What we Believe about the Saints
By Anthony M. Coniaris
The Celebration of God's Salvation.
What is a Saint?
“Called to be Saints.”
From Every Class and Occupation.
The Heroes of Faith.
“A Cloud of Witnesses.”
The Communion of Saints.
“Having Remembered all the Saints.”
Relics of Saints.
IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH we invoke and venerate saints. They are an essential part of religious life. In fact, it has been said that fervent veneration of the Virgin Mary and the Saints is the soul of Orthodox piety. We shall devote this article to a study of why we honor saints and what role they play in the story of our salvation.
of God's Salvation
IN HONORING THE SAINTS we celebrate God's accomplished work of salvation. Archbishop Paul of Finland writes, “In glorifying the saints' spiritual struggle and victory, the Church is in fact glorifying God's work of salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit; it experiences the salvation already accomplished in them, the goal towards which the members of the Church militant are still pressing on (Phil. 3:12,14).” Thus, by remembering the saints we celebrate what the Holy Spirit has done in their lives.
How greatly God honors our nature through the saints. Father John of Kronstadt, a saintly Russian priest, emphasized this when he wrote:
“How the Creator and Provider of all has honoured and adorned our nature! The saints shine with His light, they are hallowed by His grace, having conquered sin and washed away every impurity of body and spirit; they are glorious with His glory, they are incorruptible through His incorruption. Glory to God, Who has so honoured, enlightened, and exalted our nature.”
The saints show us what a glorious destiny we have in God. Through the glorious example of their lives, they point the way to our becoming “partakers of divine nature.”
LET US SHARE SOME INSPIRING definitions of sainthood. A saint is one who makes God's goodness attractive. Saints are forgiven sinners living out their lives in the forgiveness God has given them. Saints are people who make it easier for others to believe in God.
A little girl said once as she looked at a saint portrayed in a stained glass window: “A saint is a Christian who lets God's light shine through.”
St. Symeon the New Theologian says that the reason vigil lights are placed before the icons of the saints is to show that without the Light, Who is Christ, the Saints are nothing. It is only as the light of Christ shines on them that they become alive and resplendent.
A saint is one who is constantly conscious of being a sinner and rarely, if ever, conscious of being a saint. In fact, it has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: sinners who think they are saints, and saints who know they are sinners. The most outstanding personalities in Orthodox spirituality, those who saw the light of God, never said they had reached that high level of spirituality. The people around them detected it from the distinct radiance they generated.
It has been said that when a saint gets to heaven, he will be surprised by three things. First, he will be surprised to see many he did not think would be there. Second, he will be surprised that some are not there whom he expected to see. Third, he will be surprised that he himself is there.
A saint is one who sees himself in the sins of others. A saint is one in whom Christ lives; one who opens his life to Christ and lives as Christ wills him to live. A saint is one who has been made actually what Baptism declares him to be, one set apart for God.
God's saints are not those who wear the biggest halos. They are ordinary people who go to work, pay taxes, talk to friends. But when God speaks, they obey.
God's saints are often afraid but they count on God's promise, “Fear not.” They know they are weak, but they depend on His strength. They sin, but grieve over every lapse. The never feel they have attained, but constantly press on toward their goal (Phil. 3:14).
“The saints show the way and are forerunners. The world is not yet with them, so they often seem in the midst of the world's affairs to be preposterous. Yet they are impregnators of the world, vivifiers; and animators of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant” (William James, 1842-1910).
Saints are the most convincing answer to atheism and agnosticism. A saint is someone who shows us what the Christian life is really all about. A saint is a sinner who keeps trying. Francis R. Line wrote these words entitled “A Saint?”:
"What made Francis a saint?
It was simple.
Love of God and love of neighbors —
That was all.
He lived the two great commandments.
He really loved.
He loved God .
With all his heart,
With all his mind,
With all his soul,
With all his strength.
As for his neighbors
He gave his whole life to them
In loving word and deed and service.
It is simple, being a saint.
There are only two rules.
It is simple
But it isn't easy.”
Saints are people who have consecrated themselves wholly to strive to express in their daily lives the love of God as revealed in Jesus.
