I have a dog. His name is Lucky, and he is. He and his brother, Grateful, were abandoned in the woods as pups. They were found by my husband’s co-worker and adopted by our family based on the suspicion that two entirely average, half-wild mongrel puppies might not survive the winnowing process at the shelter. Grateful has since gone on to his canine reward, and to be honest he’s probably more comfortable there. Lucky had an unfortunate habit of using his brother’s head to make himself look taller. Whenever we would pay attention to the dogs, Lucky would stand on top of Grateful, pushing him down and elevating himself, so that he would get all the attention, praise, and hopefully culinary compensation.
What goes up, Lucky reasoned, must needs push something else into the ground….
If Catholics are none too keen on the phenomenon known as Reformation Sunday, Protestants get all creeped out around this time of year, too – by All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day (October 31, November 1 and 2, respectively). The basic concept of the communion of saints is not the problem; after all, no Christian can quibble with Hebrews 11 and Hebrews 12:1 –
And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb 11:32-40, 12:1-3)
Both Protestants and Catholics are encouraged by the truth that we have “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Often, though, in a Protestant context, that word “witnesses” transmogrifies into something more along the lines of “predecessors.” The saints mentioned in the Faith Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11 become merely “those gone before,” and Protestants understand their importance the way we understand the importance of our ancestors or of the founders and original settlers of our country. They’re not “witnesses” in the sense that they’re actively watching us contend for the faith. They were certainly important in their lifetimes, and their lives serve as great examples for us – but they’re dead and they’re gone.
So, while Protestants accept the notion of the communion of saints, it really isn’t something that plays a decisive role in their theology. For all intents and purposes, the body of Christ, to them, is here on earth. When you go to be with the Lord, you cash in your chips and leave the survivors to play on, so to speak.
And Catholics have a problem with this. In Catholic theology, the communion of saints isn’t just an abstract theological concept – the communion of saints helps form the basis of our definition of who we are as believers. The body of Christ – the Church Universal – is made up of three subsets: the Church Militant (us), the Church Suffering (those who have died and are undergoing purgation), and the Church Triumphant (our brothers and sisters who now see God face-to-face). The Catechism elaborates on this:
When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’
All Saints Day and All Souls Day are the commemoration of the members of the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering, as well as a reminder to us of our goal in Christ to one day become a member of these groups ourselves. We are admonished to aim for Heaven, so that should we fall short, we will at least land among those destined for Heaven when their purgation is complete. And this is Heaven as described in the Catechism:
By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has “opened” heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. He makes partners in his heavenly glorification those who have believed in him and remained faithful to his will. Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.
This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity – this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.
In the glory of heaven the blessed continue joyfully to fulfill God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation. Already they reign with Christ; with him “they shall reign for ever and ever.”
This is good news indeed! “He makes partners in His heavenly glorification those who have believed in Him and remained faithful to His will.” “…the blessed continue joyfully to fulfill God’s will in relation to other men and to all creation.” This is in accord with what we know from St. Paul about life here on earth: “We are God’s co-workers.” But many assume that Heaven is where we go to get some rest from all this “co-working.” Not a chance! As Jesus told us, “I am working, as my Father in Heaven works.” There’s no such thing in the Christian life as resting on your laurels. Which instrument can God more readily use: an indolent, half-hearted, doubt-plagued, balking mule (like me), or a completely purified saint in Heaven who beholds His face and exists only to do His will (like St. Paul of the Cross, who devotes a considerable amount of his heavenly ministry to praying for this balking mule)? The saints have by definition been perfected in holiness and in love, and the Catholic understanding of this is that they are taking an even more active role in God’s work now that they are with Him and can see Him face-to-face than they ever did when they could only perceive Him “through a glass, darkly.”
Fine, so the saints in Heaven are praying for us. Some Protestants will give us that much, but would definitely like to leave it at that. All this talk about “venerating the saints” rubs them the wrong way. They feel that veneration (the respect, honor, and devotion paid to a saint) distracts the Christian from what he should be doing – worshipping God! Catholics, from this Protestant perspective, need to get a better grasp on the sharp distinction between the creature and the Creator!
According to the Catechism:
All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures — their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfections as our starting point, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator”.
God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God — “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” — with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.
Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude”; and that “concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.”
To summarize, if we want to think about God Whom no man has ever seen, we need to take His creation as our starting point, because in His creation we see Him reflected. As previously quoted, “This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise…” – in other words, we can’t discuss or even form an understanding of God’s presence without comparing it to something on earth. If we have an impoverished concept of the value of created things, our estimation of God will necessarily be that much the poorer. With that said, we must always remember that God transcends His creation, and when we say that “God is like _____,” we must keep in mind that He is actually far more different than similar to whatever created thing we’ve filled into that blank. In saying, “God is like a father,” for example, what actually needs to be said is that in some limited sense, earthly fathers reflect the image of the One True Father, whose eternal Fatherhood will forever be for the most part a mystery to His creatures. Hardly satisfying, and yet, if we spurn the use of creation as the starting point for our thoughts about God, we end up with no scaffold for our thoughts about God at all.
But that’s no excuse for venerating saints! the quibble goes. Look, if you’re sitting around thinking about how great St. Paul of the Cross is, you can’t be thinking about how great Jesus Crucified on the Cross is!
This is a weighty objection to the veneration of saints – that praise given to them is obviously praise taken from its rightful object, which is God. To answer that objection, let’s read part of a prayer in honor of St. Paul of the Cross:
By your preaching and holy example Jesus converted thousands of sinners through you by bringing them to the foot of the Cross to repent of their sins, thereby obtaining for them His infinite forgiveness and mercy! May Jesus be blessed for His extraordinary grace that was so often made present in your life, and for the many miracles He worked through you for the conversion of souls!
Are you catching the drift? When we go on and on about St. Paul of the Cross, it’s not St. Paul of the Cross that we’re going on and on about – it’s the One Who made St. Paul of the Cross the big deal that he was! Contemplation of the saints, therefore, is an extraordinary help towards better understanding the God who, in crowning the saints’ merits, has merely crowned His own gifts.
“…Our communion with these in heaven, provided that it is understood in the full light of faith, in no way diminishes the worship of adoration given to God the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit; on the contrary, it greatly enriches it. Lumen Gentium
Protestants often take the attitude that in order to glorify the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the saints must be cut down to size. In order for Him to be exalted, all creatures must be devalued, as if tall poppy syndrome were the engine driving the heavenly economy. Jesus is Top Dog! But this misses the point – Jesus specifically isn’t the King of nobodies or the Lord of underachievers. The fact that He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords makes Him all the greater than if He were the King of indolent, half-hearted, doubt-plagued, balking mules alone. In praising the holy lives of His saints, we are praising something spectacular about Him, praise that will never be offered Him if we insist on devaluing the saints to the supposed glory of God. With all Heaven, therefore, the Christian rightfully declares with his whole heart:
Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints!
On All Hallows Eve, the vigil of the Solemnity of All Saints
Deo omnis gloria!