Marking and Defying Death with the Saints

In our "officially optimistic society," we don't talk about death. Rather, our society regularly engages in "the denial of death."

Yme Woensdregt

In my column last week, I mentioned how much I hated some of the euphemisms we use to mask what’s really going on — like “collateral damage”, among others.

We use euphemisms a lot when we talk about death. We don’t talk about people dying anymore. We say that she has “passed on”; or “we lost him this week”; or he was “promoted to glory” or “entered into eternal rest”; or “God needed a new angel in heaven”.

We use euphemisms like this because we are uncomfortable with death and dying.

Up till the last 150 years or so, people were so much more accustomed to facing death. Families would lovingly wash and prepare the body for burial after death. All of that changed with the rise of the funeral industry. We have handed that final act of caring to professionals who do it for us.

These days, we live in what theologian Douglas John Hall calls “the officially optimistic society”. In such a society, we don’t talk about death. Rather, our society regularly engages in what philosopher Ernest Becker calls “the denial of death.”

While we seem to have a nearly insatiable appetite for horrifyingly graphic images of violence and death in our television shows, movies, videogames, and news, we simultaneously appear increasingly to be in denial of the common, everyday, garden variety of death which awaits each of us.

So we hide behind euphemisms. Did you know that the US Air Force no longer reports that pilots who crash in combat or training have died? Apparently they experienced “uncontrolled landings into terrain”. In the same way, the army reports not how many of their soldiers died but rather the number of casualties their units suffered. Hospitals also don’t talk about their patients dying, but speak of their “expiring”.

We are afraid of death, so we hide behind euphemisms.

So when the church celebrates All Saints’ Day on November 1, we are doing something incredibly counter–cultural and counterintuitive. This festival stands in stark contrast to a culture which worships youth and boasts that “you can have it all.” On All Saints’ Day, we lift up our mortality and celebrate the life of all those who have died. Not those who have “passed on” or those who have been “lost” (like a pair of gloves), or those who have “expired”. We celebrate those who have died in the faith.

The word “saint” comes from a Greek word meaning “holy ones”, which itself comes from a Hebrew word meaning “set apart” for God’s use. A saint, in other words, is someone who belongs to God, who is loyal to God, who lives according to God’s gospel purposes in the world.

The Roman Catholic Church uses a much more narrow and technical definition when they call someone a saint. To be declared a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, a candidate must meet several tests, the most important being to live a life of heroic virtue and to be involved in two miracles. In this way, both Pope John Paul 2 and Pope John 23 were canonized, recognized as saints in April 2014.

I prefer a broader understanding of the word “saint”. All Saints’ Day affirms the reality of God’s presence in the world in the lives of all those in whom God’s love shines into the world.

A church in Regina was called All Saints Church. Their motto was, “We are All Saints!” They understood that God was at work in their lives, and that they were called to show God’s love in their daily lives. That’s what a saint does. That’s who a saint is.

In 1929, Lesbia Scott wrote a poem for her children. It became a hymn for All Saints’ Day. The first verse reads, “I sing a song of the saints of God, / patient and brave and true, / who toiled and fought and lived and died / for the Lord they loved and knew. / And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, / and one was a shepherdess on the green; / they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, / God helping, to be one too.”

A saint, said 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, is someone whose life manages to be “a cranny through which the infinite peeps”. The early 20th century novelist Laurence Housman wrote that “a saint is someone who makes goodness attractive.”

On this day, we celebrate all those who have died, who have gone before us in faith. We proclaim boldly and with great hope that death no longer terrifies us. We can look death in the eye and not blink.

Equally importantly, we also say that life no longer terrifies us either. Our whole life is now sanctified, made holy. Our lives are given a purpose, which is that God’s love will be made real in, through, and with us as we dare to live it out.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook