Saints in the Church; Angels; Sacrifices and Atonement
Here is a topic of theology related to the Resurrection of Jesus. Basically, the resurrection stories, first of Jesus and then, also, of believers in Christianity, tell of a link between the created, existential world and the world of spirits – the world of those who have died. As we outlined earlier, the fundamental problem facing early homo sapiens was the attainment of food to nourish him / her, and the food promised in Christianity, especially concerning the life after death, is conceived to be Jesus’ flesh. This belief is seen in St. John’s gospel chapter six: this is the bread that came down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die’.
Of course, this is the same ‘bread’ as that of the Holy Communion, when believers ‘feast on Jesus’ body and blood’.
So, the heavenly bread is a guarantee of eternal life, and a form of ‘resurrection’ for those who have died. In other words, they can continue ‘living’ as if still in ‘this world’. This is a hopeful aspect of Christianity – i.e. life after death.
Apparently, certain human beings who had promoted Christianity during their mortal lives have attained the title of ‘saints’. These persons are considered to have some influence in our created world, even after their deaths. The Church’s calendar enumerates them and gives them ‘holy days’ for Christians to remember, and perhaps to be influenced by them, as earlier Christians were influenced by their lives and actions.
Yet, it is also true that any Christian who has died can be considered, in biblical theology, as a ‘saint’ – the resurrected, dead Christians can still ‘live’ and influence history.
What actually is the influence of saints in the historical process? It is related to the work of the Holy Spirit – as the saints were guided and inspired by this spirit in their lifetimes, so they are inspired by this same Spirit after their death because they are resurrected in some fashion. And this continuation of the Holy Spirit with them in their resurrected life influences - by a kind of ‘echo’ persons within the living membership of the Church.
The influence of the Holy Spirit moves across the centuries and the by-passed years, to influence church members today. Of course, this influence is related to the particular professional qualities which the saint showed in his / her existential life in ’this world’ – as theologian, church administrator, prophet, martyr. healer etc. And the particular ‘gifts of the Spirit’ which he / she possessed in their lives and many actions is the aspect of the Holy Spirit which is ‘echoed’ in the membership of the church, both in the earthly and the heavenly church.
So, such ‘gifts of the spirit’ are not only expressed by the saints in their lifetimes but also they are replicated from time to time throughout Christianity.
These gifts of the Spirit are often enumerated in the Bible and they are given individually to the church members. Anything which ‘builds up’ the importance of church membership vis à vis God the Creator’s planning for his created world, is an appropriate gift of the spirit. These gifts are associated with the ‘spirit’ of the individual which is provided to him / her by their DNA.
The DNA is provided to a child by his / her parents and its development within the child, the adolescent and the adult depends upon this early ‘gift’ of an DNA. Thus, in a sense, God (the creator of the DNA procedure) determines not only the spirit of the individual but also the ‘gift’ which the Holy Spirit can provide to that spirit. In this scenario, God can provide ‘gifts of the spirit’ to everyone - Christians or otherwise. Non-Christians such as great Muslim doctors or Hindu-inspired peace-makers like Gandhi, can be inspired by the Holy Spirit in their spirits. But, generally speaking, it is the Church members who become ‘saints’. These are such persons such as St. Francis, St. Theresa of Lisieux, St. Chad, St. Elizabeth of Darmstadt etc. or even John Paul II the recent pope. More obscure saints were some hermits as St. Anthony of Egypt or church leaders such as St. John Chrysostom. Many families give saint’s names to their children, hoping they will follow in the path of their saint-protector.
One might assert that the saints can, and do intervene in the affairs of history, even contemporary history, and they bring aid to the struggling peoples to improve existence for themselves and others. It is certainly a help to have those ‘beyond the grave’ helping us on ‘this side of death’.
Of course, the other of the spiritual beings which have to do with earth-heaven relations is the angel. These are, as the Greek original word means – ‘messengers’ between two realms, and have a heavenly not an earthly origin. One can become a saint during one’s earthly life, but we cannot ‘prepare to be an angel’ as a heavenly messenger. One might be an ’angel-like’ person, however.
Angels are a numerous army of beings which assist the Creator God in his/her various activities and sometimes are ‘sent’ to human beings for various divine purposes.
Sacrifices and Atonement
Sometimes the New Testament (opposed to the Old Testament which concerns Jewish religion) is called ‘the New Covenant’ (which refers to the religion of Christianity). In the ‘Old Covenant’ the priests making sacrifices were usually taken from the tribe of Levi. Jewish tradition believes in 12 ancient tribes of ‘Israel’, i.e. twelve tribes which were the ‘people of Israel’ descended from Jacob, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. But Jewish tradition also includes some special priests of the ‘order of Melchizedek’ who were not from the Levi tribe, but special instances in Jewish history).