The Greek word for saint hagios comes from a root word that means not like anything else, different. Saints are different from the people of the world. They march to the tune of a different drummer. They are conformed to the will of God in Christ.
As members of the Body of Christ, the Church, saints are the hands of God by which He accomplishes His work in the world today. Even after their deaths they perform works of love as intercessors in heaven who pray for us.
After a Christian missionary surgeon had operated on an African woman for cataracts and restored her sight, she said to him as she was leaving, “Good-bye, God.” The doctor hastily explained that he was not God only a poor weak servant of His. That he was-but the woman saw God in him. So, a saint is one who makes God real to people today.
After visiting the home where a saint had lived, a person said, “There was an aroma of God in that room that 200 years could not erase. I think I'm better because I visited there.” A saint is “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved” through whom Christ “spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere” (2 Cor. 2:15-16).
All of us are involved in the process of deification, i.e., becoming like God in Christ. The saints are those who, having advanced closer to that goal, can help the rest of us through their example and prayers.
Listen to this beautiful definition of a saint as a mirror of Christ:
“Francis of Assisi was poor,
Frail in purse and body.
No excess possessions,
No surplus muscles or strength.
Plain sandals, rude cloak, rough cowl.
Not much to look at.
No one saw him when they looked.
They saw the one he reflected.
He was a mirror of Christ.”
— by Francis R. Line
A saint is a mirror who reflects not himself but Christ.
ST. PAUL WROTE to the Romans: “To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints ...” (Romans 1:7). To the Corinthians he wrote: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2). When Paul was writing to the Christians in Rome and' Corinth, reminding them they are “called to be saints,” he was not writing to people likely to figure in stained-glass windows, but to a motley collection of shop-keepers, minor civil servants, converted prostitutes, prizefighters and slaves. These were the people he called God's “holy ones” — called to be like Christ their Lord, agents and instruments of His continuing work in the world. These were the saints.” And so, by God's grace, are we.
Every Christian is called to perfection and is capable of revealing the image of God hidden in him. But only a few become so transfigured through the Holy Spirit during their earthly life that they can be recognized as saints by other Christians and officially canonized as such by the Church. This should not draw our attention away from the fact that every baptized Christian is called to be a saint. In the New Testament the saints were not a spiritual elite but the whole body of Christians. That never meant that all Christians were regarded as having reached a sinless perfection. In that sense there are no saints in the New Testament, for even the best of Christians are far from perfect. The only saints the New Testament knows are forgiven sinners who are always ready to place their utter dependence on God's mercy and grace.
Thus, there are the Saints, with a capital “S,” those officially recognized and canonized by the Church, and there are the saints with a small “s,” who are the whole body of Christians-you and I included. We, too, are called to be men and women in whom others can in some way meet the living Christ. We can appreciate our call to be saints when we realize that saints become saints not so much because of the unusual things they do but rather because of the unusual degree to which they give themselves to Christ. By our daily faithfulness to Christ, each of us is a saint in the making. Made in the image of God and baptized in the Trinity, every Christian has the potential of sainthood.
Fr. Kallistos Ware writes, “It must not for one moment be thought that there are no saints except those publicly honoured as such. Those who are mentioned in the calendar form but a small fraction of the whole Communion of Saints; besides them there is a great host whose names are known to God alone, and these are venerated collectively on the Feast of All Saints (observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost).”
SAINTS COME FROM EVERY class and occupation, every temperament and background. They show us how Christ can be imitated in everyone's life including our own. As we have models in business, science, homemaking, etc., so we have faith models. We have soldier-saints, scholar-saints, politician- saints. missionary--saints, parent-saints, praying-saints, healer-saints, worker-saints, and most important of all, sinner-saints. Saints are not perfect people: to be a saint is to be the best one can be by God's grace. That is why every saint is different and why every Christian can be one.
