This may all sound slightly ridiculous – but that is the point. And we haven’t even ventured into some of the Hilarious names of these saints. In addition to Saint Hilarious himself, there is Saint Christiana the Astonishing, Saint Olav the Fat and Saint James the Dismembered.
I suppose the point of Saints is that there is a sense in which they are peculiar or weird. Literally, saints are people who are Holy, who are set apart. But not necessarily Holier than thou. Most people cannot really get to grips with what actually constitutes holiness – because holiness, quite literally, is something that simply does not compute.
And let’s be clear – holiness is not a religious quality. The cultures in which scripture was written did not separate religious life from other aspects of life. There never was, and there never will be some kind of religious sphere separate from other spheres of life. Religion is just a descriptive word that describes the things that bind you, that shape your worldview, the framework in which your ideas take form, the ideological lenses through which we make sense of the world. And people who are holy are those who inhabit the space somewhere outside our worldview, whose mind-set means that they interpret the world differently from the way that we do, who genuinely think differently.
And those people who are genuinely different, and genuinely alternative, and genuinely holy – pose a threat to all we hold dear. They are not bound by the things that bind us, which literally, is another way of saying that they are NOT religious in the way that we ARE religious. And these people are threatening, because they undermine our entire value system. It’s precisely for this reason, that so many of the saints came to a sticky end.
I suppose the best metaphor is the potentially offensive frogs-in-a-pot analogy. I’m sure you’ve heard about this. That if a frog jumps into boiling water, it feels the heat and jumps straight back out. But if a frog sits in a pot of cold water which is gradually brought to the boil, it isn’t aware of the rise in temperature, and ends up being cooked. I’m sure many of you have conducted that experiment.
It looks to me like some of the generational differences between belief systems in Western politics today. If we’re born into relative wealth and comfort, if we have established our career or bought our house and guaranteed our pension – then there are all manner of things in the world that, though we know about them, we simply might not feel. We might not feel the consequences of student debt, of unaffordable housing, of a 60 hour a week wage that still doesn’t pay the bills. And regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong, when people who feel disenfranchised seek a kind of politics that seriously addresses these issues, we dismiss them as naïve, or ill-informed, or revolutionary. And it might just be that they are the frogs who arrived in the pot late in the day – and found the water too hot.
And if that gets us angry – it is because we are religious. Literally we are bound, religiously committed to our own ideology – prematurely dismissive of those who are genuinely alternative, set apart, holy.
If you want to understand what a genuine Saint is, it is not necessarily those who score high on virtue, or piety, or religious fervour. It is simply a word for frogs who are not frogs in a pot.
This is certainly the case in our New Testament reading. We’re used to reading all these words in Paul’s letters as religious words, when at the time they were nothing of the sort, because there was no such thing as religion. Paul is using imperial words, political words, to highlight the sheer alternativity of the Jesus he proclaims.
Paul (or as he’s become known, Saint Paul), is writing to a group of cell-churches in Rome, at the heart of the empire, at the height of the empire. Despite being a Roman citizen, Paul describes himself as slave of a liberator called Jesus. The Gospel was an imperial word for celebrating the presence of the emperor, but Paul announces himself as a lieutenant for the Gospel of God. Son of God is a title for an emperor, but Paul attributes that title to Jesus the liberator, descendent of a famous warrior King, David. Caesar is Lord, but Paul declares Jesus is Lord. He mentions that it is specifically through holiness, that they are called to belong not to Caesar, but to Jesus the Liberator. And he rounds his little introduction off, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.”
Paul is referring to every follower of Jesus as a Saint, as a frog who is not in the pot, as a person whose life is meant to present the world with a radically alternative way of being and acting and thinking and relating and living. But to the frogs in the pot, it just looks mental. It looks revolutionary, rebellious, subversive, naïve, ill-informed, and just plain stupid! Paul is urging Christians of Rome to be holy, different, set apart.
That’s not to make a virtue of being set apart in and of itself. Like a pious and personal Brexit! Interestingly, yesterday was the feast Day of St George – the Patron Saint of England. The St George’s cross becomes the symbol for so many English nationalist groups in their campaign to rid England of liberals, Muslims, or Immigrants. It is deeply ironic then, that St George himself was in fact, Syrian.
No, Paul is not simply calling followers of Jesus to be different for the sake of it, or to be anti-imperial for the sake of it, or holy for the sake of it. His claim is rather, that when you commit to follow this Jesus – there might be times when you don’t look like a good flag waving citizen and when you do defy convention even more fully than a Mazda driver. There might be miraculous times when frogs don’t stay in boiling water but do jump out. There might be times when otherwise sane and sensible people, inexplicably become improbable Saints.
This term we look at unlikely, obscure and improbable saints in the history of the Christian church. The Roman Catholic Church has several criteria for declaring someone a saint. Strictly speaking, the Catholic Church does not make someone a saint, it merely recognises some people who are saints.
However, it’s quite hard to become a Saint, and the Catholic Church has a highly selective process, which to the outsider can read like a medieval ecclesiastical version of Britain’s Got Talent. Firstly you have to be a servant of God, then you become venerable, then beatified, and then – you need to perform two miracles… posthumously! And finally, if you make it through, you get to become Cannonized.
To date, there are estimated to be over ten thousand saints. Many of them have very specific functions – patron saints for various minority groups or tricky situations.
St Apollonia is the Patron Saint of Dentists.
St Genesius is the Patron Saint of Plumbers, Actors, Clowns, and Torture victims.
St Barbara is the Patron Saint of Fireworks.
St Fiacre is the Patron Saint of Taxi-drivers, gardeners and STDs. (The kind of saint heathens might call upon after a godless Saturday night in Peterborough…)
St Bibiana is the Patron Saint of Hangovers and St Drogo is the Patron Saint of Coffee.
St Ambrose is the Patron Siant of Beekeepers, St Malo is the Patron Saint of Pig-keepers, or if you wake up one morning and find yourself Welsh – you needn’t despair: St David is your Patron Saint.