Most Episcopalians are familiar with the church year: that great cycle of prayer and liturgy that takes us from Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, on through Lent and Easter, and into the long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost. Fewer among us may be familiar with the cycle of the saintsâ calendar. While most of the saints and great lights of the Church have a special feast day or celebration assigned to them, it is rare that they get a mention in Church on Sundays for the simple reason that the assigned Sunday liturgy nearly always takes precedence.
It is, in a sense, a pity, for there is always much we can learn from the lives of the saints. Some were great scholars; others illiterate. Some were ancient; others modern. But what is particularly striking about the calendar of the saints is that it is a hodge-podge â messy and unpredictable. In the calendar of the blessed, saints come and go in no particular order. Ninth-century saint follows twentieth; European, American; young, old; and so on.
Just this month, for instance, ancient Willibrord, whose feast is kept on the seventh of November, hobnobs with Reformation-era, Richard Hooker, of November third, and medieval Margaret of Scotland, of November sixteenth. It must make for some very interesting conversations in high places.
The calendar mirrors our own lives in many ways. People come to us in no particular order. We probably did not choose the particular members of our parish community, for example. Friends and future spouse appear seemingly out of nowhere, although we often impute order to their presence among us after the fact. And we do not get to choose the people without whom we would not be here: our parents.
Those described as blessed, or saints, in our gospel text today are also a pretty heterogeneous lot â perhaps an unfortunate and desperate one. They are not particularly popular, or well-off, or prosperous. They are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the despised. If they have anything in common, it is perhaps that they are those not in control of things. They are those who are often described as victims and vulnerable.
No one â martyrs and saints included â wants to be victimized, used, manipulated, cheated, or made a chump. And certainly Scripture does not require that of us. We read the daily papers and shake our heads as we learn of all the evil things our fellow human beings are capable of, including the shedding of innocent blood. We certainly do not want such things to happen to us â no matter how committed we are to the Gospel.
But somewhere in our fear of being hurt or made a victim we may, if we are not careful, also lose our ability to be vulnerable; to take a chance on another human being, on life, on God. For if we open ourselves to others it is quite possible, some might say likely, that we will be hurt. But unless we take that risk, we may find ourselves living lives of fear and loneliness â in other words, lives not worth living â lives devoid of human warmth and caring and love.
So the saints do have something in common, in spite of their variety and age and culture. They have learned to become vulnerable, to be fully human, and to take chances on others, even when it may seem to go against common sense or oneâs own self interest. And like it or not, each of us will also be given plenty of opportunity to experience this vulnerability in our own lives â at work, at home, among friends, and sometimes at church as well.
So what about being blessed? What about being a saint? We can determine our state of saintliness and blessing by our willingness to be open to the needs of others. Sainthood becomes not so much some unattainable goal of moral excellence as it does a way of life marked by commitment to others and their needs.
We will not always be good. We will not always get it right the first time. We will fail. We will have plenty of reason to witness to and accept our own vulnerability. But then we are in good company. After all, what words other than âvulnerableâ and âcommittedâ can we use to describe a God willing to become one of us with all the messiness of our self doubts, and strings of failures, and hurts, and even death?
It probably does not take much effort to be poor, grief-stricken, or hungry. But being blessed â that is something else. That involves a radically different way of seeing the world. It requires a worldview that embraces the poor, and the exiled, and the remnant, and the refugee. Not just for the reward enumerated by our Lord in the gospel story, but because we recognize ourselves in the very least of those we know. We recognize that our saintliness and blessing comes only in embracing wholeheartedly and without reservation those others in need of Godâs blessing.
Is it easy being a saint? I am afraid it is more difficult than we ever thought. Difficult, that is, if we try to do it on our own power and with our own wisdom and cleverness and effort. But it is paradoxically easy when we embrace the blessed cross of Christ that irrevocably committed God to the world; the cross that consecrates us in the blood of the Lamb, who gave himself that we might live.