We celebrate today all saints of Britain and Ireland, the saints of these British Isles. Yet if we look at the Calendar and Lectionary, we are informed that we are also celebrating “All Saints of Russia, All Saints of Romania, All Saints of Mt Athos and All Saints of Palestine.” In other words, we are celebrating those saints who live where we live. We are celebrating those saints who have lived and died where we live and die. We are celebrating those saints who are closest to us.
So today is not a celebration of being British or Irish. Today is not a nationalistic feast. Today is a celebration that we have saints within our own country, persons whom the Church has designated as models for how we can live. Now why would the Church do this? Is it just to remind us that people in earlier centuries have lived holy lives? I think not. Certainly, it is good to remember that hundreds of years ago there was a particular person whose life was so holy that we should remember that life today.
However, there is perhaps a more significant idea that the Church wishes us to consider: New saints are born every day. Every child and every adult at this church today can become a saint. We can relate to each other as saints-in-training, as people who are learning to be saints. How can we do that? How can we learn to be saints?
Strictly speaking a saint is a person who has been identified by the Church as having lived a holy life. However, both throughout history and today, the vast majority of people who have lived holy lives are not designated by the Church as saints. They are the unknown saints, just like those unknown soldiers of past wars, who are buried and honoured without their names being known. That is a realistic goal. When we die, none of us need to be designated by the Church as saints, but we do need to know that we have tried to live holy lives. How can we live holy lives?
Let me make two suggestions. First, we are all sinners. Look at Job, one of the most righteous persons who ever lived. Yet when God permitted the Devil to persecute Job, what happened? Job got both depressed and angry—an unusual response, because usually if we are depressed, we are very quiet and still, while when we are angry we are very talkative and active. Somehow, Job managed both responses; probably, he alternated between the two responses of being depressed and being angry. In the 9th chapter of the Book of Job, verses 21 to 29, Job told God how terrible is the experience of being persecuted. Job said: “I am guiltless… I despise my life… The earth is given into the hand of the wicked… I am accounted wicked, why then should I toil in vain!” That was Job’s sin—the angry and depressed response of a righteous person who was being persecuted for reasons that were beyond human understanding.
Poor Job! He had lived a righteous life; and he was still being persecuted. I don’t know about you; but I sometimes feel that way: “Lord, what did I do to deserve this?” Well, probably, I (or you) didn’t do anything special to deserve the particular challenge with which we are now struggling. What happened was that God wanted us to grow, to grow as human beings and to grow as Christians—and we grow primarily when we are challenged, not when we are relaxed and think privately, “My! How well I coped with life today!”
What did Job have to do to get back on track with God? He had to recognize that he was a sinner. His sin was not in anything he had done before he was challenged so greatly by God; rather, his sin was his response to being challenged; and he came to see this. He saw that he was wrong to challenge and defy and question God.
In the 42nd chapter of the Book of Job, verse 3, he reflected on his dreadful experience of suffering: “I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Then, in verses 5 and 6, Job set out his new understanding of God and his new understanding of himself: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You. Therefore, I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.”
Now the Book of Job was written several hundred years before the time of Jesus Christ. Traditions change: when we repent now, we are no longer asked to cover ourselves in dust and ashes, although we do observe Great and Holy Wednesday to deepen our experience of repentance. There, I believe, is the primary message of the Book of Job: we are all sinners, whether we know it or not; and we can all repent. That is the first step toward becoming an undeclared saint—we each need to recognize that we are sinners; and we each need to repent.
Second, there is no big secret about how to become a saint. Jesus gave us the model in the Beatitudes in the Gospel for today from Chapter 5 of St Matthew. We are each blessed, that is, we share in the Kingdom of God, when we follow the nine guidelines Jesus set out for the kinds of people who receive God’s blessing:
Those nine guidelines are just too much to take in, aren’t they? Perhaps such detailed guidelines make it sound impossible to become a saint. Certainly, it is a life-long challenge, but as I conclude, do pause and slowly reflect on the challenge before us.
What the Beatitudes are saying can be achieved by each of us. Be humble, seek social justice, seek to become an integrated, whole person who mourns when it appropriate to mourn and rejoices when it is appropriate to rejoice, recognize that we are going to be persecuted by others because we are Orthodox Christians, accept the failings of others just as we accept our own failings. Then, out of that awareness of not being able to solve all of the problems of our own lives, we learn to rely on God.
In our search for sainthood, there is an exciting and achievable conclusion: when we learn to rely on God and not to rely on ourselves, we are very much on the road to becoming saints. We too can become one with all the saints of Britain and Ireland, or any other country in which we live, whether or not we are ever glorified by the Church. Amen.