THE SAINTS were people who were just as human as we are. They were jealous, spiteful, scheming, lustful, often depressed and utterly discouraged. They did not walk through life with halos gleaming, with kindness and love streaming from them 24 hours a day. There were disagreements among them. St. Paul and St. Barnabas, for example, had a difference of opinion as to whether to take Mark along with them on a missionary journey. Their disagreement was strong enough to make them agree to go their separate ways. Writing to the saints at Corinth, St. Paul reminds them that some of them had been fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, covetous, extortioners... but now in Christ they were washed and sanctified , he tells them. Thanks be to Christ Who washes our soiled humanity and transforms it into an attractive image of Christ that serves as an inspiration to others.
ST. PAUL WROTE to the Ephesians: “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. . .” (Eph. 2:19). Every Christian has status. He or she belongs. We are fellow citizens with the Saints and members of the household of God! Christians should be taught from infancy to have the right kind of family pride: the kind that makes us want to live up to the family standard. The Head of our family is Christ Himself. Some of our brothers and sisters are the Virgin Mary (Theotokos), John the Baptist, the Apostles, St. Basil, St. Chrysostom and countless others. We belong to them, and they to us. It is a distinguished family tree.
A Christian does not walk alone as if sealed in a space capsule. We are members of God's family. As such, we must help and be helped by others. Orthodox Christianity does not espouse a narrowly individualistic “God-and-me” relationship. The Church is a family, God's family, in which we are concerned for one another. In the words of St. Paul: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
The Russian theologian Alexis Khomiakov (1804-60) said, “We know that when one of us falls, he falls alone; but no one is saved alone. He is saved in the Church, as a member of her and in union with all her other members.”
As members of the household of God, Orthodox Christians feel that they can call upon their brothers and sisters in the faith-the Saints-for family support. This they do through prayers, beseeching the prayers of the Saints in their behalf.
The late Fr. George Florovsky, eminent Orthodox theologian, wrote: “The final purpose of the Incarnation was that the Incarnate should have a 'body', which is the Church ... Christ is never alone. He is always the Head of His Body. In Orthodox theology and devotion alike, Christ is never separated from His Mother, and His 'friends', the Saints. The Redeemer and the redeemed belong together inseparably. In the daring phrase of St. John Chrysostom (inspired by Ephesians 1:23), Christ will be complete only when His Body, the Church, has been completed.”
Speaking on the concept of the Church as the family and household of God, Nicolas Zernov wrote: “The Orthodox... regard the saints... as teachers and friends who pray with them and assist them in their spiritual ascent. Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry was surrounded by disciples who did not prevent others from meeting Him, but on the contrary helped newcomers to find the Master. In the same manner fellowship with the saints facilitates communion with God, for their Christ-like character brings others nearer to the divine source of light and life.”
AT YANKEE STADIUM, the home of the New York Yankees, there is a “Yankee Hall of Fame.” One can spend a number of hours reading about all the great Yankee stars of the past. By putting on earphones one can hear their voices on recordings; telling among other things what their greatest thrills were as Yankee players.
God has a “Hall of Fame.” In Hebrews chapter 11, He has listed some of the heroes and heroines of faith-men and women who trusted in God for their salvation. It is a thrilling chapter to read.
The Saints are in God's “Hall of Fame.” They are the heroes of our faith. Carlyle said once, “Show me the man you honor, and I will show you the kind of man you are. ” It has been said that we are fresh out of heroes for our young people today. We are exalting punks. Saints make excellent heroes for children. They are powerful allies for parents and ideal heroes for children. It is for this reason that an Orthodox Christian is given the name of a saint at Baptism. In fact, the great St. John Chrysostom said, “Let us afford our children from the first an incentive to goodness from the name that we give them. Let none of us hasten to call his children after his forebears, his father and mother and grandfather and grandmother, but rather after the righteous-martyrs, bishops, apostles. Let one be called Peter, another John, another bear the name of one of the saints. Let the names of the saints enter our homes through the naming of our children.”
It is not only the names but also the exemplary Christ-centered examples of the Saints that can enter our homes if parents will encourage children to learn about their patron saints. It is the custom among Orthodox to keep an icon of one's patron saint in one's room, to invoke his prayers and to celebrate the festival of one's patron saint as his/her Name Day. To many Orthodox this is a date even more important than one's actual birthday.