The author of the New Testament book called ‘The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews’ especially in chapter seven, tells us how Jesus was considered a special priest of the ‘priestly order of Melchizedek’ rather than representing the priesthood from the tribe of Levi. Jesus was not of the Levites, but of the tribe of Judah, being descended, it was believed, from King David of the tribe of Judah.
The priesthood of Levi, as Paul explains, administers sacrifices according to ancient Hebrew laws, but Jesus - of the type of Melchizedek – does not follow the Levitic type of offering sacrifices for the people of Israel, but has a unique priestly function to offer himself, once, as the sacrifice, and - in so doing - makes compensation for the sins of mankind as a whole. The crucifixion of Jesus is that unique sacrifice and it is done, according to Christian belief, by God’s will and intention. The sacrifice Paul is talking about is that the high God in heaven, master of the universe, allows the sacrifice of His Son (Jesus crucified) and by such a divine sacrifice, redeems human beings for their faults by a single act. This was basically the message of the early Christian apostles like Paul, who himself had been, previously, a very strict Hebrew, even a persecutor of the church at the beginning of its history.
And this ‘once for all’ sacrifice is remembered especially in the Holy Communion, when believers ‘eat the body and drink the blood’ of the sacrificed Jesus, and thus become nearer to the high God who had allowed the sacrifice of Jesus. Part of the means by which Christians become closer to God is through their belief that the main sacrifice for their own faults has already been made, and reconciliation of each individual with Almighty God is possible ‘by nature’ (i.e. doesn’t have to be earned by our efforts). This seemed scandalous to the Jewish purists but it is what Paul preached. It was a ‘new covenant’ between God and humans. It means that God has already done all that was necessary for reconciling human beings to the Divine will. A needed response on the part of human beings was simply ‘believe in it’.
Paradoxically, this aspect of Christian belief has wide repercussions, mainly in the realm of interpersonal relations, for those who believe that they are forgiven their faults will much more readily forgive others for how they have committed faults against us.Thus, the sacrifice made by God in allowing the death of Jesus helps social cohesion, and assists in making human history more pleasant.
This aspect of an inner-family sacrifice ‘made in heaven’ whereby God sacrificed ‘his only Son’ should, theoretically, make humanity more thankful to the God of the universe, and more ready ‘to do God’s will’ and improve life for humanity.
Certain similar sacrifices devolve upon Christians to a certain extent, although ‘human sacrifice’ is not required. Sacrifices which improve our methods of living our everyday life is what is required, as echoes of what God has already done. No sacrifices of our ‘existential selves’ are required, as was the case with Almighty God. ‘Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice’ – a phrase in Christian liturgy in the Holy Communion – does not mean a form of suicide as might come from being depressed psychologically, but simply means staying close to the spirit of Jesus – the sacrificed one - and letting his sacrifice bring its healing influence to us. That God has already made sufficient sacrifice means that we need not make any sacrifice as far as our ‘selves’ are concerned. Of course, there are certain sacrifices for us to make in wartime or during natural disasters or any other type of calamity, but we should not sacrifice any part of our existential personalities or DNA, but rather allow our personal special characteristics to express themselves as positively as possible with God’s help.
In this context we should meditate upon the word ‘Atonement’ as noted by Paul in his Letter to the Romans, chapter seven. The word has no particular origin in old German or Latin terminology but simply elides an ‘at’, a ‘one’, and ‘ment’. The word simply means ‘being at one’ with God (because of what God has preliminarily-wise done for us in sacrificing his ‘Son’ for ‘the sins of the world’, such an action involving both ‘our sins’ and our DNA). DNA includes the sins of our forbears plus those of our own, but in itself is not to be sacrificed since, in the message of Christianity, it is already redeemed, saved, healed, and converted etc. This possibility must also be reflected in the arrangement of the neurons and synapses of our brains but its ‘message’, or the echo of its reality in the eternal sense, must be acted upon by a free will. This is the task of each human being – to respond when the echo of God’s love appears to us - and it is in the Church where the echo is resounding the loudest.
If ‘sin’ is automatically handled definitively in Atonement, then can we do ‘anything we wish’ in life? This is not the case and nothing in the biblical message supports this. In fact, many sentences in St. Paul’s writings encourage Christian ethics and behavior regarding interpersonal relations. Christian ethics flow out of the concept of the Atonement because God has shown love to us in spite of our limitations.
In response, we must show love to others in forgiveness and reconciliation. The Atonement is a stimulus to ‘loving our neighbor’ and coherent action in the world to defeat sickness and disease, poverty, hunger, lack of education, racism, discrimination and intolerance i.e. combatting ‘evil-god’ in all its forms. This is how theology deals with the challenges presented to us in our historical existence. God once and for all dealt with the injustices caused by the DNA of human beings and brought a solution called Atonement. By Atonement the DNA in general could be set on the right track within the perspective that human free will could cooperate with it. And Christianity and the various religions will, in history, become involved in this procedure according to each of their own methods.
Photograph: ‘rock painting’ in Australia photographed by Graeme Churchard, Bristol (UK)