Monday, November 03, 2008

All Saints’ Day is November 1: But who and what are the “Saints?”

a reflection from Dr Peter Toon

It appears from the tremendous commercial investment in making the evening of October 31 a “fun evening” and an end in itself, that most of modern America does not know or care that there is only “All Hallows’ Eve” because there is “All Saints’ Day” the next day.

But let us focus here upon “all saints.” There appears to be within the Christian traditions two ways of understanding what is a “saint.”

First, there is the way which Paul the Apostle embraces in his Letters: here, a saint is a baptized, disciple of Jesus Christ, who is being sanctified (made holy) by the presence, work, gifts, fruit and virtues of the Holy Spirit, working in him and in the church. Here all active and consecrated disciples of Jesus, who are members of the church, are “saints.” (See e.g., Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2) Obviously backsliding, apostate and nominal church members do not qualify for this description for they do not seek holiness.

The other way of understanding what is a “saint” is provided by Christian Tradition and is reflected in the naming of churches (e.g., St Augustine’s Church), in special days of commemoration (e.g., St Luke’s Day) and in patron saints of countries and cities (e.g., St George of England). Here the biblical description is both narrowed and intensified: the real “saint” is now a rare person who stands out from the rest of church members, and does so by his or her holiness, goodness and love for God and man.

Having distinguished the two types of saints, we now have to determine which of the two is commemorated by the Reformed Catholic Church of England in her Book of Common Prayer (editions from 1549 through to 1662).

In making this determination, we have to bear in mind the fact that The Book of Common Prayer does itself provide in the Church Year commemorative days not only for the Lord Jesus himself (e.g. Christmas), but also for the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles and Evangelists. Further, there is a tradition which calls the latter by the name “Saint,” and so, for example, we speak of “St Mark’s Day.”

On the other hand, the same Prayer Book rejects the primary act of devotion on a “Saint’s Day” in late medieval times – that of asking the saint in question to pray for Christians on earth. By taking away the spiritual power of the “saint” to intercede uniquely for the faithful on earth, the Reformers may be seen as making the “saint” into a godly, fine example of that which all genuine Christians ought to aspire to be as Christians, truly the holy ones, as in the usage of Paul, the Apostle.

So we come to the Epistle, Gospel and Collect for All Saints Day in the Prayer Book. The Epistle is Revelation 7:2-12 and points to the final salvation and place in heaven of all genuine believers – that is, of Paul’s saints. The Gospel is St Matthew 5:1-12 and is the Beatitudes, again a description of the life to which all baptized, committed Christians are called—that is, Paul’s saints. The Collect was composed in 1548/9 by the Reformers and is as follows in the 1662 edition of the Prayer Book:

O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

If we carefully analyze this Collect, we see that the first part speaks definitely of all truly baptized Christians, the elect of God the Father, the (Pauline) saints of God, and it is they who together, by the union of the Holy Spirit, are the body of Christ. However, in contrast, the reference in the second part to following “thy blessed Saints” appears to lean towards the traditional meaning: that is, to narrow the meaning of the Pauline “saint” to those who have excelled by grace and dedication in practical holiness, and present them as worthy persons to be followed and imitated .
So, to summarize, it would appear that the Reformed Catholicism of The Book of Common Prayer is primarily committed to the biblical, Pauline, meaning of saint and calls all Christians to be what they are by God’s will in and through Christ, and called to be ,by God the Father– holy ones, sanctified ones, saints. But it is also ready to use the common, traditional meaning in a restricted and reformed way as well.

Therefore the “all saints” of the feast day are the countless, unrecorded, baptized Christians through the centuries and from all peoples, who were truly sanctified, holy, persons, fulfilling their vocations in serving Christ their Lord in the church and world, in a consecrated, dedicated and faithful way. It is probably safe to say that they are a minority of the whole baptized membership of the One Church of God.

In closing, we may note that the distinction between the Saint of tradition and the saint of the Pauline Letters is very strong indeed in both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and is a major theme of “Catholic religion”; in contrast, the distinction does not exist in pure Protestantism as part of its principles.

Now SING: “For all the saints who from their labors rest”

Appendix: A modern view of Sainthood from The P B of TEC

In her message to the Episcopal Church marking All Saints' Day, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori suggests that Episcopalians look for the modern saints who minister all around them every day.

'In your neighborhood, who is the saint who picks up trash?' she asks. 'Who looks out for school children on their way to and from school? Who looks after an elderly or frail neighbor, running errands or checking to be sure that person has what is needed? In your community, what saints labor on behalf of the voiceless?'

Saints, Jefferts Schori reminded the church, 'come in all shapes, ages, colors, and theological stripes.'

Full story:

Dr Peter Toon, October 28 2008,

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