All Saints’ Day begs the question, “What is a saint?” There are a number of ways we could define saint. The simplest and earliest definition of saint is found in the New Testament. Paul begins most of his letters by greeting the “saints” – the saints at Corinth, at Ephesus, at Galatia, and so on. In the New Testament “saint” means simply any baptized person, any Christian. The word translated as “saint” in the New Testament is hagios or its plural hagioi, a Greek word that means “holy”. The saints are the holy ones, not holy because of anything intrinsic to them, but holy because of the holy presence of Christ within them.
A second, more common, use of the word “saint” is to denote one of the heroes or heroines of the Christian faith. Thus, we speak of St. Peter or St. Francis, St. Mary Magdalene or St. Clare.
For a long time I was puzzled about why the gospel reading for All Saints’ Day was the Beatitudes from Luke or Matthew. However, I think I know why that is. The Beatitudes are, if you will, Jesus’ definition of a saint.
Let’s look at a few of the characteristics of the saints as defined by Jesus.
First of all, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. We are a society obsessed by money, financial success, accumulation of things. For Jesus, wealth was not a sin, but it was a problem. The wealthy person, Jesus warned, was likely to have his priorities in the wrong place. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be”. The saints are those persons who have their hearts fixed upon God’s kingdom, not earthy riches.. The saints do not determine their own worth or the worth of others on the basis of financial success.
Secondly, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. We live in a world where feelings, in general, and sadness and depression, in particular, are suspect and not exhibited in public. Men, especially, are schooled to show little expression and feeling.
We also live in a "feel good" culture. "Drink this, eat that, smoke a certain brand of cigarette and you will feel good and be happy". Fairy tales end "and they all lived happily ever after", but that isn't the way life works. But what if the ability to feel deep sadness is a prerequisite for feeling great joy? The saints are complete persons who feel the full range of human emotions. The saints are those who can "weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice".
Thirdly, "blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth". A popular bumper sticker back in Alabama where I grew up reads, "If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch" As a culture we exalt the big dogs, the hot shots, the powerful. Assertiveness, even aggressiveness, is highly valued. But what if the race is not to the swift, nor the contest to the strong? What if the truly great in the world are not the Donald Trumps but the Mother Teresas? The saints are those who choose not to run with the big dogs. They are the ones who choose service above self-aggrandizement.
Finally, the saints are those who long for righteousness.. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied". Jesus was a Jew, and to a Jew, righteousness, zedeqah, meant something very specific.. Righteousness was literally "to do right by", especially to do right by the poor and hungry, widows and orphans. So when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, he was literally saying, "Blessed are those who long for the hungry to be fed and the homeless to be housed, for in the end, they will not be disappointed". Of all Jesus' claims, this may be the most extraordinary. Righteousness is not at home in the world in which you and I live, but Jesus announces the coming of a new world of righteousness and justice. The saints are those who long for the appearing of such a kingdom, who never lose heart and are never satisfied with anything less.
Another definition for saint that I want to offer involves a very concrete example of holiness. In the early part of this century, Henry Joel Cadbury came to teach New Testament at Harvard Divinity School. Cadbury was one of the great New Testament scholars of our century and was at work on what became the Revised Standard Version of the Bible when World War I broke out. A pacifist, Cadbury would not fight in the war but instead volunteered to work with the Quakers caring for the wounded and dying on the battle fields of Europe. In the midst of the war, one of Cadbury’s students came across his professor bandaging a wounded soldier. “Dr. Cadbury,” the student exclaimed, “Why aren’t you back at Harvard translating the New Testament?” “I am translating the New Testament,” Cadbury replied. He was translating the New Testament not from Greek into English but from the printed page into human life. I think that may be the best definition of saint. A saint is one who translates the New Testament into a life of love and service.
In conclusion, I want to offer you the devil’s definition of “saint”, or at least the definition from the Devil’s Dictionary. American humorist Ambrose Bierce once wrote a book entitled The Devil’s Dictionary. In it he defined saint as “a dead sinner, revised and edited”. To give the devil (or at least Ambrose Bierce) his due, there’s much to be said for that definition. A few years ago A.N. Wilson wrote a biography of C.S. Lewis, a man who is a saint to me and to many, many others. Wilson’s biography shocked some C.S. Lewis’ fans by painting a revealing picture of Lewis, warts and all, but I came away appreciating Lewis more, not less, for knowing that he struggled and fought against many weaknesses and temptations. Sometimes he battled them successfully; sometimes he did not. But I think that a saint’s light shines more brightly, not less, for their struggles. The life of Christ in a saint is displayed more vividly in contrast to the saints’ all-too-human failures. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once remarked that “…that the saints in heaven rejoice over their sins, because through them they have been brought to greater and greater understanding of the endless endurance of God's love, to the knowledge that beyond every failure God's creative mercy still waits.” (A Ray of Darkness, p. 52)
All Saints’ Day exhausts and unsettles me. However, you define saint, I find it difficult to imagine myself among those “saints triumphant [who] rise in bright array”. More often than not, I choose self-aggrandizement over service; my heart and mind go in a thousand different directions, rather than being fixed on God’s kingdom; and if my life is a translation of the New Testament, then it must be in an unknown tongue. But I have to keep reminding myself and keep reminding you that sainthood is not our accomplishment; it is God’s gift. We follow where Christ and the saints lead, knowing all the while that we will stumble and fall. You see, the Devil’s Dictionary had it partly right: Some saints are dead sinners revised and edited, but all saints are forgiven sinners, just like us. The saints remind us of what we are capable of if we will only open ourselves to the power of God who makes all things new and raises us from death to life abundant and everlasting.