To the saints in Canada
Heroes stand alone. We have the Communion of Saints.
“Who are these people?” I asked excitedly as I walked down the aisle, my eyes darting left and right, taking in the scene.
“Oh,” my friend replied casually, pausing to rest his hand on a nearby pew, “those are . . . the saints.”
I stared back at him blankly. It was after school, and we had stopped at his local Catholic Church to check in with his Mum who was volunteering at some function in the basement. As we moved through the worship space, I sensed a “charged silence” as candlelight flickered, and a distinct aroma of incense caused my nostrils to flare. The space was familiar to my friend, but it felt utterly foreign to me as a visitor, given my low-church Protestant background. I stood mesmerized by the colourful, textured liturgical space and asked naïvely “Who are the saints?” Pointing towards a statue of St. Peter my friend gave me an odd look, “You don’t have saints in your church? Weird. Well, um, the saints are like . . . superhero Christians!”
Superhero saints. Well, that seemed utterly bizarre to me coming from a Reformed Christian background. I knew the superheroes by heart from reading their comic books and watching their movies religiously. Superheroes like Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman did not look anything like those pious stone saints standing before me in the Catholic Church. Saints as superheroes? No way.
The superheroes I admired from comic books were strong, wore flashy outfits, and had special powers that we, as regular people, did not possess. Superman could fly, the Hulk had super strength and could smash things; Dr. Strange could create forcefields and travel to other dimensions. Awesome. I didn’t see any of that in my church or even in the Bible, come to think of it. Sure, the Bible had fun miracle stories and offered heroic examples such as Moses or David or Esther, but superheroes like the Flash, Green Lantern or Captain Marvel – no way. They appeared to exist in a different universe than my staid, suburban Winnipeg upbringing provided. As my childhood cheerfully floated on the fumes of Christendom, it seemed impossible to reconcile the superheroes of popular culture with any kind of special status given to Christians I might encounter, either living or dead.
Who do we worship?
Fast forward a few decades and these days people in our more secular culture know even more about superheroes than saints. The explosion of Marvel and DC comic movies over the last two decades has further intensified the idea of a Superhero as one who has strength beyond us mere mortals. Superheroes, even if they appear to be like humans, are more like the Greek gods of old; they stand apart from us in order to save us from whatever threatens to overrun our world. The idea that human beings committed to a humble life of service and care for their neighbour might be called a superhero now seems increasingly absurd.
As I read the Scriptures today as an adult, I confess my understanding of saints and superheroes has changed. I note that in the Old Testament saints are described as God’s holy ones (Ps. 16:3) or faithful ones (Ps. 145:10). These are God’s people who rejoice in God’s goodness and trust in God’s care (2 Chron. 6:41). In the New Testament, the early church identifies the Christians in Jerusalem as saints (Acts 9:13), and throughout Paul’s ministry any baptized believer was called a saint (2 Cor. 1:1, 1 Thess. 3:13, Phil. 1:1). Saints were not perfect in Scripture, like some untouchable superhero, and in fact needed help (Rom. 8: 27); but in turn they also offered help to others (1 Cor. 16:1). Christian leadership was all about “equipping the saints for ministry” and encouraging every baptized believer to offer themselves to join God in sharing and showing the gospel in their character, action and speech (Eph. 4: 12). While Christians alive and at work in the world were referred to as saints in the Bible, so too I noticed that Scripture used the language of saints for those who went before us and were now in eternity with God as part of the Communion of Saints (Heb. 11 & 12). For those of us alive in this world, we are somehow connected with the Communion of Saints through Jesus, as we share in the inheritance of the saints in light (Col. 1: 12).
Reflecting on this biblical witness, I began to see how early church leaders like Paul understood saints not to be superheroes but applied the title to every baptized Christian. Paul addressed his letters to the saints in Corinth or Ephesus. From a biblical perspective, to be a saint is not to stand out, but rather to stand up with other Christians in community – to worship God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to live charitable lives of service with acts of mercy and grace directed towards others. Now that was a definition of saint that I could get behind.
It is also a definition of saint that challenges our individualistic, achievement-oriented culture. Business, politics and entertainment all elevate those who appear strong and without flaws like the superhero comic book heroes of childhood. This distinction between saint and superhero became clearer to me when reading Sam Wells (Vicar of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, London), who wrote in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, that of the “sixty-four references to saints in the New Testament, everyone is in the plural. Saints are never alone. They assume, demand, require community – a special kind of community, the communion of saints. Heroes have learned to depend on themselves; saints learn to depend on God and on the community of faith.” This image that resists solitary saints and instead finds the strength of an ordinary believer in the body of Christ should be an encouragement for us all.
Recently I took my youngest child to see the latest Marvel movie about Ant-Man and Wasp. This time Ant-Man and Wasp end up in an alternative universe with their family and must save everyone in order to return home alive. Walking out of the movie theatre at the end, leftover popcorn in hand, I asked my daughter what she thought of the movie.
“It was good, Daddy,” she said, “but you always know in movies like that in the end . . . the good people are going to win.” I nodded and thought of how the saints reflect a similar understanding – what the church calls our “eschatological hope”: that in the end God triumphs over evil and creates a new heaven and a new earth where there is no more sorrow or suffering. The final word from God in Scripture is one of blessing to the saints, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with the saints. Amen” (Rev 22: 21). What sets the saints apart from superheroes is knowing that this victory is not accomplished through heroic individualistic effort but rather through our baptism and belonging to the body of Christ we call the church. Gathered for worship, work and witness, ordinary members of Christ’s Church like you and me celebrate the victory of Easter that changed everything, through the One who gave his life on the cross that we may live forever with all the saints.