It is not just children who need heroes; adults also need them. In fact, in the early Church the veneration of saints was not imposed on the people by the hierarchy or the Church Councils. It was a practice that the people themselves began. It was a spontaneous act of the local community. They began to venerate certain exemplary Christians and often petitioned the Church to canonize them.
Hero worship is part of human nature. Most of us want someone to look up to and admire. We need role models in our Christian faith. We grow to be like the people we admire. If the desire for holiness is to be encouraged, one must see, not only its perfection in Christ, but approximations to it in the Saints. In fact, if we see such holiness only in our Savior and not in His people (the Saints), we may be disposed to consider holiness as an impossible ideal which we imperfect humans can never attain. We learn best when we see concrete examples of how to live the life of Christ in the world today. This is why the Saints are a challenge to us. They can shake us out of our complacency with our mediocre way of following Christ. Each saint shows us some particular aspect of the life of Christ and in imitating them we imitate Christ. Thus, St. Paul could tell his converts, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:16).
Looking back to his childhood, a noted author wrote: “We grew up with the strength of the tribe. If anyone were to attack me, he'd have to take on all my uncles and aunts. Families were secure. . . I had bleachers all around me, filled not only with family, but with all the grown-ups in the township, cheering me on when I did well and groaning when I failed...
“All sorts of young people today run the race with only silence from the bleachers. It's a lonely race. Grandparents are a thousand miles away, uncles and aunts scattered to both coasts and overseas, parents often busy with double jobs, harried by their own affluence, or casualties of the divorce courts.”
THE BIBLE ALSO SPEAKS of bleachers. The author of the book of Hebrews writes, “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). The “cloud of witnesses” are the Saints who have passed on to the Church Triumphant. They are with us in the stadium as we run the race of life. They fill the bleachers. They applaud us and cheer us on to victory. They pray for us to attain our goal. They have advice to give. For they have run on the very same track and have won the garland of victory. They offer us more than applause and prayers; they offer us evidence. They can tell us how they ran the race and won, how they trained for it, how they maintained their strength. We are surrounded by these witnesses. The air is thick with them. They are like a cloud in their multitude. The walls of Orthodox churches are filled with them. And every one of them has a story to tell, a story of grace and divine mercy, a story that is full of encouragement for the runners of today, if only we will listen to them. David, Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and millions of others. “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses"-not one of them silent or indifferent; all of them eager to share with us what the Lord did for them, how they found Him, what grace they received.
It is because we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” that we are exhorted to “lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1).
It is because we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” that we are challenged to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
It is because we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” that we are admonished to look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
The Saints are more than just watching us. They are surrounding us with their prayers, their cheers and the challenging stories of their victories in Christ.
We are not alone as we proceed on the journey to the kingdom. We are part of God's great family which includes those who have gone on before us. Just as it makes a difference in the lives of children when the bleachers are filled with uncles, aunts, and grandparents, so it makes a difference when we now see that the bleachers of heaven are filled with Saints, cheering us on with their prayers and challenging us with the examples of their lives.
ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS believe that there is only one Mediator between God and man, Jesus: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 2:5).
The Orthodox theologian Kritopoulos explains why Orthodox Christians invoke the prayers of Saints. He writes: “We do not say to a Saint, 'Saint N ., save, redeem, or see that I obtain such and such goods' ... but 'Saint N ., pray for us' ... Nor do we call Saints 'Mediators,' for there is only one Mediator between God and man ... Jesus Christ, Who only is able to mediate between the Father and us... Not as mediators do we call upon Saints, but as intercessors ... before God for us, who are our brethren ... The Holy Spirit makes known unto them the needs of those who invoke them... and they intercede saying, 'not in our own deeds or merits-for we have nothing worthy in Thy sight-but in the deeds and merits of thy Only-Begotten Son, ... do we pray to Thy Majesty, O thou Most High God' ... Whence the Church asks nothing more from the Saints than that they intercede to God for us and beseech Him for all things useful to us.”
Just as we pray for each other in this life so we continue to pray for one another in the other life. As Archbishop Paul of Finland writes, “. . . life continues after death. It would be strange to think that the prayers of a devout Christian reach God during his temporal life in this world, but not afterwards when he has 'departed and is with Christ' (Phil, 1:20).” Indeed, early inscriptions, as in the Roman catacombs, show that the first Christians prayed for those who had died, and also asked their prayers.
