In the past, the Saints have enjoyed a tremendous popularity: the churches were full of their statues and recourse to them was perhaps more than to God. There was a saint for truck drivers, for students, for lost items, for eye diseases and even for sore throat. They were considered a kind of intermediaries that had the function to “soften” the impact of a God considered too big and too far away, a little unapproachable and somewhat foreign to our problems.
Today there is a tendency to resort to the saint to ask him/her to present to God a request that is fading. We turn to the Lord more and more, directly, with the confidence of children. The saints—Mary too—are rightly regarded as sisters and brothers who, with their lives indicate a path to follow Christ and invite us to pray all the time, along with them, to the one Father.
The word “saint” indicates the presence in the persons of a divine and beneficial force that allows one to stand out, to distance oneself from what is imperfect, weak, ephemeral.
Among the people who appeared in this world, only Christ has possessed the fullness of this force of goodness and only he can be declared saint, as we sing in the Gloria: “You alone are holy.”
But we, too, can rise up to him and become partakers of his holiness.
He came into the world to accompany us towards the holiness of God, towards the unattainable goal that he has shown us: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:48).
His first disciples were identified by various names. They were called “Galileans”, “Nazarenes,” and in Antioch, “Christians.” It was about some derogatory designations: “Galileans” was synonymous with “insurgents,” “Nazarenes” referred to the despised village from where their Master came; “Christian” means “anointed,” that is, followers of a self-styled “Lord’s anointed” who ended up on the gallows.
These were not the titles that they employed between them. They qualified themselves as “brothers,” “believers,” “the disciples of the Lord,” “the perfect ones,” “people of the way” and… “saints.”
Paul wrote his letters “to all the saints who live in the city of Philippi…” (Phil 1:1), “to the saints who are at Ephesus..…” (Eph 1:1); “to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Colossae…” (Col 1:2); “to all the saints in the whole of Achaia” (2 Cor 1:1), “to all of God’s favorite in Rome and that you are called to be saints…” (Rom 1:7). He did not write to the saints in heaven, but to real people who lived in Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, Colossae and Rome. They were the saints.
A saint is every disciple, whether he is already in heaven with Christ or who still lives as a pilgrim on this earth.
In the Orthodox temples the saints who are in heaven are painted along the walls at eye level, standing, as the resurrected ones mentioned by the seer of the Revelation (Rev 7:9). It is the way in which one wants to remind all participants in the celebration that the saints in heaven, although they may be contemplated only with the eyes of faith, they continue to live alongside the saints of the earth. They are part of the community called to give thanks to the Lord.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Holy is your family, O Lord, in heaven and on earth.”
We leave the maternal womb and enter into this world; after childhood we enter adolescence; we leave adolescence for youth, youth to mature age and old age. Finally, the time comes to leave this world to which we have grown fond of perhaps to the point of deeming it to be the final abode and not wanting anymore to leave it. Yet on this earth our aspiration to the fullness of joy and life is continually frustrated.
When, with disenchantment, we consider the reality, we check everywhere for signs of death—diseases, ignorance, loneliness, frailty, fatigue, pain, betrayals—and our conclusion is: no, this cannot be the definitive world; it is too narrow, too marked by evil. Then the desire to roam beyond the narrow horizon wherein we move emerges in us; we even dream of being abducted to other planets where maybe we are freed from any form of death.
In the universe we know, the world to which we long for does not exist. To satisfy the need for the infinite that God has put in our heart, it is necessary to leave this land and embark on a new exodus.
We are asked for a new exit, the last—death—and this frightens us.
Even the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, they heard Jesus who spoke of his exodus from this world to the Father (Lk 9:31). They were seized by fear. “They fell with their faces to the ground, and were so afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, and said, arise and be not afraid” (Mt 17:6-7).
From the third century there appears, in the catacombs, the figure of the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulder. It is Christ, who takes by hand and cradles in his arms the person who is afraid to cross alone the dark valley of the death. With him, the Risen One, the disciple serenely abandons this life, confident that the shepherd to whom he/she has entrusted his/her life will lead him/her towards lush meadows and quiet streams (Ps 23:2) where he/she will find refreshment after a long tiring journey in the desert of this dry and dusty earth.
If death is the moment of encounter with Christ and an entry into the wedding banquet hall, it cannot be a dreaded event. It is something we expect. The exclamation of Paul: “For me, dying is gain. I desire greatly to leave this life and to be with Christ” (Phil 1:21,23) should be uttered by every believer.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Teach us, O Lord, to count our days.”
Homer could see, but is depicted blind. He was the symbol of inspired men, of those who, to penetrate deep truths, hidden from ordinary mortals, must close their eyes to the reality of this world. In ancient Greece, even the wise men, soothsayers, the rhapsodes were believed to be blind. They had to take themselves away from the deceptive appearances, ignoring the earthly flashes, to catch the light and the thoughts of the gods.
Their passionate quest for truth and their commitment to educating for wisdom were commendable. However, in the face of the great enigmas of the human universe, they had to give up, grope in the dark and they remained blind.
The peripatetic, wearing the “mantle,” a symbol of those who cultivated the love of wisdom, discoursed on the truth as they strolled around the Acropolis of Athens; academics, the Epicureans and the Stoics reflected on the pain, the joy, the pleasure and the meaning of life. In Athens, described by Cicero as “the lamp of all Greece,” all—like the blind—turned their eyes longing for the light. But it was not from that city that “the light of the world” would come.
In Rome, Tiberius reigned when, in the mountains of Galilee, a carpenter of Nazareth began to preach the Good News. It was then that “the people which sat in darkness have seen a great light” (Mt 4:16). For the ancient philosophers the time has come “to lay down their mantles” and look up: from the top “‘a rising sun’ had come to visit people, ‘to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death’ and indicate the blind the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79).
To internalize the message, we repeat: “The proposals of the world wrap me in darkness, those of the gospel are light.”
The first schism in the church took place under the eyes of Jesus, two disciples against ten and ten against two (Mk 10:35-41). The reason of the dispute is not a theological discussion or denial of dogmas, but the lust for power, competition for the top spots. It was the beginning of a painful history of ecclesial divisions and conflicts, always driven by petty rivalries. When someone wants to dominate the others, the group falls apart. But not even the democratic system eliminates squabbles, because it does not cure it at the root. It’s just a balancing act, an attempt to reconcile opposing selfishness.
Jesus appointed the Twelve so that they would be the sign in the world of a new society in which every claim to dominion is abolished and cultivates a single ambition: the service of the poorest. A difficult task! The mentality of this world has infiltrated, since the very beginning, even in the church and over the centuries the criteria of this world have resurfaced: domination, possession, the enslavement of others. The tiara, the famous hat of the pope, was the symbol of authority and the universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome. Its origin is uncertain, but in the thirteenth century it consisted of a single crown, in the following century two, and a few decades later, three overlapping crowns, symbols of the three kingdoms over which the pope extended his power: the sky, the ground and underground. Elected Pope, Paul VI made a historic gesture: he put it on his head and immediately took it off, this time for good. The tiara was a too ambiguous, too compromised symbol, which is incompatible with the one glorious diadem that had adorned the head of the Master, the crown of thorns.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Great is the one who serves.”