For All The Saints…And Yet Sinners
When certain words come up in the alphabet, I bet Merrium-Webster’s editors draw straws, or play rock, paper, scissors to decide who gets stuck defining it.
I thought about that possibility again this morning when I got curious about how a dictionary would define “saint.”
You can find their definition here, but the upshot is that every single sub-definition makes purity, perfection, deed-or-virtue-driven worthiness, and a most-certainly earned spot in heaven a pre-req for sainthood.
Relatedly, I’m pretty sure that there aren’t many Lutherans on the Merrium-Webster editorial board.
In their defense, tomorrow many churches celebrate All Saints Day, and gosh if the day doesn’t thrum with a general Merrium-Webster vibe.
That’s probably not all bad, actually.
The day offers us the opportunity to lift up those who have died and, in gratitude for their lives, spend the day mourning them and lauding them—or at least suspending our recollections of those times or tendencies when they didn’t have their saintly A-game going.
Sometimes, some names rattled off on Sunday’s list of the saints simply weren’t as saintly as one would have wished, or as their reputation suggests that they were. Perhaps they were somewhere in the…complicated-to-absolutely-toxic range of the spectrum.
And sometimes, on this day, people who knew that alternate truth could feel either pressure to pretend that someone was saintly when they weren’t, or guilty that one feels more anger and relief than regret and grief.
And sometimes, just the opposite is true: sometimes someone knows that a person-now-gone was indeed a scoundrel, a jerk, a causer-of-harm…and yet, they were even so loved, despite it all.
I‘ve often said that at funerals, it can certainly come to pass that there are ample euphemisms (eu-, good + phēmē, speech) in the eulogies (eu-, good + logos, word)!
I think that the same thing is true on All Saints’ day.
With the possible exception of my Grandma Madsen, everyone in my world who has died has been in need of a euphemism or two in their eulogies, and no less on All Saints Day.
Even my mama and my late husband—whom, let the record show, I loved fiercely, and who were remarkable human beings. The good that they brought into the world and into mine was immeasurable.
But they could also be, in their respective ways, stinkers…pretty vanilla stinkers, but boy could stories be told.
I’m also aware of a few others now gone who were more than stinkers: people who caused real harm and problematic relationships, the echoes of which reverberate into new generations.
And that’s not even considering people who played a role in systemic pain and hurt due to their obliviousness, hopelessness, indifference, or prejudices aware or unnoted.
This would be everyone who is no longer with us, of course.
Very much relatedly, and to be absolutely clear, depending on the day, I hope and/or fear that I will be able to hear the thoughts and euphemisms of those who will stand in and at my wake!
Man, if I had died before my mama and Bill, wow would they have teamed up to tell tales, and most of them not of the tall variety.
About all such things, Luther had thoughts.
In fact, he whipped up a term for these thoughts, one that shows up as early as 1515 in his lectures on Romans, two years before he posted his (in)famous 95 Theses.
It’s simul iustus et peccator: simultaneously saint and sinner.
We see him playing with it throughout his vocation, but it comes into fullness in his commentary on the Galatians (1535).
In this treatise, he says, “Thus a Christian is righteous and a sinner at the same time [simul iustus et peccator], holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God.”
He goes on to talk about this “paradox” in ways that are deeply pastoral: “We…teach and comfort an afflicted sinner this way: ‘…it is impossible for you to become so righteous in this life that your body is as clear and spotless as the sun. You still have spots and wrinkles (Eph. 5:27), and yet you are holy.”
You still have spots and wrinkles (Eph. 5:27), and yet you are holy.
That “and yet” gets me every time.
I’ve come to believe that All Saints’ Day is nothing if not a day filled with And Yets.
Someone was beloved, and yet they were flawed, and sometimes deeply.
Someone was flawed, and sometimes deeply, and yet they are worthy of being loved by God.
All saints are sinners, and yet all sinners are saints.
Simul iustus et peccator is indeed a paradox, and a pastoral one at that.
It’s a perfect phrase for All Saints, a feast day filled with paradoxes and countless ways that “and yet” offers a pastoral word of comfort to those who mourn, and to those who don’t, on a complicated day certainly for dictionary editors, but for the rest of us too.
(And for a perfect tune for the day, I encourage you to give Over The Rhine’s song “All My Favorite People [Are Broken],” in which they actually sing a line straight out of Luther, “All my friends are part saint and part sinner/We lean on each other, try to rise above/We are not afraid to admit we are all still beginners/We are all late bloomers when it comes to love.”)