I don’t know if you saw in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, amidst the murders and the political pundits, a little headline for a review of a new film about Cesar Chavez. It ran “Not a saint but human.” Not a saint but human.
Where do we get the idea that holiness is not for real people? That sanctity reduces humanity? That being close to God means being far away from ordinary life?
I think part of the reason is the stories we have told each other down the ages about saints — strange, troubling stories about heroic lives of renunciation, of martyrs’ awful pains and hermits living on nothing but air and the host.
But were do we get the idea that holiness is about divesting ourselves of good things to live a thin life, unattached to human glory? It can’t help that we as a Church have chosen all those celibate men and virginal women to represent ourselves in heaven. Where are all the married, the lovers, the passionately attached; the tillers of fields, the makers of things, the parents of children? Where are you?
The tail-end of today’s gospel doesn’t help either with it exaltation of humility and threat of humiliation. With its attack on titles and esteem and its general tone of setting aside of worldly things. But there’s a paradox in the gospel that undermines this implicit picture of sainthood. Listen to the tone of Jesus’ words: he is annoyed, he is scandalised by what he sees, and he is speaking his mind — loudly and forthrightly. He is throwing down a gauntlet that will get him killed. He is taking on the authorities, daring them to notice him and do something.
Wherever we get our pale picture of sainthood it’s not from Jesus. The picture of Jesus we get here and throughout the gospels is not of a saint as we have attenuated them but of a passionate human being. He was all out against the people of his time who tried to live a holy life by living a life less human. He battered them unmercifully. But those he loved— and loved to spend time with— were the prostitutes and the traitors; those dying of unmentionable illnesses and those living in destitution from moment to moment who could not afford the luxury of holiness.
In Jesus we see someone who is so in touch with life and all its living that it can get to him; someone who has plunged into life and lived it to the full; someone who loves life so much he will even risk it for life’s sake. It is not sanctity—as it was defined— that got him killed, it is passion that brings him to the Passion. And even then his hold on life is so great that death cannot hold him. He rises to new life.
There are some wonderful icons of the Harrowing of Hell that depict a passionate Jesus striding forth from the gates of hell where he has routed evil and death and brought back with him all the dead, freed from death’s chains.
Sanctity, holiness, sainthood is something we are baptized into. By that little death we become people of life, people of passion, people called to take up life and be its champions. No more can we choose death, because we have Jesus for our model. He is our only teacher, but —thank God—there are many of him — many other Christs, who like him have lived passionate lives and still do so. The people who make our lives worth living. The ones who inspire us to be alive. They are all around us now— living and dead — and their prayer for us is simple — be alive, be filled with a passion and an untamed energy.