Orthodox Christians do not ask for the prayers of Saints because they feel that they are more accessible to us, more human, more understanding, more merciful.
This would be an insult to God's love and a denial of His Incarnation through which God emptied Himself and took on our human nature because He cared so much for us.
Jesus is not some awesome Power in heaven Who looks down at us from a distance-too holy and too great to be approached. He is most approachable. Did He not say, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” ? (Matt. 11:28). And, “Him that cometh to Me, I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37)? And do we not read in Hebrews: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16)? No Saint can ever be more accessible or approachable than Jesus.
ALTHOUGH SAINTS ARE NOT substitutes for Christ, Orthodox Christians believe firmly in the communion of saints. By this we mean that the Church Triumphant in heaven is not insensitive to the needs and sufferings of the Church Militant on earth. The two churches remain connected through the bond of love which is expressed through prayer. The communion of saints is a communion of never-ending prayer.
Thus, besides our Church Family on earth, we belong to a larger family of God, which includes those who have gone before us. We are united with those in heaven. We call this the Communion of Saints, that is, the union of all who share in the life of Christ, whether on earth or in the other world.
Commenting on this, Fr. Kallistos Ware writes: “In God and in His Church there is no division between the living and the departed, but all are one in the love of the Father. Whether we are alive or whether we are dead, as members of the Church we still belong to the same family, and still have a duty to bear one another's burdens. Therefore just as Orthodox Christians here on earth pray for one another and ask for one another's prayers, so they pray for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray for them. Death cannot sever the bond of mutual love which links the members of the Church together.”
Fr. John of Kronstadt writes on the communion of saints: “We live together with them (the Saints in heaven), in the house of the Heavenly Father, only in different parts of it. We live in the earthly, they in the heavenly half; but we can converse with them, and they with us.”
How effectively the Communion of Saints is expressed on the walls of Orthodox Churches where the angels, prophets, apostles, martyrs and saints are all gathered together with the worshippers around the figure of the All-Ruling Christ in the dome. The entire Church, that in heaven and that on earth, converses with each other and lifts its heart in praise to God.
Sergius Bolshakoff caught this when he visited the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mt. Athos. He writes: “The church had its own air of mystery. A few red lamps burned before the golden iconostasis and the icons on the stand. Hieratic saints solemly looked down from the blue walls. It seemed as though they, too, had come to assist at the Liturgy, representing the church triumphant.”
Noting the small congregation in church one Sunday morning, a cynic said to the priest, “Not many in church this morning, Father. Not many at all.” The old priest replied, “You are wrong, my son. There were thousands at church this morning. Thousands and thousands and tens of thousands.” For, the priest had just read in the prayers of the liturgy: “Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify thy glorious name, evermore praising Thee . It was the Communion of Saints in action!
AMONG ALL THE SAINTS, the Orthodox Church reserves a special position of honor for the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is venerated as the most exalted among God's creatures, “more honorable than the cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim.”
The titles given to Mary by the Orthodox Church: Theotokos (Mother of God), Aeiparthenos (Ever-Virgin), and Panayia (All-Holy) serve a theological purpose. Far from elevating her to a position as a fourth person of the Trinity, such titles seek to protect and proclaim the correct doctrine of Christ's Person. The Mother is venerated because of the Son and never apart from Him. Too often a refusal to honor the Virgin Mary goes hand in hand with an incomplete faith in the Incarnation, i.e., the mystery of God becoming man in the Person of Jesus. Nicholas Cabasilas has written: “The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father, of His Power and His Spirit... but it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin... Just as God became incarnate voluntarily, so He wished that His Mother should bear Him freely and with her full consent.” Mary stands as the greatest example of man's free response to God's offer of salvation. She stands as an example of synergy, or cooperation between man and God. God does not force His will on Mary but waits for her free response which she grants with those beautiful words: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Thus, Eve's disobedience is counterbalanced by Mary's obedience. She becomes the New Eve as Christ is the New Adam, lifting by her obedience the curse that the first Eve brought upon the human race by her disobedience.
