Alleluia! The Lord is glorious in his saints! O come let us adore him! Alleluia!
Mary the Virgin. Paul the Apostle. Augustine the Theologian. Martin of Tours. Francis. Theresa of Avila, Father Damian of the Lepers. In our own day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Mother Theresa of Calcutta. The list goes on and on. They cover the centuries – the men and women whom we celebrate today.
As we all know too well, the Church has a history which at certain times has been tawdry and shameful. Like the world around her, the Church too is marred and all too often diminished by the power of sin. But there have always been, even in the darkest times, bright lights, witnesses, giants of faith and sacrifice and love – the saints. Those who point to Christ and make manifest to all, Christ’s power, Christ’s grace and Christ’s transforming love.
Today we celebrate those women and men – the saints – and we also rejoice in a possibility for ourselves: and that possibility is holiness, sanctity, and true happiness. Léon Bloy, the French novelist, who began life as a young man who actively hated Christianity, but underwent an overwhelming conversion, Bloy said something that bears thinking about and remembering. It is also very disturbing. It bothers me all the time. “The only real sadness in life, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” Again, “The only read sadness in life, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” And what he means by this is very simple: you and I were created by God in his image and created to be holy as he is holy. And God has given us the means of becoming holy, that is, of becoming saints. God has set us on the road to holiness and sanctity, for God has given us Jesus, given us himself. God has then called us by our nature and called us also in Christ to be saints, and in Christ God has given us the means to fulfill that calling. And so, if at the end of our lives we have failed to respond, that life is a tragedy. If at the end of our lives, we have failed to receive the gift of sanctity which God so freely gives us, then it was a life un-actualized, a wasted life which never attained is purpose and fulfillment. It was a life which has missed the mark, fallen short of what it was intended to be and what it could have been.
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You and I are called to be saints, and this should not surprise us for, you see, that saints of God were not necessarily extraordinary people in and of themselves. Some were, to be sure, giants of the mind: others, doubtless, couldn’t even read. Some were born with power and privilege; others knew only poverty. Some accomplished great things and were known by the world around them; others lived quietly and were unnoticed by the world. Some were oddballs, cranks, and characters; others were just plain ordinary folk. They were a very diverse lot the saints; just like you and me, we are a very diverse lot. What they had and what they have in common with us is the grace of God in Christ. They were saints not because of themselves, but because of God. They received the gift which God offered them, the gift of himself in Jesus, God’s Christ. They responded to God’s call and took advantage of God’s gift. And their lives were never tragedies or failures, no matter what befell them. Their lives were full and victorious. Their victory was the victory of “God.
And that victory can be ours, dear people. It is offered to you. It is offered to me. That is the message of the Gospel . . . which is why we call it Good News.
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And here again is a story which I have told you before, but it is a good story, so I’m going to tell it again. When I was a child, our rector, who was a rather saintly man himself, used to assemble the whole of the Church School in the Church to tell us about the saints. We sat in our pews, and the old man asked us, “What is a saint?” There was silence, of course; at six and seven and eight we were all too timid and shy to venture an answer. And so he pointed all around the Church to the beautiful and rather impressive stained glass windows on the walls. “Do you see the people in the windows?” he asked. “They are the saints. And what do they do?” he asked again. “They let the light shine through.”
The saints are the people who let the light shine through, let the light shine through. I’ve never forgotten that definition, and it’s as good as any I can think of. Naïve? Too simple? Not at all. In fact, it is quite exact. “I am the light of the world,” says Jesus. And the saints are those who let the light of Jesus, God’s Christ, shine through themselves and in themselves. The saints become transparent to Christ. Moreover, they let themselves be transformed and transfigured by his light and by his life. And they shine brilliantly with Christ’s own life and the life they live is Christ’s own life within them. The light shines through, and their words, their actions, their very selves point always to Christ.
They are then examples to us of what a Christian can be. They are indeed what the Christian and the Church must be. The saints show us what God can do with a human life. They are witnesses. They present evangelical truth. They show us a possibility that is just a real and active now as it was for them in their own time.
And so, as St. John tells us, the light shines through in the darkness! It is the light which overcomes evil and sin and triumphs over death. It is the light which turns the tragedy of life into victory. It is the light which shone in the saints – and it may shine, as well, in you and in me.