When we hear the word saint, the sound of Louis Armstrong’s energetic rendering of "When the Saints Go Marching In" might start going through our brains, or we might see a classical painting of the dome of a cathedral showing saints gathered around the throne of God. Perhaps we remember our saintly grandmother with her gnarled fingers turning the pages of her worn Bible, or the kindly Little League coach who never got upset when one of the boys dropped a fly ball over and over. Some may be reminded of saints in the Catholic Church, such as St. Francis Assisi or Marianne Cope. A few may think of All Saints’ Day, a holy day around the world celebrated on Nov. 1.
My church, Westminster Presbyterian Church, is celebrating All Saints’ Day today. In this service, we remember those who have died during the previous year by lighting a candle in their honor. The service is solemn, meaningful and deeply personal. This service is open to all and allows us to honor both family members and friends who are no longer with us. Although I have not lost someone during the last year, I join in the common expression of grief by remembering my dear mother, who led my brother and myself in daily family devotions, and my grandmother, who daily prayed her rosary. As I look back on their lives, I recognize that they earned the title of saint as we understand the word in our Presbyterian heritage.
One way to understand the word saints is to look at the word as it was used by early Christians. In the languages of the early church, the word we translate today as saints meant "holy one" or "sanctified one." The Apostle Paul addressed believers as saints in his letters to the churches. For example, when writing to the church in Ephesus, Paul wrote, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 1:1 NRSV) These early believers were far from perfect. In fact, Paul lovingly upbraided them for their misunderstandings of the gospel of Christ, in-house squabbles, and misguided behavior. The only requirement for the title of saint in the early church was faithfulness to Christ Jesus.
As the apostles and other exemplary Christians began to die or be martyred, the word saint acquired another meaning. Christians wanted to show how much they valued the lives of these particular individuals and began calling them saints by holding them up to inspire those who followed.
In the second century, Christians began to write creeds to provide the growing church with a clear and simple statement of what the followers of Christ believed. One creed, the Apostles Creed, was finalized in the eighth century. This creed is the most ecumenical of the creeds and is still used in many churches around the world. It includes the phrase “I believe … in the communion of saints.”
We can’t know exactly what those early Christians understood by this phrase communion of saints. Today we look to the Book of Confessions to trace how our understanding of our faith has changed through the centuries. In the mid-1600s, the Westminster Confession of Faith gave us a definition of saints that continues to this day: “All saints being united to Jesus Christ their head, by his Spirit and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces.” (Book of Confessions 6.146) In other words, we call all who follow Jesus Christ saints, believers of every time and place. Indeed, we encounter saints among us daily.
So on All Saints’ Day, while we honor all those who have gone before us, we also commit ourselves to work together in community as living saints. On this day we pray together: “Number us among your saints, O God, and join us with the faithful of every age, that strengthened by their witness and supported by their fellowship, we may run with perseverance the race that is set before us, and may with them receive the unfading crown of glory when we stand before your throne of grace" (Book of Common Worship, page 398).
Annette Bell, a retired professor from Tompkins Cortland Community College, is a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, where she serves as an elder on the session. For more information, visit westminsterauburn.org.