“I sing a song of the saints of God …” This is the opening line of what I would dare say is one of the more popular All Saints hymns in the Anglican tradition. It’s a children’s song, really, and rather obviously reeking of Victorian Englishness, so much so that the liturgical powers-that-be in the Episcopal Church made the decision to omit it from the most recent revision of the hymnal in 1982. But the members of the House of Deputies at General Convention that year—God bless them, a group not generally not known for being nostalgic about the past—voted overwhelmingly to restore it, and it remains one of the quaint and quirky elements of our Anglican sub-culture.
Behind the Victorian schmaltz, however, behind the poetic images that make us grin—the lines about meeting the saints of God in “shops” or in “lanes” or “at tea”—is a repeated refrain that is as serious as a heart attack. Each of the three stanzas ends with the line, “…and I mean to be one too.” This is what the saints are like, and I mean to be one too. Do we really mean this? If we paid attention to what we were singing, would we allow these words to cross our lips? Certainly it would give us pause if we were to consider the implications. “I mean to be one too.” I expect to be a saint. I aspire to sainthood. To borrow from another song that is often trivialized, “…Lord, I mean to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.” And I mean to be one too.
That really is a daunting and sobering prospect. Sainthood is not for the faint of heart. That much is made clear in the readings for All Saints Day in the classic Anglican lectionaries. In Ecclesiasticus we read about “famous men” who “made a name for themselves by their valor” and gave wise counsel and spoke in prophetic oracles and composed music and literature and were the pride of their times, “godly men whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” In Revelation,
sees the multitude that “have come out of the great tribulation, [and] have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” St John
“And I mean to be one too.” We look at these folks, and we look at ourselves, and we wonder that anyone would think it possible for us to attain such holiness. Or we may look honestly into our own hearts and realize that holiness is perhaps the last thing that we would aspire to. Who wants to be holy, anyway? We don’t want to come across as “holier than thou,” or be thought of as a “holy roller” or be referred to as a “holy Joe.”
Maybe we’d better watch what we sing. Hymns can be dangerous.
To be a saint, of course, means to be holy. That’s what the word means, “holy one.” To aspire to sainthood is to aspire to holiness. To be holy means, first and foremost, to be set apart by God. This is a sovereign act of God, and has little or nothing to do with the individual qualities of the person or object being set apart. God simply decides, for whatever reason, to mark something or someone as His, and it becomes, in the language of the Old Testament, “holy to the Lord,” set apart from ordinary use and ordinary significance. When we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we make new Christians by setting them apart, designating them as holy to the Lord, and God takes possession of them in that act, marking them as “Christ’s own forever.” Of course, there’s another layer of meaning to the word “holy” which does imply a qualitative distinction, that says something particular about the object or person we are calling “holy.” When we speak of a holy woman or holy man, we are saying that such a person is somehow like God in His essential nature: complete, whole, unblemished, pure, “without spot or wrinkle,” a complete mirror image of the likeness of Christ. Such a condition of holiness is not arrived at instantly. It is the end of a long and gradual process; it is the fruit of a sustained pattern of openness to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in one’s soul. It is the result of a lifetime of habitually yielding oneself to God’s love and God’s purpose.
Those whom we revere as “saints,” both on All Saints’ Day and the various days of the year when their names pop up—these folks all started out as sinners, just like us. Some were naturally nice people, like Francis of Assisi, but some were notoriously cantankerous, like
, the one who first translated the scriptures from Greek into Latin. Some had what seemed like an innate goodness that easily showed through their personalities—St Margaret of Scotland falls into this category. Others had to work at cultivating the Christian virtues—one thinks here of St Augustine, who sowed more wild oats in his teens and twenties than most men today can even dream about! Some of those we call saints were highly rational creatures, like St Thomas Aquinas, who seriously did apply his intellect to the question, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Others, like St Teresa of St Jerome , were complete mystics who were frustrated at having to put their experience of God into mere human words. Some of the saints were loners, like St Antony of Egypt, the father of Christian monasticism. Others loved being with people—I can’t help mentioning Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Avila
I could go one, but the point is this: It is highly improbable that any of us will ever have our own day in the liturgical calendar. A couple of us may someday have a plaque on the inside wall of a church somewhere with our name on it, which may or may not be a sign of some degree of holiness. So, some of us will be known by future generations because someone was thoughtful enough to bring a resolution to a vestry meeting, and others will be remembered because of heroic Christian witness. But heroic Christian witness is not really why those in the latter category as remembered as saints. They are saints for the same reason that you and I are also destined to sainthood: because they have achieved—or so the church assumes and/or discerns—they have achieved, through grace, a vision of God that is no longer clouded by Sin. They can look God straight in the eye without being destroyed.
And that is what awaits all of us who have been “marked as Christ’s own forever.” That is the destiny of the community of the baptized, God’s holy ones, those who have been set apart for His glory.
Is there an alternative to this destiny? Is there another option besides complete holiness? You bet there is. It’s called Hell! It’s called eternal separation from God. It’s called the eradication of all that is truly human within us. Those are the alternatives: complete holiness, or utter darkness. There are no slums in Heaven. There is no low-income subsidized housing. We’re either en route to sainthood or en route to Hell. The choice is ours. As for me, “I mean to be one too.” Amen.