Apart from brothers and sisters, the most common term the Apostle Paul uses to describe his fellow Christians is saints (hagioi, “holy ones”). In English, forms of the root hagi-, which might appear as nouns, adjectives or verbs, are translated as “holy,” “holy one,” “holiness,” “sanctification,” “sanctified” and “saints.” Christian are all saints: holy ones, set aside for God. Holiness is not something reserved for the special few followers of Christ but is the goal for every Christian, the purpose for which we have been called.
The call for Christians to live up to their baptismal call ought to be a constant reminder that not only are we called to be saints, we are saints, however imperfectly we are running the race to the heavenly goal. It is not just that we do not share in the eternal joy of heaven now. We know how often we fall short of the goal of holiness that Jesus called us to in this life, whether in purity of heart, mercy, righteousness or peacefulness.
But we have exemplars, for we live in communion with the saints, who share in the fullness of God’s life presently. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “At the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is” (No.954). The feast of All Saints is a necessary reminder for us whenever we doubt that God could make a saint of you or me. Sainthood is our purpose and destiny.
Those saints in heaven share the life for which we are being prepared, but they are not simply models for us, they intercede on our behalf. The Revelation of John promises us that the saints are not just a few but a “great crowd” who worship God, calling us home. While the life of the saints is opaque to us in many ways, we have the evidence of Scripture and tradition that it is not just a call to be with God but to be like God. In 1 John, we are told that as saints, “we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” This is the glorious future, in which some members of the family, children of God like us, already share and in which they mediate for us.
But if we are encouraged to recognize that we are saints even now, how do we make certain we will be saints also then, sharing eternal life with our brothers and sisters in the presence of God, seeing God as God is, like God, for eternity? As with so much of the Christian life, sainthood is a study in the mundane and the ordinary, done with great love of God and neighbor. Jesus, the one and only teacher, instructs us in the Beatitudes, offering us “the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations” (Catechism, No. 1717). The paradox, as with so much of the kingdom, is that sainthood confounds and confuses the ways of the world, counseling behavior that others see as foolishness.
Jesus offers that his followers are “blessed” or “happy,” which is another suitable translation of makarios, when they walk Christ’s path of discipleship. In spite of persecution, being reviled or even mourning, the follower of Jesus is “happy” when showing mercy, making peace and thirsting for righteousness. This would seem to be a strange definition of “blessed” or “happy.” So why are the persecuted, the humble and the mourning called happy? Part of the reason must be because God is about to reverse this situation: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” The “happy” are the saints who are destined for the divine reward, whose lives show that they yearn to share in communion with the saints in heaven.
But to be a saint, as Jesus encourages us, is to live the happy life now, in which virtue allows us to participate in the life of God with joy. Life in the kingdom of God is the goal, but the Beatitudes allow us to participate in that life now with God and all the saints. We are saints, called to be saints, yearning to share in life with the saints.