In biblical Greek the word that is most commonly translated as “saint” is hagios. Note that the word hagios is actually an adjective, not a noun. It is a word that describes. Its best translation is “sacred” or “holy.”
In the Bible it is often used to describe God’s word … as St. Paul does, in his letter to the Romans, using the phrase “the holy scriptures.” It is used to describe ground … Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles recalls what Yahweh says to Moses in the burning bush encounter … “the place on which you stand is holy ground.” In has also been used to describe a city … in our second lesson today from the book of Revelation, the visionary John of Patmos uses it this way, “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven.” Hagios even describes Jesus … we read about an unclean spirit early in Mark’s Gospel, who cries out to Jesus “I know who you are, the holy one of God.” Yes, hagios is an adjective.
But it also functions as a noun, and can be translated as a “holy person.” And in the Bible where that usage occurs in the New Testament, the English word we usually read in our Bibles is “saint.” That is a usage we generally understand pretty well. If I asked you whether you know any saints, you might in fact say yes. Your great-grandmother Matilda, who is the household matriarch, might be someone you think of as a saint, because of her loving and generous spirit. Your aunt Matilda, who is the prayer warrior in your family, and the one that everyone goes to when they need powerful prayers raised up for someone who is struggling, might be someone you refer to as a saint. I often call people saints, when it seems that their faith and their Christian character are deeper and stronger than my own. As such, LOTS of people qualify as saints compared to me.
That’s kind of what we think about those we call saints. They are holy people … persons who seem to be more connected to God, and what God wants them to do, than are the rest of us. Think of the saints we remember … men who wrote the Gospels … women and men who died as martyrs with proclamations of faith being the last words to leave their lips … persons who helped the world to see God in new and compelling ways … and that one woman who bore God in her womb. The problem with this kind of thinking is that we walk perilously close to the thought that sainthood is a product of what a person does with their life. Deep faith … dramatic witnessing … faithful actions … are the things that make a person a saint.
God sees it differently, of course. In the Bible, God reminds us that a saint is a person who is touched by the hand of God. Because “holiness” means being touched by God’s grace. This perspective on holiness began in the early days of God’s first children, the Jews. Following the Exodus from Egypt, and while giving directions to Moses from Mt. Sinai about how they should worship and honor God, God said this to Moses: “For seven days make atonement for the altar and consecrate it. Then the altar will be most holy, and whatever touches it will be holy.” Ever since then, being touched by the hand of God means that you are holy.
As Christians, we believe that the touch of God’s hand graces us with sainthood at many times during our lives. When we are born the hand of our Creator God is placed upon us, as we are brought into life on earth. At our baptisms, we experience the touch of God’s hand in the holy water of the font – water that is not holy in and of itself, but is holy because of the Word of God connected to it. In the Rite of Confirmation, we celebrate our sainthood through a public affirmation of our faith, and in essence say to God that we will strive to live the kinds of lives that people touched by the hand of God should live. Those who marry typically say that they experience the touch of God’s hand upon their lives. And every time we come to this altar, we are promised that the presence of God touches our lives in bread and wine. Each of these experiences, and at times other powerful spiritual moments in our lives, remind us that we are God’s saints … that we are those who have been touched by the hand of God.
All Saints’ Sunday is the day when we proclaim one final touch of sainthood upon those we love and cherish. For as we leave this world for the gathering of all the saints of every time and place in the presence of God, we are touched one final time with the hand of God’s grace and healing and peace. It is our final reminder of sainthood, because the next stop on the train is the Kingdom of God, where we find ourselves hunkered down with God in that Kingdom where time does not end. This is the sainthood that today’s festival invites us to embrace. Not a sainthood determined by our goodness and our works of faith, but a sainthood determined by a God who loves the children God has created.
If you have heard me preach in the past on All Saints’ Sunday, you are aware that one of the privileges I have exercised on this day, is to recall the lives of a few St. Peter’s saints who have left this world in past years … in some cases they were saints who had walked among us until somewhat recently, and in some cases their departures from this world were a decade or two in the past. As I thought about doing that again this year, I found myself drawn into thinking about saints whose lives were lived beyond our St. Peter’s. Lives that walked among us until this past week. Two of those lives literally walked among us, in a school district just north of us. Eleven others walked among us more figuratively, as fellow Pennsylvanians … as fellow persons of faith … who lived at the other end of our state. Two others walked among us at a much greater distance in the southern state Tennessee. I will admit to you, that I have never been able to tease out a logical answer for why people are so randomly killed at all ages of life, as was the case for Jack and Meghan. Nor have I ever been able to understand the anger and dysfunction that led to a different type of random killing Nancy & Maura in Tallahassee Florida. Nor for Daniel, for Joyce and for Cecil & his brother David … for Melvin, for Richard, and for Bernice & her husband Sylvan … for Rose, for Irving, and for Rabbi Jerry. I say to people that the world is broken and thus people will die for all kinds of reasons that do not make sense to us. It is a hollow answer at best … but it is also a true answer, if the message of our Bible describes our world accurately. I don’t particularly like the answer … and sometimes I am angry at God for not intervening in the world to change that answer. But I also trust that God will make things right in the end … and that God works through you and me and all kinds of other people … to help moderate the pain and grief caused by this darkness that is present in the world. And I believe that in the end, life and light will outshine any darkness that exists in our lives or the lives of others … maybe not in a way that we can see today … or tomorrow … or next week. But in a way that heals every child of God of any hurt or pain they have endured in their lives in this world.
As a people, those of the Jewish faith are more acquainted with grief and suffering than probably the rest of us put together. And so I oft times find myself gravitating to the words they speak in the face of their own crises. And one of the most graphic, but also the most healing words of hope that I have read are from Holocaust survivor, Elie Weisel, who lived through imprisonments in both the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps. These difficult words from his book Night, are ones I visit somewhat regularly in times like this:
“One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected … three prisoners in chains – and, among them, the little boy, the sad-eyed angel. The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows … The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks. “Long live liberty!” shouted the two men. But the boy was silent. “Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
As we gather on All Saints Sunday, some of the saints we remember embraced graceful deaths at the end of long lives. Others died earlier than they or their loved ones ever expected. But every single saint died with God at their side … embracing and feeling any suffering they endured … loving each and every one of them through it … and promising peace beyond that moment of death. Each and every saint felt the touch of God’s holy hand … and the grace and love of God that touch conveys. This is the reason we give thanks this day. This is the reason we call Good Friday Good. This is why we are able to see the sun rise … the stone rolled away … and a new day dawn … for our loved ones … and in time for our own lives … even when we view that resurrection through the watery gaze of our present tears. Amen.