in Christ was to give up on one's community. Those who refused to turn their backs died, but were regarded as heroes by the Christian community. These were people who had lived as Christians - little Christs - and who had died in unjust executions, just like Jesus. If the aim of Christian life is to be as much like Christ as possible, dying in a manner reminiscent of the Crucifixion was a pretty substantial step in the right direction.
The stories of these martyrs came back to their communities as heroes of the faith, to be sure, but not because they were perfect or superhuman. They were heroes because they were ordinary people, exactly like you and me and all of our neighbours, who had done an extraordinary job of reflecting Christ's own life and work in the world. These early saints represented not some strange, impossible advantage over the rest of us but the possibility of tenacity, endurance, and faithfulness that anyone could achieve.
Over the years, as Christianity spread and eventually became legal, they were substantially fewer martyrs. That is not to say no martyrs. Indeed, Christians are still martyred today in parts of the world hostile to our faith. But in the West, martyrdoms are exceedingly rare. Over time, the qualification to become a saint shifted from being killed in the manner of Christ - an increasingly rare opportunity - to being one who demonstrated Christlike sacrifice in other ways. This is where we see the tradition of saints who lived as ascetics, great teachers of the faith, or fearless evangelists develop and grow. While the means of demonstrating a Christlike life had changed, the opportunity and expectation had not.
When we are baptized, we approach the water with one life and pass through the waves to emerge on the other side in a new life. We go in with lives that are wholly ours and, under the rim of the water, we die to that life and receive a new one. We emerge sharing and living in the life of Christ, a life that we share with all other baptized people. When the author of the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us, it is all of these people whose life we share. The many saints, those named by the Church as universal examples, those known in local communities, as those known to God alone, who have all demonstrated exemplary lives in Christ one way or another.
To be baptized, to become a Christian, is to be adopted into this great, extended family that we call the Communion of Saints. The people we sit next to in church and the people portrayed in stained glass windows all become our siblings when we take on life in Christ. Certainly we hold some of these people up as great examples of how one can live as a Christian. Every family points to members who are especially good at certain things. A relative who is an incomparable gardener or who bakes the most delicious pies or manages to remember every single family story and relation, no matter how distant. As these people are examples and mentors in their respective areas of excellence, the saints are the examples of excellent lives of faith. Family members we can look to for guidance and wisdom and who, even if they have journeyed across death's divide, continue to pray for us and cheer us on in our own unfinished pilgrimages.
In today's festival we recall the great cloud of witnesses that is such a blessing to each of us. Not because they represent the impossible or the unattainable, but because they represent the extent of Christlike life and witness to which each of us is headed. The saints represent what is possible when we, the ordinary, accept God's call to be extraordinary.
For the many blessings of God known in the great cloud of witnesses that is the Communion of Saints, thanks be to God.
Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU.