Today is All Saints’ Day in the traditional liturgical calendar.
In typical fashion, I’m choosing to ignore the more popular Eve of the holiday, but I thought I’d make a point of doing something for All Saints itself.
I didn’t grow up in a church that had much time or place for saints in the traditional sense. We had a fairly strong bent toward thinking saints were a lot of papist guff, actually. “Saints” in the Biblical sense meant the body of believers, not some especially holy figure from history. And you certainly didn’t ought to pray to them. That was an offence against Christ’s Mediatorship.
Even naming a church after one of them was a bit weird; I was of course familiar with all the Anglican St. Mary’ses and St. John’ses and St. Martin’ses and St. Anne’ses, but we weren’t a part of that tradition and we didn’t do that. And given the theologically liberal reputation of the Anglican hierarchy when I was growing up, it wasn’t something we felt any desire to copy.
But being something of a student of history, it occurred to me at some point that the idea of saints has been around as a part of Christianity for a lot longer than it hasn’t. And while I was in Central Asia, the importance placed by the local culture on honouring one’s deceased got me thinking about the Biblical idea of the Cloud of Witnesses.
The term occurs in the book of Hebrews, following on from chapter 11, the great faith hall of fame chapter, and then says that since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us run our own race with perseverance.
There are, in other words, things we can learn from the lives of the great servants of God from the past, even those that happen to have been granted by posterity a “Saint” in front of their name.
Some of them, I’ll grant you, appear to have been granted the title for very obscure reasons, but many of them were great servants of the Most High. The current Pope’s namesake St. Francis of Assisi was perhaps the most radical anti-Mammon prophet the world has ever seen. St. Augustine of Hippo (from the Roman city of Hippo Regius; nothing to do with the animal) helped steer the church through the muddy waters of several heretical teachings and to come to terms with the fall of Rome to the barbarians.
This, then, forms the heart of my personal theology of saints. I wouldn’t pray to them or ask them to do things; I’m of the opinion that their time in the world is done, and with it their ability to act independently. But they’re still around, part of the Cloud of Witnesses, an encouragement and example. The Communion of Saints, to use the credal language, need not be restricted to those alive in a material sense right now. The Bible uses the language of “falling asleep” or “being absent from the body and present with the Lord” for the death of believers; no-one who is in Christ ever truly dies.
Is there a place for making more of the idea of the Cloud of Witnesses than we typically do?
I’m not sure. Certainly I think the nascent Central Asian church could profit from the idea, but whether it’s something we in the West are open to is another matter. I think we could benefit from becoming more aware of the continuing spiritual life of those who have gone on before us, if nothing else as a counter to the fear of death that we are often prey to even if no-one talks about it much.
Death is the last great unmentionable subject, of course. It used to be the first of a quartet of unmentionables: Death, Sex, Religion and Politics, but all of the others have lost their taboo status. Sex and sexuality is the great obsession of the age, of course, and in our modern world we will happily discuss our political views with all and sundry via comments on social media and other things. Even religion is often worn firmly on our sleeves for all the world to see, but bring up the subject of death in a social gathering and watch how quickly the conversation dies.
This unmentionable status only adds to the fear we have of it. Death is so terrible that we aren’t even allowed to speak of it, and with the rise of atheistic worldview as a common societal perspective, death is to be feared as the ultimate end. If there’s nothing at all beyond, we will do everything we can to escape the oblivion.
Someone once said that all fears can be traced to the fear of death. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I can sort of see it. Our fears of dementia or insanity are fears of mental death. Fear of rejection is the fear of relational death. Embarrassment is the fear of social death. So if we can truly get hold of the idea of the Cloud of Witnesses, that death is not the end and not to be feared, it might go some way toward destroying a lot of our other fears too.
The Apostles’ Creed contains the statement that “I believe in… the communion of saints”. If our union with Christ and with one another is not ended by death, if that communion transcends the grave, then the old joke about the church being the only organisation that never loses a member by death is true. Believers die, but even in death they are still a part of the church.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I find this a source of encouragement.
The title of this post is the title of an old English hymn of praise to God for His faithfulness to His people throughout history, with particular focus on those “who from their labours rest”. If there’s a hymn in English that expresses the idea of the Cloud of Witnesses, this is it, and I want it sung (all 8 verses) at my funeral, when that time comes. There’s a verse which is particularly apt here:
O blest communion, fellowship divine
We feebly struggle; they in glory shine
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine
The Communion of Saints. Encouragement from and connection with those who have gone on before us. Traditionally, All Saints was the day on which this was affirmed and celebrated.
So I’m groping towards a sort of re-evaluation of the idea of saints. Maybe a sort of “saints lite” interpretaion of the idea, but quite different from the utter rejection of the notion that would have been my opinion as a teenager.