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There’s a rectangular stained glass lamp that sits near my desk in my study. It’s had a place there for years. My wife Monica put it together from a box of broken stained-glass pieces she picked up in an antique store early in our marriage. It’s not headed to the MoMA anytime soon, but it does have a homespun beauty when candlelight refracts out through the reds, blues, and yellows of the varicolored glass.
It’s not just nostalgia that secures its station on my shelf. That glass lamp: uneven shards, various and unique, fractured and flawed, broken but still radiant; now regathered, repurposed into a new creation, is a picture for me of the Church. This is what I and my congregation — along with the whole Church, in the heavens and on earth — in reality are.
Malcolm Guite, one of my favorite living poets, uses this image for the Church in a sonnet he wrote for All Saints’ Day in his collection Sounding the Seasons:
“Though Satan breaks our dark glass into shards
Each shard still shines with Christ’s reflected light,
It glances from the eyes, kindles the words
If all his unknown saints…
Unnumbered multitudes, he lifts above
The shadow of the gibbet and the grave,
To triumph where all saints are known and named;
The gathered glories of His wounded love.”
Shards who’ve been refashioned, pieced together by grace, growing luminous as the Light of the Word radiates from our reclaimed lives. We’re misshapen and shattered, yes. Blemished, to be sure- and yet, we radiate the “gathered glories of [God’s] wounded love.”
In other words, we’re saints.
All Saints’ Day
If you’re reading this on the day it posts online, it’s All Saints’ Day. Today, we remember God’s people who’ve died and number the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7.9) now in God’s presence, as well as the worldwide family to which we belong, in all her abundant diversity.
Growing up, I associated that word “saint” with the little silver pendant necklaces my friends from Roman Catholic homes would wear tucked under their shirts, brought out and kissed for good luck before a big-stakes at-bat on the baseball diamond or a difficult exam in the classroom.
Depending on one’s background, being a “saint” carried associations of virtue unattainable for average Christians. Saints were the Jedi-level believers whom most of us could never hope to become. And for many unfamiliar with Christian teaching, that word “saint” carries connotations of being a goody-two-shoes, of a life that’s starchy and wooden and devoid of enjoyment: “Well, aren’t you just a saint!”
I was surprised, then, to discover that this was one of the standard ways of referring to the people in a Christian congregation — and not just the advanced, devout ones, but all of them. Every last one.
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” (1 Corinthians 1.2)
“To the saints who are in Ephesus…” (Ephesians 1.1)
“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons…” (Philippians 1.1)
“Saints,” then, isn’t a status that a very of the few hyper-religious earn; it’s what all of us, claimed by the grace of Christ, are. This is the glorious truth that Martin Luther rediscovered: that every last Christian is “simil justus et peccator” — simultaneously justified and sinner. Sinner and saint. Sinner, for sure, but also: saint. As Thomas G. Long puts it, “a saint is a baptized person with a vocation.”
One of depiction of this reality that I love hangs in the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. In 2002, the artist John Nava designed an installment of 25 majestic earth-toned tapestries, titled “The Communion of Saints.” They depict 135 people, representing every age and region of the world. Well-known saintly figures — Augustine of Hippo, Mother Teresa, Ignatius of Loyola — stand alongside modern men, women, and children comprising cultures the world over. Spatially, the worshipping community is enfolded in this larger global and historic family. This is what all of us faltering, deeply imperfect members of the Church, various as the wide world, most truly are: a refashioned new creation, holy with the light of Glory.
All I Want Is To Become A Saint
As with so much else in Christian life, there’s both a “now” and a “not yet” dimension to all this. “Saint” is what God’s grace makes me, even right now. It’s also journey I’m called into, a life to grow into. Christians are saints, and we are “called to be saints.” (1 Corinthians 1.2)
One of the things I was struck by when reading Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson was his deep longing, first expressed only in the privacy of his own journals, for this future. On one of many occasions he mentions this, Peterson writes:
“All I want to do is become a saint — but secretly, so no one knows it — a saint without any trappings. . .Every detail of routine and imagination, every letter I write, phone call made, gesture and encounter. . .”
Peterson’s abiding ache was for his entire existence to be, as he translates the term in his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, “set apart for a God-filled life.”
I don’t know that I can honestly say that I want that more than anything else in life.
But I want to want that.
I want to want the shards of my life, and those of the congregation I serve, to be gathered up, reshaped, God-filled. Dazzling, all through, with the light of Crucified Love.