Why commemorate “saints”?

The short answer to that question is this: because we are Anglicans, people whose worship, spirituality, and devotional practice are shaped by the Book of Common Prayer (in its various editions and revisions).  The Calendar (sometimes spelled, Kalendar, in this context) of the Prayer Book has included the commemoration of those whom the Church has specially designated as saints since the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and every revision since then has included a Calendar of holy days and saints’ days commemorations.  Anglicans have always valued their connection to the undivided Church of the first millenium (the Church of the Fathers) and to the pre-Reformation English Church, and from early on, Christians began commemorating those whose witness to Jesus Christ had been exemplary, beginning with those martyrs who suffered death for their faithful witness.

In the 16th century Reformation, faced with a sanctoral (saints’ days) calendar that was crowded to the point of confusion, such that Sundays and the major feasts of our Lord were obscured, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and others excised the great majority of feast days, double feast days, simple feast days of nine lessons, and other saints’ days from the Calendar.  From the trimmed-down Calendars of the 1549, 1552 and 1559 books (New Testament saints only, principally the Apostles and those closely connected with their ministry and witness), the Calendar of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was enlarged by the inclusion of many more saints of the early Church and of the medieval English Church.  Twentieth and 21st century revisions of Anglican liturgical Calendars lead to the inclusion of many more Christians, including Anglican Christians from the 16th through the 20th centuries, whose lives and witness have been considered particularly grace-filled and exemplary.

But some may ask, why do we designate any Christians as exemplary?  Why are any Christians specially designated by the Church as saints?  Doesn’t the New Testament designate all believers as “saints”?

The Revd Dr Philip H. Pfatteicher, an acclaimed liturgical historian and scholar and Associate Pastor at First Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh, writes in his excellent work, the New Book of Festivals & Commemorations:  A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints (© 2008 Fortress Press, pp. xiii-xv):

There are several places in the New Testament in which all believers are called “saints” (Rom. 12:13, 16:2; 1 Cor. 6:1, 16:1; Eph. 2:19, 5:3; 1 Tim. 5:20, for example.).  The New Testament understanding, however, is much richer than the simple assertion one often hears, especially in Protestant circles, “We are all saints.”  St Paul declares that believers are “called to be saints” (Rom. 1:17, 1 Cor 1:2):  sanctity for him is not a present possession but a goal toward which we are to move.  Martin Luther expounds such an understanding:  “This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest but exercise.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it.”

In the world of the New Testament church, Christians were a small number of people who were tested and purified by opposition and hostility, and that entire brave band of believers could truly be called saints.  But as the church grew and became more diverse, some of the faithful stood out from the rest because of their exemplary witness, and such people came to be regarded as worthy of special honor.  In the modern world vast numbers of people call themselves Christians but have little concern for actually practicing “the faith that was for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).  In such a setting it makes little sense and is in fact dangerous to say of merely nominal Christians, “We are all saints.”  That title now properly belongs to those in whom the grace of God is clearly revealed and who have earned the distinction by taking the faith seriously and acting upon their baptismal adoption into God’s family and who are worthy of emulation…

The renewed interest in saints that emerged in many churches during the latter part of the twentieth century is directly traceable to the renewed attention paid to Holy Baptism.  Celebrating the saints dramatizes the meaning of baptism as the foundation of the Christian life, expressed with its many biblical and traditional metaphors – new birth, dying and rising, adoption into a new family, the opening of a new life of possibility, a call to sacrifice and service.

Baptism as a radically new beginning suggests an understanding of the sacrament not as a long-past event in an individual’s life, but as an entrance upon a new and continuing way of life…

Baptism therefore does not stand alone.  It is the beginning of a pilgrimage for those who would be “of the Way” (Acts 9:2) and who seek to follow him who is himself the Way.  Baptism is expected to make a change in a person’s life and to set that person on the pilgrim’s road.  Thus, the work of baptism continues throughout life.  Flannery O’Connor has written that “in us the good is something under construction.”  Baptism, properly understood as initiation, the radical beginning of a life-long process, stands as an invitation to sanctification; it summons those who have been made new in its waters to “the practice of the presence of God”; it is an encouragement to an ever-deepening holiness, a calling to sanctity.

Those who come form the waters of baptism are to present themselves as “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1) offered to God for whatever God wills for them.  The call may not be restful or pleasant; it will probably involve some sort of suffering.  But for those who have been baptized, “There is only one misery, and that is – not to be saints.”

In a calendar of saints, therefore, a community beholds representative men and women who took their baptism seriously and let God’s grace given in the mystical washing change their lives.  The calendar of saints instructs those who have been baptized, “Go and do likewise.”

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