Nicole doesn't know my name, but she knows my car and my weakness for caramel. Not knowing what to call me has never kept the friendly smile off her face or the lilt out of her voice. On those occasions when I ask for a foofoo drink or say "surprise me," she never has to ask whether I want whipped cream, and when she wishes any customer a good day, the twinkle in her eyes proves that she means it.
That a barista who has never called me Patrick knows my preference for "Black Forest Latte" is enough. Moreover, realizing that is what has helped bring me to amicable terms with the idea of saluting little-known and even anonymous saints.
I used to wonder what the point was of remembering heroic virtue untethered to particular persons. I now see that observing feasts like that of "Isaac Jogues and the North American Martyrs" is no slight to the seven other missionaries to Native Americans killed in the seventeenth century along with the "Apostle of the Mohawks." We know the names of all eight, but Jogues typically gets top billing, and that's OK.
To Protestant eyes, the Catholic calendar must sometimes seem chock-a-block with remembrance that borders on idolatry. There are about ten thousand named saints and "beati" (think non-commissioned officers) in the Catholic canon, but no definitive head count exists.
Some of the people in the catalog of saints strike me as odd, too. As my friend Carl says, it's probably inevitable that "heroic virtue" would look odd to those of us who can't yet claim it, in spite of the fact that all Christians are called to be saints.
In Precise Order
On this score as on so many others, it helps to be fortified by "Vitamin B-16," because Benedict XVI provides useful guidance: "The great feasts that structure the year of faith are feasts of Christ and precisely as such are ordered toward the one God who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush and chose Israel as the confessor of faith in his uniqueness," wrote Joseph Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgybefore being chosen to succeed St. Peter.
Meditating on time and space in the liturgy, Ratzinger then addressed the symbolism through Christian history of the cosmos itself:
In addition to the sun, which is the image of Christ, there is the moon, which has no light of its own but shines with a brightness that comes from the sun. This is a sign to us that we men are in constant need of a "little" light, whose hidden light helps us to know and love the light of the Creator, God one and triune.
"That is why the feasts of the saints from earliest times have formed part of the Christian year," he continues.
We have already encountered Mary, whose person is so closely interwoven with the mystery of Christ that the development of the Christmas cycle inevitably introduced a Marian note into the Church's year. The Marian dimension of the christological feasts was made visible. Then, in addition, come the commemorations of the apostles and martyrs and, finally, the memorials of the saints of every century.
One might say that the saints are, so to speak, new Christian constellations, in which the richness of God's goodness is reflected. Their light, coming from God, enables us to know better the interior richness of God's great light, which we cannot comprehend in the refulgence of its glory.
To find sacramental elements among what agnostics like Carl Sagan famously called billions and billions of stars is no stretch for a pope of Benedict's intellectual gifts, especially when the Catholic calendar itself is packed with clues for astronomers of a theological bent.
I had not realized how much thought went into the liturgical calendar, and how cosmic in a Grateful Dead and Wayne's World sense it actually was, until I read this in a chapter about "Sacred Time":
The fact that the dates of the Lord's conception and birth originally had a cosmic significance means that Christians can take on the challenge of the sun cult and incorporate it positively into the theology of the Christmas feast…. Again and again, the Fathers take up the verse about the sun that we have already quoted from Psalm 19 ["God has pitched there a tent for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom from his chamber, and like an athlete joyfully runs its course"]. For the early Church, this became the real Christmas psalm: the sun, that is, Christ, is like a bridegroom coming forth from his chamber. An echo of the Marian mystery was also heard in this psalm, which was interpreted as a prophecy of the Christ. Between the two dates of March 25 and December 25 comes the feast of the Forerunner, St. John the Baptist, on June 24, at the time of the summer solstice. The link between the dates can now be seen as a liturgical and cosmic expression of the Baptist's words: "He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). The birthday of St. John the Baptist takes place on the date when the days begin to shorten, just as the birthday of Christ takes place when they begin again to lengthen.
In other words, if, like me, you thought that the "Light of the World" title for Christ was an impressive but largely decorative accolade introduced by a young Church that never ran out of good things to say about Jesus, you're wrong (or only partly right, in that the title is ancient). Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) goes to the calendar and says, in effect: "Looky here, pilgrim — the Church fathers weren't kidding. You've heard about Saint Francis and the wolf of Gubbio, and about Saint Jerome and the lion. You know that even an old socialist like Arlo Guthrie releases his music on a label called ‘Rising Son Records.’ So raise your sights a little bit. ‘Be not afraid,’ in the favorite phrase of my esteemed predecessor. Cosmos and history together speak of Christ. And if the analogy helps, think of saints as stars in the Christian cosmos, whether you know their biographies or not."
Not that our German shepherd is given to expressions like "looky here," but I don't think he'd find serious fault with my paraphrase of his thoughts about liturgy and time; the insights seemed worth recording.