Today ends the Octave for All Saints as practiced in the Anglican Church. An Octave is an eight-day period devoted to a special prayer need. The All Saints collect (prayer) from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer reads thus:
Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The word "Saints" seem to raise the hackles of many evangelicals -- but it doesn't have to be that way. The Catholics and Orthodox seem to have the corner on the Saints of the Church, and many, if not most, of the Protestant community misunderstand the concept and importance of Saints. Many believe, as I used to, that mistaken Christians pray *to* the Saints rather than praying to God. We'll get to that idea in a few minutes.
First of all, what is a "saint"? The Oxford Dictionary of Current English states that a saint is: 1) a holy or good person whom Christians believe will go to heaven after death. 2) a person of great goodness who is declared to be a saint by the Church after death. 3) (informal) a very good or kind person.
So, basically, if we love the Lord and have asked Him to live in our hearts, then we are saints! We see this use of "saint" often in the New Testament, especially in St. Paul's Epistles.
Then there are the extraordinary saints, those who have lived lives of exemplary obedience to God, often to the death. The Church has designated these special people as Saints. I find their stories extremely interesting and valuable in my own Christian life. In fact, I purchased a lovely coffee table book called One Hundred Saints. The text is Butler's Lives of the Saints, and it is gorgeously illustrated with art work depicting each particular Saint's life. Some of my family and friends have wondered at my having such a book, but when I tell them that I purchased it at Bob Jones University, their objections are usually quelled. (Few people know that Bob Jones University has the largest collection of Christian art in the world outside of the Vatican, including roomfulls of depictions of Saints and a room of Byzantine icons, my favorites!) Although the artwork is breathtakingly beautiful, it is the text of the Saints' lives that captivate me.
When I read about a particular Saint and their devotion (and often martyrdom) to Christ, I find that I am encouraged in dealing with my own difficulties. These Saints faced far more treacherous problems than I will probably be called on to face, yet they demonstrate their love for Christ in remarkable ways through the strength of His Spirit. The stories of the Saints point me to Jesus, where my attention should be, and off myself. Their examples glorify God and encourage me in love and good deeds.
Many believe that Catholics and Orthodox "pray to the saints." In fact, some of their prayers sound very much like they do exactly that. But when I asked my Catholic friends about praying to the Saints, they corrected my mistake gently. They repled that when Catholics "pray" to a Saint, they are asking that Saint to pray FOR them, just as we evangelicals might as a close friend or a pastor to pray for us.
Then I asked about why people in heaven would pray -- aren't they in eternal bliss, not to be disturbed by sorrow, etc.? They replied with a Scriptural reference: Revelation 5:8 shows St. John watching the Saints offer up their prayers to the Throne. Well, for whom are the Saints praying? They can't be praying for people in heaven -- they have no need of prayer. So they must be praying for those still on earth, right? Yes, we pray to the Father and the Son, but we also marshall our prayers by asking friends to pray for us, right? So why not ask someone (a Saint) to pray for us when they are right there in the Presence of our Father?
It makes sense to me, at least.
So the Saints inspire us to love God and others, and to show that love in ways that glorify Christ. If we want to, we can ask them for prayer, just as we would ask a dear friend or leader.
I must admit that although I believe in asking Saints for prayer, I rarely if ever do it. I'm much more comfortable in reading the Saints' stories and in giving them honor for lives well-lived on this earth as their day is celebrated in the Church calendar -- and that's why I feel more "at home" in the Anglican tradition than the Catholic or Orthodox Churches.
So as I pray the above collect, I hope to become more like Christ my Lord in all I think, speak, and accomplish. May His perfect love form me into a saint whom He can use in His everlasting Kingdom!
(I'll tackle icons in another post -- they're a whole 'nother ball of wax!)