Saints be praised

Greg Clarke writes about the New Testament's radical understanding of what it is to be a saint.

An old friend once called me a ‘saint’, such was his lack of insight into my character. On another level, I knew what he was saying, because Christian believers are calling each other saints all the time. Even the worst sinners call each other saints. It isn’t our inability to face reality; rather, it’s the way we interpret that word.

The impending canonisation of Mary Mackillop has brought the concept of sainthood into the contemporary spotlight, and it has to be admitted that it looks kind of strange. Various journalists have tried their best to be generous, even-handed and fair about this process, but the general scepticism is hard to hide.

I understand. Much of the process of choosing a saint—the verification of miracles, the Vatican councils, the secret meetings—is a bit too Dan Brown for my liking.

But, on the other hand, there is something in it.

After all, don’t you become a saint by being the best kind of human being you can be? That involves caring for others in extraordinary ways, performing extraordinary deeds, seeking unwaveringly to obey God, giving up some of life’s pleasures for greater goods, and devoting your strength and talent to God and others, rather than your own gain.

That’s got to be worth celebrating.

There are some aspects of sainthood in the Roman tradition that I find more than awkward. It seems hard to align the idea that a saint intercedes for human beings before God the Father with the New Testament’s clear (to my reading) teaching that Christ is the only intercessor (look for yourself at Romans chapter 8, 1 Timothy 2:5 and Hebrews 7:23-28). But I know Catholic Christians who have thought deeply about this, and they think differently to me. So be it. Make up your own mind (I guess a Protestant would say that!).

But being a saint—that’s something to aspire to. I know plenty of non-religious people who try to be saintly, good people who seek to live in a way that improves and adorns the world. There’s something saintly in that, but it’s not what the Bible means by ‘saint’.

In fact, the New Testament has the simplest, and simultaneously most radical, understanding of ‘saint’. It doesn’t even use the word ‘saint’ often, but it does use the term ‘saints’ pretty much whenever the writer wants to speak of all those who believe that Jesus Christ is God and saviour of humanity. Put simply, saints are Christians. All Christians, everyday ones, spectacularly good ones, and even slack ones.

That’s why all Christians can sing, “Oh, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in”. It’s an anthem for everyone who follows the path of Jesus Christ, not just the canonized ones.

Perhaps this idea that a saint is a ‘human beyond human’ is a bit askew. It’s typical of what human beings do with radical concepts; eventually, we domestic them and naturalise them, in this case defaulting to our own rule-of-thumb that ‘being really good’ is what life is all about.

In fact, the Christian gospel announces something different and more alarming. Jesus taught that it was the sinners who become saints. It’s those who take a long, hard look in the mirror and end up on their knees. It’s people who, recognising their failures, lean on God and the story of Jesus Christ’s hard-won forgiveness of sins, in order to come to terms with their own broken humanity.

Saints aren’t the best humans, but the broken ones. They are sinners making good, trusting in God’s mercy and forgiveness. On that definition, I can cope with being called a saint.

I’ve met a lot of saints in my time, some of them scoundrels and some of them gold standard human beings. I’ll celebrate Mary Mackillop along with everyone else, for being gold standard. Not perfect, just aware of her need for forgiveness, and desirous of living a life serving her God and her fellow human beings, in the beauty of holiness.

That alone is a miracle to behold.

Greg Clarke is a director of the Centre for Public Christianity and CEO of the Bible Society Australia.

This article first appeared on The Punch