quod pro nobis traditum est

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What about the Saints?

The vast majority of Christians in the world recognize saints as holy people who are recognized by and given honor in the Church, both in the East and West. Saints are commemorated on given days on the Church calendar. Historically, the Church has also prayed to the saints. The churches of the reformation do not recognize saints in the same way although it is common to find these same groups speaking of great figures from Scripture as saints. Lutherans speak of all believers being saints and sinners at the same time (simul justus et peccator), an admitted paradox, with faith and holiness being gifts of God. They tend to look at dead people, even believers, as dead and that's it.

Unfortunately, in highly charged polemics, the invocation of the saints comes to the forefront and becomes one of many markers to test people's allegiances. It is one issue, for example, in which there are clear sides and orthodoxies. A couple of points should be made here. Firstly, this is quite unfortunate in that something of Scripture and Church degenerates into an us and them rather than an opportunity to learn about God and holiness. In other words, the debate becomes an anthropocentric concern (I'm right, you're wrong) and this leads to the second point. Secondly, the debate often denies opportunity for learning theology on the one hand by silencing much of it and thus de-theologizing the Church, what is commonly understood as secularism.

Last Sunday I heard a reading from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians in which he encourages the brethren to "be imitators of God." He goes on to say, "but fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints . . ." Although Paul is talking about something else I could not help but immediately think about how we are not supposed to invoke the saints, as is so clearly spelled out in the Lutheran Confessions. In other words, it was hard to take Paul at his words because of an undue emphasis on just one aspect of the teaching regarding the saints. Here Paul is saying that saints are those who imitate God, who walk in love, "as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us." There is a saintliness to our lives on earth, whether or not one considers it as God's gift or something someone strives for or both.

The invocation of the saints is a large topic theologically, one which cannot be fully addressed here. Invocation is prayer and the saints who are invoked are in heaven. The argument often goes that since Christ is our Savior and Mediator there is no need to pray to Mary and the saints or that such prayers are forbidden and even idolatry. The spirit of the argument is clear enough.

In 1521, the year that Luther was excommunicated, he wrote a commentary on the Magnificat in which he ended it with an intercession to Mary. Scholars may be able to show that Luther later on would have rejected such a prayer and practice (i.e., "early Luther", "later Luther"). What is interesting is that this is four years following his writing of the 95 Theses, which is commonly celebrated at Reformation Anniversaries.

I do not deny that debate and controversy exist on this or any other theological matter. I do argue that they cannot be solved simply by citing the right passages for doctrines like this are so rich and manifold that a one-sided polemic eliminates the possibility of appreciating the fulness of the teaching. Or am I simply addressing a secular Church? Theology, and a theological mindset, is much more than citing the right passages.

Logically, we can admit, for example, that Lutherans do not invoke the saints. But this tells us more about the Lutherans than it does about God. Theology, as apparent in its name, connects saints and saintliness to God. In other words, saints are those who imitate God and lead others to God and not to themselves. Even more succinctly, saints are saints because of God. They are saints because of God's love in Christ and how this has changed them to live in love toward God and one's neighbor.

Knowing that a practice is or may be wrong is not enough without looking first at what those who follow a practice base their practice on (doctrine and practice go together, lex orandi, lex credendi). This is not a matter of connecting too many dots. This is a great opportunity to learn.

In the Catholic Catechism, under a section entitled "The Communion of the Church of Heaven and Earth" the Catechism addresses the intercession of the saints, "Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness . . . [T]hey do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus . . . So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped." (#956)

In another section entitled "Guides for Prayer" under "A cloud of witnesses," the Catechism states, "The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they left on earth. When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were 'put in charge of many things.' Their intercession is their most exalted service to God's plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world." (#2683)

I share these quotes as is without further comment. Church teaching helps us to discern a difference between what the Church actually teaches and practices that may be popular but that do not always reflect what the Church teaches. We often react first to those practices which we see without considering what the Church teaches.

Without delving further into the divide, for example, between Lutheran and Catholic teaching on the intercession of the saints I would like to address three related issues to the whole question of the saints. This post does not pretend to be a textbook or a final answer but an avenue of some reflections on theological issues.

In considering the saints we usually first think of holiness and how we could never be saints. Some even drop out of Church because they think that it is all too holy for them. This brings up my first point. Saints are not saints because of themselves but because of God. Everything they thought, said and did that was good they attributed to Christ and God. It is just like Mary who says, "Let it be to me according to Your word." Her Magnificat is in praise of the Lord and not of herself. The saints strive to imitate God and follow Him ( this is a great emphasis of Lent). Saints are saints because of God - it is not about them. They reflect God's love in Christ to others so that people may see their good deeds and glorify the Father who is in heaven.

Secondly, we are sinners, something far away from holiness. Does this mean that God is powerless against our sin? Is He unable to work good in us or unable to conquer sin and the devil? What about the forgiveness of sins? We need to re-think our own ability to focus on and hold on to our sin and the sin of others. Holiness is possible in this life.

Finally, one aspect that needs to be highlighted with the reality of the saints is the unity of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Specifically, with regard to the saints, there is a unity between the one holy Church in heaven and on earth that exists even now. The Church on earth is united with the Church in heaven in worshipping God in the fulness of His glory. There is a transcendent reality and unity that is beyond space and time. We confess this reality in the Creed. We live in this reality when we receive the blessed Eucharist.

These are some aspects I like to consider in dealing with the question of the saints, not whether or not someone invokes or does not invoke them. There is something more to this and any other theological question than showing we are right and you are wrong. Consider that even those who invoke the saints do so recognizing that there is only "one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus." Thanks be to God.