During the first 300 year of the Christian church, the people of God endured periods of peace, but also extended periods of persecution. Especially in the local churches, each generation remembered the martyrs and the leaders who exemplified the faith. By the fourth century these women and men were honored in liturgies that commemorated their passing into God’s bright glory. In time, churches were named to honor their memory, sometimes even built on their tombs. And in time relics were collected and honored.
A relic usually consists of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of the saint or venerated person preserved for purposes of veneration as a tangible memorial. Relics were not an invention of the Christian church, but had been practiced by the Greeks. Relics of the deceased are an important aspect of some forms of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Shamanism, and many other religions. Relic derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning “remains”, and a form of the Latin verb relinquere, to “leave behind, or abandon”. Within Christianity, East and West, the practice of venerating relics seems to have been taken for granted by writers like Augustine, St. Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, St. Chrysostom, and St. Gregory Nazianzen.
As the Catholic Church became the de facto religion of the empire, the age of martyrs passed. Yet communities continued to remember the “holy ones” among them who were examples of Christian faith lived well. It is in the post-martyr era that the church eventually concluded that all believers who had died, and not just famous Saints, should rightly be commemorated. For Catholics, All Saints Day took final form in the year 835 when Pope Gregory IV ordered the Feast of All Saints to be universally observed on November 1. Eastern Orthodox churches observe All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
Then Christianity in the West was divided by the Protestant Reformation. For their part, some Protestants get positively nervous about celebrating the Saints. They are much more comfortable celebrating Reformation Day on October 31 than All Saints Day on November 1.
Protestants point to the superstitions that developed across the centuries. In Luther’s Wittenberg, for example, prince Frederick the Wise had an extraordinary cache of sacred relics. An illustrated catalog from 1509 listed 5,005 articles — a tooth from Jerome, three pieces of Mary’s cloak, a piece of gold from the three Wise Men, a piece of bread from the Last Supper, a strand from Jesus’s beard, and so on. By 1520, the collection of holy bones was reported to have grown to 19,013.
As you can imagine, trade in relics real and false was profitable and became its own black market. Martin Luther famously asked, “And how does it happen that eighteen apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only twelve?” With all the abuses, profiteering, outright scams, and all the other exploitations, Protestants get nervous about blurring the boundary between honoring the Saints and worshiping them, praying to them for protection, kissing icons of them, and treating them as mediators to God. Protestants emphasize a distinction that both Catholics and Orthodox acknowledge, in theology, but sometimes that gets lost in popular piety. Christians are clear theologically that we honor or venerate (duleia) the Saints, but we don’t worship them (latreia). Worship is due to God alone.
But the whole definition and meaning of the word “saint” (hagios, lit. “holy ones”) is another area of disagreement. Catholics use the word “Saint” in a narrow and technical sense – at least when we are clear with our spelling, “Saint” – capital “S”. Saints are Christians whose lives have been characterized by extraordinary holiness, heroic virtue, and the performance of miracles. Only the Pope can canonize a believer as a “Saint,” after a long and byzantine process. (On a note: the popular canonization of St. Francis moved with such stunning speed, that the Pope then instituted the process of declaring sainthood… sorry, Sainthood.)
The first step to Sainthood is “beatification,” for which there are three criteria — theological soundness, extreme holiness, and the performance of two miracles. The person is then honored as “Blessed.” To advance to “Sainthood,” the believer must also be credited with two additional miracles. Whereas the “beatified” receive only local recognition, the “Saints” are venerated worldwide. Finally, the pope’s act of canonizing a saint is declared to be an infallible act, meaning Catholics can be assured that the saint is worthy to be venerated and imitated, and that the saint can intercede for them.
All this is way too complicated for Protestants. It’s also discouraging — “I’ll never be a saint!” It also can have an effect of distancing the Saint from ordinary people. Protestants maintain that all believers, not just a famous few superstars, are called to be saints (Romans 1:7: called to be holy). They prefer the plural “saints,” which includes all believers (as in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the communion of saints”), as opposed to the singular “Saint.”
There is something to this idea. St. Paul addressed his letters to all the saints/holy ones in Rome, Ephesus, and Philippi (Ephesians 1:15, Philippians 1:1). In this Protestant view, we are saints not because of our heroic deeds, virtuous character, or performance of miracles, but because God calls us to Himself. That is the framework in which to understand Luther’s phrase, every believer is “simultaneously a saint and sinner.” We’re an awkward mixture of both at once.
During the reformation and later reforms, it was natural to distinguish oneself from being seen as “Catholic.” Lots of traditions and practices were thrown out: liturgical dress, statues, devotions to Mary and the Saints, and the list goes on. Think about it today. When you see a sport figure make the sign of the cross, don’t you assume they are Catholic? But the Reformation also had some instances when they threw out the baby with the bath water – e.g., the Saints.
Sadly, in their time, Saint, relics and indulgences were truly abused. It was a natural reaction to be rid of them. However, today, in our celebrity-obsessed culture, we need true saints and Saints. Our Protestant sisters and brothers would be well served to better honor the role that the Saints can play in our Christian lives, especially for the denominations who in stressing the personal nature of salvation often focus on individualistic patterns of discipleship. We should see ourselves as part of the greater community of all God’s people – people of the Covenant in Christ. There’s a social and corporate dimension to our journey with Jesus that rightly includes the saints and the Saints. There is something to be learned from the especially holy like Mother Teresa and the egregiously fallen like Jim Bakker. We are reminded that our choices matter. And choices have consequences for our spiritual welfare.
Believers are told to imitate not only Christ but the saints. Paul urged his readers to imitate his way of life several times (1 Corinthians 4:16). Hebrews 6:12 commands us to “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (cf. Hebrews 13:7). Other saints, by the choices they’ve made, have “shipwrecked their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19), and we do well to consider them too.
In addition to imitation there is consolation. The saints remind me that I’m not alone. Rather, I’m surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), who cheer me on to “run with endurance the race that is set before me.” (1 Cor 9:24) Wherever I am on this Christian journey of faith, in joy or despair, belief or doubt, sin or grace, many millions of saints have gone before me. Some have failed, others have triumphed. But at the end of the race, whether they ran well or poorly, they found ultimate rest in God’s grace. So, celebrate the saints and the Saints. We need both the Catholic and Protestant ideas of sainthood. The latter challenge and inspire us; the earlier offer consolation and encouragement for all the normal struggles of life. Honor a Saint who inspires you. Find a fellow saint and share your own journey with Jesus.
Happy All Saints Day.
Based on an older article by Daniel B. Clendenin