This Monday, we might say, was the saint day of Martin Luther King Jr. When I was a child at North Park Covenant Church, just down the block, there was a period when our pastor would preach to us that we were called to be saints. Not simply good people, churchgoers, or even Christians, but saints. In fact, he said, that’s the only calling there is. That’s a tall order for a 12 year old to hear, especially when I wasn’t even sure what the word meant.
In November of each year, on all Saints Day, my church did, and still does, hang throughout the sanctuary immense black & white posters of these saints. Throughout Christian history, icons have been used to teach the faith without words by giving us a language of images. So for a while there, I still didn’t know what the word saint meant, but I had these images, this gallery of icons, this communion of saints, that I sat among every November.
Among these icons weren’t simply the old church fathers and mothers, but others like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Ah these I knew from school,” I thought, “these were the heroes of democracy, civil rights, and liberty. I get it, saints are heroes.”
But there, in church, standing under these pictures of King and Rosa Parks, we filled the sanctuary with song: “For all the Saints who from their labors rest, who thee, by faith, before the world confessed, Thy name oh Jesus, be forever blessed, Alleluia.” Something different was going on. I was beginning to see that we sang not only to honor any individual pictured above, though we had our favorites, but rather the faithfulness of the communion of saints – all of them together.
Later I read the Anglican minister Sam Wells. Rev. Wells points out, the word for hero never appears in the New Testament. The word for saint appears 64 times.*
A hero is always the center of the story. Without them, everything would go wrong. The story of a saint, by contrast, is really a story about God, so much so that saints are often missed. The icon of a hero is the soldier, who faces a glorious death in battle. The icon of the saint is a martyr, who faces an inglorious death for the just cause. A hero stands out and apart from their community, and in a moment of crisis can depend only on themselves. The saint knows their own frailty, and thus depends on and bears witness to the beloved community. As Sam Wells “Of those 64 references to saint in the New Testament, all of them are in the plural. Saints are never alone.”
Perhaps our vocation is to be saints. Today, as we seek courage for our own work for peace and justice, to be a saint is to be ready to forgo even the heroic. It is to realize that if we are to be inspired by saints like King and Parks, we do so not so much as individuals imitating individuals, but communities joining with communities in love. We are better together. In the words from the hymn, “O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia!”
* Sam Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. Baker Books, 2004.
Image Credit: John A. Kouns, 1963. Published in Syndic: Literary Journal.