Sunday was All Saints Day, the day we remember those who are no longer with us and whom we remember for that which they shared with us. In the Christian mind we particularly think of those who have been designated saints, examples of the life of faith lived out here on earth. Some are remembered for great deeds, others for dying a martyrs death and still others for strange and peculiar reasons we find difficult to understand. But they all lived an earthly life, not unlike ours, and all have something to share with us.
It has been noted by some that we no longer need saints and we particularly don’t need to name our churches after saints. Apparently, St Oswald, you are no longer of value to those of us fighting our battles of faith on the battlefields of everyday living. Yet, we live in age where we need saints more than ever, no matter how obscure they may seem to be to a wired, consumer society.
‘Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’
We need those who have faced the depths of despair and the heights of ecstasy in faith to dispel our fears and to give us hope for the future. Lazarus’s circumstances reflects both the future circumstances of Jesus and the many who lived and died following in the steps of faith laid down by Jesus. Lazarus suffered illness and died. His family, particularly his sisters, suffered loss and grief in a particular way. Those who knew Lazarus also suffered. All harboured feelings against Jesus, specifically in relation to his tardy arrival and his failure to heal some one he loved and who loved him.
No amount of reassurance of a future resurrection or the suggestion that people who believe in him never die seemed to reassure them. These must have seemed like hollow words to all involved. One has to admire the faith of the sisters while noting the touch of anger in the comment relating to Lazarus being dead four days and that there would be a stench when they opened the tomb.
Like the sisters, we have a limited tolerance of those who give oft repeated assurances and seemingly inappropriate platitudes when we are facing tragedy, failure, loss – be it personal, financial or job, the failure of a relationship or more. Unthinking reassurance only seems to confirm that no-one else understands our pain, even worse, that this has never happened this way to anyone else before.
Yet that is partly what this story about – the reassurance that life, even the life of Jesus, consists of trying to remain human in the midst of the challenges being human brings us. Positive psychology and the happiness project encourages us to think that all can be smooth sailing and that we can so manipulate life to ensure happiness as an entitlement. The truth is much different.
And we need saints to remind us of our resilience and capacity to remain fully engaged with life and our humanity even when bad things happen to good people, including ourselves. Alain de Botton, in his book ‘Religion for Athiests’ makes the case that religion understands the predicament of humanity much better than secular people, atheists, and provides a multitude of saints to light the way when the positivism of modern thinkers fail us miserably.
Rowan Williams comments that Jesus came among us to join us in the muddle of being human and muddled through based on his relationship with what he understood of the character of God via silence and stillness and through the experience of those he encountered in the Jewish scriptures. He suggests that we are to follow such an example to ensure we muddle through as well.
We have the example of the saints in today’s story:
- Mary and Martha who, in the midst of their grief and their anger at Jesus, remain faithful and hopeful;
- The disciples whose minds were befuddled by the tardiness of Jesus and the Unfathomable suggestion that Lazarus is in this state only so Jesus can display God’s power;
- and those watching who simply had no idea and went away struggling with the whole scenario.
We have the examples of:
- The Old Testament saints, many of whom were so deeply involved in the muddle of violent and unforgiving cultures and traditions we struggle to understand their relevance to us today;
- The New Testament saints who lived and died violently for simply believing in the kingdom of God as lived out by Jesus;
- The many exemplary people who have recognised the spirit of God loose in the land and dared to live, speak and challenge the church and society simply based on their faith in Jesus.
Each of us will have a saint or saints who speak directly to us in ways which give meaning and purpose to our lives. For me these include Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Vincent Lingari and the unrecognised workers for reconciliation and justice in our country. These are all people who have laid down a framework of hope and possibility which has allowed me to muddle through.
Some have saints who are close to home, people such as a loved one, family friends, teachers or work colleagues, someone whose example provided a light for our feet in times when darkness was all around.
Now we must remember saints are not perfect people, even Jesus was late arriving on the scene for Mary and Martha! Saints are often saints because they persevered despite moments, and sometimes more than just moments, of terrible decision making, errors of judgement and passion. King David, Peter, Merton, Day all had disasters, some we would feel it would be impossible to comeback from. But they did. Perfection is a modern day requirement which has no place in the life of a human being muddling through with Christ.
Why do we need saints to day more than ever? Because today we need to recognise that life is more than just a little difficult for the majority of the time; that happiness is a fleeting interlude between skirmishes; that the only true optimist or positive psychologist was Murphy when he wrote his famous rule, ‘Anything that can go wrong, will’, and muddling through as a human is more important than being perfect (whatever that is).
Our children need to understand this regardless of their age as do our teachers, coaches politicians, and most of all ourselves.
A quick look at the saints in our lives will affirm just how much we need them. Amen