In just two weeks, on the first day of November, the Christian world will celebrate All Saints Day. The celebration of All Saints dates from the 7th century in Rome, when the pope changed the Pantheon from a pagan temple dedicated to all the pagan gods, into a church dedicated to the saints of Christian Rome. People were aware that there were very many martyrs of the Roman age of persecution whose names were not remembered, but whose memory collectively was sacred. Devotion to these nameless saints displaced devotion to the old, disreputable, now fallen, pagan gods.
And so, for thirteen centuries, Christians have kept a feast in honor of these nameless saints. We keep it in the season of the year when darkness has begun to fall upon the world. Through the saints of every age, the light of Christ shines out into this dark world, showing that the “darkness has not overcome” it (John 1:5). Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world…let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Saints are distinguished by their light, divine light shining through them into worldly darkness. What does that mean? Nothing necessarily dramatic, certainly; nothing to merit their names being remembered in history books. It means that they lived by the Spirit they received in the Christian sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation; they were people who lived by faith and hope, and most of all by charity, the love of God and neighbor; people in whom Christ the Lord was manifested in a myriad of human forms, appropriate to every age and circumstance; quite ordinary people doing ordinary things with (we might say) extraordinary style.
Style: I use that word deliberately. In one my former parishes, there happened to be many people working in various fields of design: fashion design, interior and architectural design, graphic design, and so on. These people practice the fine art of making plain people, shabby places, and prosaic messages, look good—attractive, inviting, interesting. They make sows’ ears into silk purses; they turn base metals into gold; they create style in many different, initially unpromising, mediums.
I think the people of my parish who practice this fine art of creating style would appreciate my using their work as an analogy to what the Holy Spirit does with human nature, to make ordinary people into saints. God the great Designer starts with fallen human nature as it is, with all its faults that come from original sin. First, He cleans us up, and incorporates us into Christ and His family, the Church; then, He brings out our potentialities for good—the virtues; He adorns us with His gifts, which make it easier to exercise these virtues; and all the while He keeps us where He found us, here on earth; He doesn’t take us into Heaven; He doesn’t give us resurrection right away; but what He does is gradually transform us, so that we perform our daily tasks, and endure our daily difficulties, and live our ordinary human lives with extraordinary, divine style. God the great Designer, the Holy Spirit the great Artist, makes our humanity—initially so unpromising, left to itself really a disaster—into something attractive, inviting and divinely interesting. Something beautiful.
One of the advantages of being a parish priest is that one meets saints—frequently, in fact all the time. One I want to remember today is a man named Ted, a retired electrician who served the daily noon Mass in our church, and stayed afterward to do whatever maintenance work we needed to have done. Ted was the head usher on Sundays, and the thing that first alerted me to his holiness was his exquisitely good manners: he had divine style; he made everybody feel welcome without forcing himself on them; he attended to every little need, without drawing attention to himself. He did tell me that I would be well-advised to keep my sermons short, not (he insisted) because I wasn’t a good preacher, but because “people have such short attention spans these days, you know,” he said. Ted loved God and his neighbor unobtrusively. This ordinary, working-class man was a saint, though he would have been horrified if you suggested it.
Christ our Lord, the Light of the world, was in his human nature here on earth irresistibly attractive and inviting, divinely interesting. The gospels testify to that. God His Father, through their Holy Spirit, wants to make us into little Christs, little lights for the world. He wants to give us divine style, so that our fellow men and women may look on us and be glad that they belong to the same human family that we do. All saints show us how beautiful our common humanity could be with the right Designer to assist us.