The month of November gives another occasion to reflect on the meaning of the Church. November 1 is All Saints’ Day in the Church’s calendar. On this day, we remember all those who live and who have died in the Faith, including saints from Biblical times up until today. Why do we remember saints, and what is that remembrance good for? As Philip Melanchthon (a colleague of Martin Luther) wrote in the Augsburg Confession, “Concerning the cult of the saints our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints’ good works as an example” (Augsburg Confession XXI, K/W 58:1).
For us, the saints of all times and places serve as examples of faith and good works. Fathers, mothers, rulers, teachers, pastors, etc., can all find examples of people recognized in the Church whose faith and life provide models to follow. Pastors can see a pattern of life in how St. Paul instructed Sts. Timothy and Titus to act as pastors. Mothers can look to Stes. Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2) and Mary (Luke 1:38, 46-55; 2:19, 51; John 19:25-27). Fathers can look to Sts. Jethro (Exodus 4:18; 18:1ff.) and Joseph (Matthew 1:16, 18-25; 2:13-15; Luke 2:4-5, 16, 22-24). There are, of course, non-Biblical saints who can also serve as examples of faith and life for those of any calling.
If these saints were not regular believers, we could not see in them an example to follow. None of them were believers in God, the Father of Jesus Christ, except by grace through faith. None of them were holier by nature than any one of us. Instead, they function as examples precisely because they were humans who faced the same temptations and the same struggles that each one of us faces. God gives grace as He wills, so that many of them had special insight into the Christian Faith, but this insight was also not in them by nature. All that they did, they received from God. My guess is that if you asked them about their extraordinary gifts, faith, and works, none of them would point to him- or herself as the source of those things. Rather, they would point to their God as the source of anything that makes them worthy patterns of faith and life. And this is what makes them saints. It is what makes us saints: the God-given faith and trust that despairs of anything good within ourselves, and looks to God in Jesus Christ alone.
Finally, we do not pray to saints or ask them for help in our daily callings, even if we look to them as examples. We approach the very throne of God because of Christ and His sacrifice, not because of the intercession of the saints. However, there is one point at which we and they are joined intimately. That time is the celebration and the sharing of Holy Communion. In what is called the “Proper Preface” prior to the Communion, I pray, “therefore, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify your glorious name….” Because they are joined to the Lord Jesus by His Body and Blood, and because they have been made part of His Body by the same crucifixion and resurrection by which we are joined to and made part of His Body, we gather with them around the altar of the Lord. As it says in the Proper Preface for All Saints’ Day, “In the communion of all Your saints gathered into the one body of Your Son, You have surrounded us with so great a cloud of witnesses that we, encouraged by their faith and strengthened by their fellowship, may run with perseverance the race that is set before us and, together with them, receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (LSB Altar Book, 240; see Hebrews 11:39-12:2).
With the saints of all times and places, “we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23, ESV), even as we follow on earth the example of those who have gone before us in the Faith.
*St. Augustine said, as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; but with you I am a Christian.”