Two years ago Misty Copeland became the first black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. At the time she told reporters, “I had moments of doubting myself, and wanting to quit, because I didn’t know that there would be a future for an African-American woman to make it to this level. At the same time, it made me so hungry to push through, to carry the next generation. So it’s not me up here — and I’m constantly saying that — it’s everyone that came before me that got me to this position.” In a world—and not just the dance world—where pictures of success are still often filled with white faces, Copeland has become a model of new possibilities for people of all races. To those, like her, who have faced difficult circumstances just because of the color of their skin, she demonstrates the virtue of persistence and destroys the lies of limitations imposed on them. To those who have not faced such difficulties, she embodies a new world that is not chained by past prejudices and expectations. Misty Copeland is a gift, someone whose accomplishments are not just to be celebrated for their own sake but also for the fact that they make the world around her a better place.
I don’t know anything about Misty Copeland’s personal beliefs and practices, but here’s what I do know: when we pause to celebrate All Saints day each year, we need to be thinking about people like her. A world without saints is like a ballet company without black dancers: it’s missing something, it’s lacking something. And when we peek into that world and wonder if we belong in it, if there is a possible future for us there, if there are no saints, we will struggle to take our own rightful place in that world. The beatitudes are like a casting call for that ballet company. When Jesus sits down to give the Sermon on the Mount, he begins by describing the life of a saint. Poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaker, persecuted: this is what a saint looks like. And if you want to be a saint, this is what you must be like. Since Jesus says saints are blessed, or happy, some of us naturally want to be saints. So we look around, trying to find some examples, trying to find our own Misty Copelands, trying to find people whose lives say to us, “This is possible. You can answer the call of the Beatitudes. There is a new world, and you can live in that new world.” This is why we celebrate All Saints day.
At All Saints day, our attention is drawn to those who have died so that we might see and learn from how they lived. It is not that the saints have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, or that they have somehow achieved something great that no one else could do. It’s as simple as this: God’s grace gives us new life in Jesus Christ, and in Christ we are free to live as saints of God. When we celebrate all saints, we are not celebrating death. We are celebrating new life in Christ: life here, in this world. Life according to the grace we receive from God.
Reading through the Beatitudes, we can get the wrong impression. We might think that this list is only for superstars. Or we might think that Jesus is drawing up some ideal world that no one can ever reach, at least not before the resurrection. We might believe that it’s just not possible to live out the Beatitudes: they’re too hard, they ask too much of us, they don’t account for what we must do to survive from day to day.
Our list of reasons to duck out of the Beatitudes can be very specific and very personal. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” What does that even mean? How can you be poor in spirit? “Blessed are those who mourn.” I don’t want to mourn; I like being cheerful and happy. “Blessed are the meek.” What happens if someone tries to take advantage of me? “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Who can really do that? “Blessed are the merciful.” But he has it coming, and I want to make sure he gets what he deserves. “Blessed are the pure in heart.” Okay, but a little indulgence in my pet sins won’t really hurt me, will it? I don’t want to live with no fun at all. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Yes, but this is a violent world, and sometimes you just have to fight fire with fire. “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” No thank you.
Just as a legacy of racism and prejudice has limited who can be the principal dancer of a ballet theater, so a legacy of sin and accepting the world as it is has limited whether or not we Christians even bother to find a way to live according to Christ’s Beatitudes. But then All Saints day comes around, a day when we remember those who broke through the barriers of that legacy. Today we remember the saints in our own lives: members of our church and of our families who showed us personally how to live as followers of Jesus Christ. And today we also remember saints of the whole church, those who have been honored for centuries as well as those whose names are known only to our Lord. Together these saints show us how to live.
They look like us. They lived where we live. They struggled with the same struggles we have. They prayed the prayers we pray, sang the hymns we sing, received from the same loaf and the same cup we share. Yet they refused to live in bondage to the limits of sin. Here are a few of them:
In the 1940s Maximilian Kolbe hid Jewish refugees from the German authorities until he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. He died after he volunteered to take the place of another man in the camp. Kolbe was merciful, a peacemaker, and persecuted for the sake of Jesus Christ.
In the early 1800s Jarena Lee heard a call from God to preach the gospel. The only trouble was, women weren’t allowed to preach, African Americans had no almost no rights, and Jarena Lee was an African American woman. She preached anyhow, going wherever she could get someone to hear her, eventually convincing Richard Allen, the father of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to give her license to preach. She was pure in heart, and she hungered and thirsted for righteousness.
Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy businessman who lived in the Middle Ages. He also heard a call from God, to reform the Church, so he refused his father’s financial support, stripped naked in front of his archbishop, and walked away from a comfortable life to travel from town to town, preaching the gospel and caring for the poor. When others around him went on violent crusades in Turkey and the Middle East, Francis instead went on a walking tour of the same areas, spreading a message of peace in the name of Jesus Christ. Francis was poor in spirit and a peacemaker.
Mary was a young woman who had a vision of an angel, who told her she would become the Mother of God by giving birth to a son, Jesus. Mary watched her son grow up, and then she witnessed his torture and execution, standing at the cross as she watched him die. Mary was meek, and she mourned for her son that day, as all mothers do who must watch their children suffer and die.
Do you see yourself among these saints? Maybe not yet. Maybe you can’t relate to Maximilian, Jarena, Francis, or Mary. That’s okay. They are just four of the saints of the Church. Even if you can’t see yourself in them, you can still learn the way of the Beatitudes from them. And you can keep looking. There are thousands, uncountable thousands, more, whose stories can be told, whose lives can shed the light of Christ for us. Search for the saint whose life calls you into life; don’t believe the lie that you are not called to be a saint, too. Sainthood is for all Christians. Holiness is for everyone who follows Jesus. The Beatitudes are addressed to us.
Saints are God’s gift of the possible to Christ’s Church. They have danced in a world we are invited to join. We need them, not instead of Christ, but because of Christ who has called them to his side so that the world might see the truth of his gospel. Look to the saints, to Maximilian and Jarena, to Francis and Mary, yes, to those we name today, and to those we have almost forgotten. Look to the saints who have died, and learn from them how to live.