I write this on November 1, All Saints Day. We all know about Halloween, that crazy day in our culture when little kids trick-or-treat for candy and college kids revel in costumes for fun. We imagine creatures of darkness, spoof the realm of the dead and maybe even scare ourselves silly watching horror flicks. All in good fun. But we have lost sight (if we ever had it) of the actual meaning of the day, originally known as All Hallows Eve because it precedes All Hallows Day. All hallows as in holy, “hallowed be thy name,” holy ones, saints.
All Saints Day invites us to contemplate those whose spiritual lives are exemplary, whether recognized formally by the Church or known informally to us, whether famous or obscure, whether dead or living. Why? So that all of us can draw inspiration and wisdom and courage from those in whom the Holy Spirit powerfully dwells and works.
When I wrote the chapter on Ordinary Time in my book, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, I surveyed some of the most extraordinary Christians of my lifetime (e.g. Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Paul II, John Stott, Oscar Romero) but ended up profiling Mother Teresa of Calcutta (who was canonized by Pope Francis as a saint on September 4 of this year). I summed up her life of impressive discipleship as "spirit-filled, self-sacrificing, mission-dedicated!" And then I posed this question: “But is such discipleship the expectation of God for all of us?” My answer: yes and no.
Yes, because Jesus gives each of us his Holy Spirit and calls each of us to “lose our life for his sake” and enlists each of us as his ambassadors in the world.Yes, because every one of us is called to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Yes, because any one of us could be flying on an airplane and, like Mother Teresa, receive a “call within our calling,” that is, a leading from God to undertake a particular work in a given place for a certain period of time.
No, because not all of us receive direction to engage in direct “ministry” as the main occupation of our lives. No, because there is no hierarchy of discipleship such that nuns, pastors and missionaries rank higher than, say, nannies, professors and merchants. No, because God remains as eager to bless us as human beings made in his image as he is to use us as human agents deployed in his service.
Every one of us who embraces the grace of God, who opens to the infilling of the Holy Spirit, who humbly seeks to follow Jesus is a saint, “holy and beloved,” (as Paul affirms in Col. 3:12). We each also look to the saintly examples of others, whether St. Paul of Tarsus or St. Teresa of Calcutta. Or Uncle Bill of Atlanta. Or Pastor Joan of First Church. Or your small group leader. Or your InterVarsity staff minister.
The writer of the Hebrews rehearses a whole roster of faith-filled saints, some famous, many unnamed (chapter 11). He reminds us in 12:1-3 that we are surrounded by this “great cloud of witnesses.” Then the writer urges us to turn from distractions and untangle ourselves from sin so that we can run our discipleship races with our attention focused intently on Jesus, the ultimate saint.
The lives of “saints” cheer us on in our race. I love, for example, Mother Teresa’s gentle reassurance: “We do not need to carry out grand things in order to show a great love for God and for our neighbor. It is the intensity of love we put into our gestures that makes them something beautiful for God.”
My encouragement to you this month comes in two simple questions to reflect on: After Jesus, who are you looking to as you seek to live as a faithful follower of Jesus? And who might be watching your life?