Given the collective angst from the Christian community every year over Halloween, it seems odd to me how little attention is given to November 1, celebrated in Western Christian tradition as “All Saints Day,” a time to honor and remember exemplars of the faith, people historically recognized by the Church as having “run well” the race all believers are called to contest. I’d think it would be something we’d embrace wholeheartedly and celebrate.
Maybe it’s just too Catholic. The Reformation and its fallout gradually soured many of us in the Protestant stream on the idea that anybody not showcased in the Bible, with the possible exception of our grandmothers, could be worthy of emulation. We’re all sinners, all equal in God’s sight, and our righteousness is as filthy rags before Him. Why should we look to any mortal man or woman as an example of how to live the Christian life? It seems so…idolatrous, so arrogant to assign the title “Saint” to anyone, beyond the generic meaning shared by all believers. We’re all saints, sanctified to God, called to follow in Christ’s footsteps.
True enough. And yet…
And yet, there’s something deep within us that cries out for heroes worthy of our admiration and emulation. Certainly Jesus is our hero, the ultimate hero, but this is a little different. We see it in our literature. Every story, speculative or otherwise, worthy of calling itself a story, has a hero or heroine. They don’t have to be perfect—from a storytelling point of view, it’s better that they aren’t. What they must do is fight, struggle, and persevere in the face of opposition and their own flaws. As we read, we put ourselves in their shoes and ask ourselves the same questions: Can I endure? Can I survive? Can I win out? And the hero’s answer is, Yes. It is possible. Have courage.
One of my favorite movies, The Incredibles, is about heroes, and it not only wrestles with the question of what a hero should be, it shows how drab a world without heroes can be. Removing heroes from our life leaves a vacuum, and we might not like what comes along to fill it.
The Bible itself continually points us to human examples of heroic faith, and not all of them are marquee names or even identified as individuals. In Hebrews 11, we find what is colloquially known as “Faith’s Hall of Fame,” which lists not only Abraham and Moses and David, but “…others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.”
Following in their footsteps are centuries of believers who’ve kept the faith despite unimaginable persecution and deprivation. We could probably all stand to dust off a little Church history and acquaint ourselves with the exploits of our spiritual grandcestors. I know I could.
We could also spend years debating why some of us succeed in our walk with God and why some of us fail. We can argue about free will versus predestination, irresistible versus resistible grace, or the nature of faith and our participation in it. At some point, though, I think we have to acknowledge that the Bible says, not just of Christ but also of ordinary human beings who have, with God’s help, done extraordinary things, Look at him. Look at her. Do likewise. They’re a benchmark. To ignore them, or those who have followed after them in turn, all pressing “toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God,” is to deny our own heritage, to deny any need to be different from the unbelieving world, any need to live differently.
Some people are threatened by heroes, because they not only serve as examples, they put our own shortcomings in sharp relief. Without heroes, It can be easier to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for our own actions. “They’re not really any better than me. Maybe they’re special, but so am I. So is everybody. We’re all special in our own way, and my way of being special is just as valid as anyone’s.”
And to paraphrase one of my favorite villains, “When everybody’s special, nobody will be.”