Below is a reflection taken from ‘Real God in the Real World‘, my latest book that can be used in groups or by individuals over the Advent and Christmas period. Each day begins with a bible reading and then uses lively personal stories and engaging illustrations from popular culture and the arts to reflect on the reading. The reflection below takes Revelation 7:9-17 as its starting point:
I was due to be born on November 1st, which is ‘All Saints Day’ in the Western liturgical calendar. My mum was excited about delivering her own personal saint. In the week running up to the day, she, therefore, did everything she could to induce labour – from rough country drives to long mountain walks. On the night before All Saints Day, she even fell for the old wives tale of consuming a large dose of castor oil. Unfortunately, I didn’t appear, and all that happened was that she spent the next few days on the toilet! In fact, it took another whole week for me to appear. When I arrived in the world, my father informed my mum that she really did have her own little saint, as November 8th is, in fact, ‘All Saints of Wales Day’! However, my behaviour over the next 18 years quickly dispelled the saintly hopes she had. “Perhaps it would be more appropriate if you’d have been born on Halloween”, I recall her once telling me!
Last year on my birthday, I was invited to a local church to be quizzed by a large group of teenagers about my work as a University chaplain. Three other people have also been invited – a local teacher, someone who works with the homeless in the city, and someone who works for the Samaritans. All evening we were grilled by these inquisitive youngsters, as I answered questions as diverse as “why do you do what you do?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, and, more popular than you might think, “how much do you get paid?!” When I was first asked to attend this evening I naturally enquired why I was being asked to give up my birthday. The vicar who is organising the event informed me that it was to commemorate All Saints of Wales Day, and they were asking a number of modern-day saints of Wales. I nearly fell off my chair laughing when I realised I was to represent a ‘modern-day saint’. Yes, I do my best to help other people, but I’m certainly no St Francis or Mother Teresa!
After thinking about it for a while, though, I soon realised that my reaction revealed my own prejudices about what a saint actually was. I’ve always pictured saints as very holy people, with smiling faces, often immortalised in stained glass windows, with little birds landing on their shoulders and halos over their heads. In some ways, today’s reading from the book of Revelation (7:9-17) might allow such a misunderstanding, as this godly group wear white robes and hold palm branches in their hands. However, seen in the context of the rest of the Old and New Testaments, our view of sainthood is challenged. Both St Luke and St Paul paint a much more human and down-to-earth portrait of sainthood, as they refer to those early Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere as “saints” (e.g. Acts 9:13, 32; Philippians 4:21, and so on), and today’s reading reveals that saints are “a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language”.
In reality, of course, there is nothing super-human about sainthood, and thus we are all called to be saints. As Mother Teresa herself once said, all of us have the ability to become ‘pencils in the hand of God’. Sometimes our actions are clearly worthwhile – just think of the selfless work of hospital staff, of carers, of the emergency services, and so on. Sometimes, though, our actions might seem insignificant to us – when we visit a lonely relative, or take time to listen to a friend in need, or when we simply smile and say a nice ‘hello’ to our neighbours. Often we’re so hung-up about our failings that we can forget that all our seemingly minor saintly actions bring so much light and love to the world around us. As Albert Schweitzer, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, once said, ‘we certainly don’t have to be angels to be saints’!