During the Mass one Sunday, Izzy, my second-born, was fussing and getting bored sitting in the pew. The little guy is only a year old. You can’t really blame him. So I picked him up and went to the back of the large sanctuary. Pacing usually works with him. I guess the feeling of being so high up off the ground and floating in my arms is enough to keep him occupied.
I tried to listen to the homily, but as I was walking from one side to the other, I was drawn to this small wooden carving of what must have been a saint – except there was no name. I looked around it. Nothing was engraved. It was the nameless saint. Who was he? Did he live centuries ago? He looked like it. He had this beard and long robe. Looked like someone out of the first century. But still, I had no clue who.
Saints are a sticking point between protestants and catholics. Catholics make such a big deal over their saints. We ask them to pray for us. We celebrate them with “feast days”. We mention them and remember them in the Mass. In the church, in stained glass window after stained glass window are these figures of light when the sun hits them just right: St. Francis, St. Catherine of Sienna, Father Serra, St. Patrick and more. But if you thought we made a huge fuss over them because they are like little demigods to be worshiped, you’d be wrong – very wrong. Saints are not people who have gone the “extra mile”, or who shine forth as super-Christians – more exalted than the average run-of-the-mill follower of Christ. They are living in Heaven as visible testimonies to the fact that God can really change people. That’s why we celebrate them, look up to them, ask them to pray for us, not because they are different from us, but because we are so much the same. The only difference is that they’ve finished their race, and we are still running it. The writer of Hebrews makes this point when he says,
“…since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV)
They are witnesses. Witnesses to what? Witnesses to the fact that no one is beyond redemption. No one is too vile or base to be transformed from a worm into a butterfly – a creature so beautiful, you and I would be tempted to fall down in worship if we didn’t know any better. It’s as though the saints peer down from their windows and whisper, “We were once on the same journey you are. We made it. And you will, too. Don’t give up.”
I don’t know who the wooden carving is meant to depict, but I don’t think I want to know. In my mind, it depicts someone not from the past, but someone yet to become a saint. It has no name because we don’t know yet all the wonderful seeds God is going to make grow in our hearts that flower up into eternal life. The nameless saint is me, or you, one day, by God’s grace. And the cloud of witnesses are cheering us on: run!