On Sunday the 17th of October 2010 Australia’s first homegrown saint was officially canonized in a ceremony at the Vatican. She will henceforth be know as the “Blessed Mary MacKillop” and has been given the title of Saint Mary MacKillop.
The Australian media has taken a perhaps surprisingly positive tone in reporting this story but I’m inclined to believe that their affirming coverage may have more to do with using our country’s infatigable nationalism to sell newspapers rather than any particular spiritual or faith based motivation.
There have of course been those who have taken the story as an opportunity to criticize the church and Christianity in general. They are always careful of course to praise MacKillop for the work that she did before seeking to undermine the very reason for which she served so faithfully and sacrificially, her faith and a desire to serve God.
A more interesting issue for me though is the entire concept of sainthood. The popular conception of wat makes someone a saint today is distinct from the biblical definiton of a saint. What we commonly call saints today are those who exemplify moral and benevolent behaviour for us. They are teachers, intercessors and perhaps above all, holy.
To explore this further, allow me to get my etymological swerve on for a moment.
The three most common words in the Bible that are translated into our English word ‘saint’ are the Hebrew words chaciyd (khä·sēd) and qadowsh (kä·dōshe) and the Greek word hagios (hä’-gē-os). All have some connection to the concept of holiness. Chaciyd means ‘faithful, kind, godly, holy one, pious’ while qadowsh means ‘sacred or holy’ . Hagios means ‘a most holy thing’.
It is this connection to the concept of holiness that explains why they are all rendered at one time or another as the English word ‘saint’. Saint is a word which has descended from the Latin word sanctum which means holy or consecrated. Ultimately, holiness means to be set apart.
To be worthy of the term ‘saint’ and by extension ‘holy’ in our world today you need to live a life of extraordinary moral conduct, charity and sacrifice. You have to live life better than everyone else while simultaneously living as though you are beneath all. You have to earn the title of sainthood.
The biblical concept of sainthood is considerably different to this. While the emphasis on holiness is the same, the means by which this holiness is obtained stands in compete contrast to today’s popular perception.
In the Bible the term ‘Saint’ is not reserved for those who have lived up to a certain standard. Saint is a name given to those who have acknowledged that they cannot possible live up to the standard.
In the Old Testament the terms that we translate in to ‘saint’ are constantly used to refer to those who belong to the Lord. ‘Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.’ (Psalm 30:4). ‘All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your saints shall bless you!’ (Psalm 145:10) ‘Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack!’ (Psaml 34:9) A saint was someone who belonged to the Lord.
Similarly in the New Testament the term is generally used to refer to those who are a part of the church. “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Romans 1:7) Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. (1 Corinthians 16:1) So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, (Ephesians 2:19).
If the word saint means holy it is curious that this is the word used to describe the people of God. Through the Old and New Testament the description of God’s chosen sounds like anything but a consecrated and set apart people. So how can they be so called?
It is because biblical sainthood has nothing to do with our righteousness and everything to do with God’s. According to scripture our righteousness is like filthy rages when compared to God (Isaiah 64:6). All of the works of Mary MacKillop, Mother Theresa and Benedict are nothing, in fact they are like pollution when stood next to God.
Our righteousness has been purchased for us by the blood of Christ on the cross. We have all fallen short of God’s perfect standard but He exchanged his perfect rigtheousness for our sinfulness. It is by our faith in this act of grace that we receive the status of Holy. What we could not achieve for ourselves God gave to us in the most one sided trade of all time.
So let us rejoice in the great works that Mary MacKillop has performed to the glory of God and the example of love and charity that she has given us. But let us not fall into the false belief that our righteousness is in someway obtained by us though our works.
Rather, may we perform the good works that God has prepared for us beforehand out of a heart that gives thanks for all that Christ has done for us and for His glory.