Sunday, November 03, 2013

All Saints

In 2003, St. Teresa of Lisieux’s bones were dragged to Halifax. The first stop in her cross country tour. Hundreds of people stood in line for hours to venerate the skeleton of a dead French peasant woman, known in Catholic circles as ‘The Little Flower.” She was very popular among maritime Catholics. A church was named in her honour.

I have to admit, I was tempted to stand in line with my Catholic friends to share a moment with St. Teresa. As one of the pastors of the only Lutheran church in the city, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. A temptation and curiosity I shared with my council president, who spit out his coffee when I told him.

“Y’know, there was a Reformation for a reason!” he snarked as he refilled his mug.

But I was more sociologically intrigued by those who would wait in line to see her, than spiritually compelled by her presence. I knew Teresa’s bones had no divine power. I knew standing in front of Teresa’s remains would be more like visiting an open grave than opening a gateway to heaven. But I wanted to see why so many other Christians would stand in line for so long simply to gape at a pile of bones.

They are called “relics.” A relic could be a chunk of cloth from the Saint’s shirt, a book the Saint kept on the bedside with his or her scribblings in the margins, even a body part that the Saint left behind. Anything connected with the life of someone the church has identified as a “Saint” – capital S. These objects were venerated as if they had some special power, from which the Christian could claim for his or her own.

When some Saints died, their followers often hid the body so that mobs wouldn’t snatch the remains, hack it into pieces, and run off either to sell for a sturdy sum, or keep for their own personal devotion. Relics were popular. And big business.

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, he didn’t do it on a whim. 

Luther chose October 31st 1517 as the day to nail his ideas to the city bulletin board because he knew the church was going to be filled the next day – the Festival of All Saints. He knew that the Elector of Saxony, Fredrick the Wise, was going to pull out all his relics to put on display for worshippers to venerate. And he charged a heavy entrance fee to get through the church door.

This was nothing new. Fredrick did this every year. In fact, it was VERY popular. When you think about it, it was a win-win for everyone. The money collected at the door didn’t go to Fredrick. The money went to Rome to keep the ecclesiastical machine running smoothly, and to pay off church debts.

And the church authorities, in turn, promised that paying the fee and venerating the relics shaved127, 800 years off of purgatory. 

Since the average Christian was terrified of where they were going to end up after they died, they gladly paid a hefty charge to gawk at St. Cyprian’s nose hair if it meant a better shot at leap frogging over purgatory and entering eternal bliss the moment their eyes closed in death.

From a 500 year distance you can see why Luther was so angry. The church was turning salvation into a financial transaction. Bodies were desecrated to keep the religious economy humming along. Objects were worshiped rather than God. The cross was nowhere to be seen. Certainly, this wasn’t what God wanted for Christians.

I used to find the whole idea of relics creepy. Something left to those Christians whose faith is stuck in the mud of the medieval ages. Relics are dangerous to the faith, and we 21st century Christians, of course, wouldn’t touch them with our bare hands. 

But then I realized that we’re not so far off from our friends from 500 years ago. It just looks a little different.

I was 10 years old or so when my parents took my brother and me to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Looking at all that hockey memorabilia, jerseys, masks, pucks, and skates, I ground to a halt when I saw, on display behind glass, Bobby Clarke’s well worn hockey stick. The stick he used to record his 119th point, establishing a team record for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Bobby Clarke was one of my favourite players and I remembered that game, even though I was five years old at the time. Standing there ogling at the glass, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was staring at Bobby Clarke’s ACTUAL stick from THAT particular game!

I stared at that stick like a Wittenberg peasant venerating St. Jerome’s big toe. I ran my hand across the glass wishing it wasn’t there. I wanted to caress the wood, grab it with my two tiny hands, as if tactile experience would give me some divine hockey power, connecting me to Bobby Clarke’s greatness.

Of course, that’s silly. Bobby Clarke’s hockey stick has no more power than any other dead tree branch. But it had power to me - and over me. And I wonder over 30 years later, that if Luther were living today, if he would nail his 95 theses to the door of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

If not the Hockey Hall of Fame, then maybe the movie theatre, or the Internet. Or the ball yard. Look at the way people scramble to grab a fly ball that’s been hit into the stands. Or the frenzy at the red carpet at the Academy Awards. The way Justin Bieber gets mobbed when he makes an appearance at the mall.

Look at anywhere celebrities are venerated. After all, Saints were really the celebrities of their time. If there were a National Enquirer 500 years ago, St. Dominic’s face would have been on the cover. E-Talk daily with Ben Mulroney would have interviewed St. Clare, probing her as to what was going on between her and St. Francis.

I think the council president at my church in Halifax bristled at my thinking of going to visit St. Teresa’s bones because he understood in HIS bones, that as Lutherans, we know that there is no such thing as a “capital S” Saint (despite the name of our church).

 As Lutherans, we confess that all Christians are made equal. As Lutherans, we know that we aren’t made holy by anything we’ve done, but we are made holy by what God has done for us in Jesus.

He knew that there are no first class Christians, and other Christians pining way in the back. He knew that any miracles Teresa might have performed were from God and not by the power of any human being. He knew that God worked through all people, not just a few select Christian superheroes.

This means that God can work through YOU. God not only can, God DOES work through you. Not because you have achieved some moral purity. Not because you have prayed great prayers or read the bible from cover to cover. And not because you have gone to church.

God works through you because God has chosen to work through you, whether you like it or not. God works through you because you are baptized, joined to Jesus’ cross and resurrection, set free from the tyranny of sin and death, and called to be God’s hands of healing to those who are hurting, and voice of freedom to those held captive to their past.

We know that its not our WORK that joins us to the great cloud of witnesses, but our FAITH, our faith unites us to those who’ve gone before us, stewards of God’s mysteries who passed down God’s message of life and salvation through the centuries until we find it in our hands, passing it to the generations that are to come, in hope that, one day, all the world may, with all the saints of every time and every place, the saints below and the saints above, the baptized of every generation proclaim “Salvation belongs to our God!”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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