The Roman Catholic dogma of Immaculate Conception of Mary is not recognized by the Orthodox Church. According to this Roman Catholic teaching, Mary was cleansed of original sin by God while still in her mother's womb in order that the All-Pure Son of God might be born through her. Since such a teaching denies the free response of man to God, the Orthodox Church believes that Mary was cleansed of all sin at the Annunciation after she had agreed to accept God's offer. It was at that point that the Holy Spirit came upon her to make her fit to receive the Word in her womb. At that moment she became “blessed” and “full of grace.”
The Bodily Assumption of Mary to heaven which was formally declared as official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in 1950, remains a pious belief in the Orthodox Church based on tradition. According to this belief Mary's body was taken up to heaven after her death, as will our body at the Second Coming of Jesus. Thus, in Mary's case, the Resurrection of the Body has been anticipated. Although the hymns of the Church that are sung on the Feast of the Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary (August 15) clearly affirm such a belief, the Orthodox Church has not declared the Bodily Assumption of Mary to be a dogma since in the words of Vladimir Lossky, “The Mother of God was never a theme of the public preaching of the Apostles; while Christ was preached on the housetops... the Mystery of His Mother was proclaimed only to those who were within the Church... It is not so much an object of faith as a foundation of our hope, a fruit of faith, ripened in Tradition. Let us therefore keep silence, and let us not try to dogmatize about the supreme glory of the Mother of God.”
Summarizing what the Orthodox Church believes about the Virgin Mary, we may say that the Virgin sits in the first pew leading us in our prayers to her Son. Her whole life and purpose are simply to bring us to Him. In the words of the Greek Orthodox theologian, Dr. N. A. Nissiotis: "As shown in the icon, Mary is never alone but always with Christ. Thus prayer to her is the prayer of the Church with her to the incarnate Son. One should rather see in Mary, the 'Most Holy' (Panaghia), the first and the fullest of the Saints, leading them in a continuous intercession to her Son. The worshipping Church is not praying to the Virgin Mary but praying with her to God. She is the animating power, the leader of this continuous intercession of the Community of Saints to the Trinitarian God.”
ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS do not worship the Virgin Mary and the Saints; rather they venerate them. God alone is worshipped. Anyone who claims that the Orthodox worship Saints is guilty of bearing false witness against his neighbor since we clearly do not believe this. The Saints are reverenced as reflections of the Christ image. It is God Who is glorified through His Saints. They are praised for what God has done in and through them.
Reverence for Saints is enhanced through the use and veneration of icons which are ever-present in Orthodox homes. The icon becomes a meeting place, an existential encounter, a window through which we look on the Saints not as shadowy figures from a remote past but as contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the same household of God. We feel free to call on them through prayer for family support as they intercede to God in our behalf. For example, St. Basil writes, “I accept the saintly Apostles, prophets, and martyrs, and in my prayer to God I call upon them and through their prayer I receive mercy from our God who loves all humanity” (Epistle to Amphilochios).
There is in man an innate sense of reverence for moral greatness. In Orthodox Christianity this reverence finds expression in the veneration of the Saints, the moral giants of our faith. The Orthodox believer's daily association with the Saints, whose lives glorified Christ, serves to form the Orthodox lifestyle.
The veneration of Saints serves also as a safeguard of the true faith and as a test of Orthodoxy. Any teaching that is not in harmony with the lives and faith of the Saints is rejected as false. All that is in harmony is welcomed for the enrichment it brings.
AS WE HAVE SAID, we do not pray alone during the liturgy. We pray together with all the Saints. This is expressed when the priest says, “Having remembered all the Saints, again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord.” The saints here refer to both the living and departed members of the Church.
More than once during the liturgy the deacon calls on us to pray with the similar exhortation; “Calling to remembrance our most holy, pure, blessed and glorified Lady, Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary together with all the Saints, let us commit ourselves and each other to Christ our God.” Here we see clearly that the purpose of bringing to mind the Virgin Mary and all the Saints is to lead as to a deeper commitment “to Christ our God.” The focus is not on the Saints but on Christ. After we have remembered the Saints, we move on “to commit ourselves and each other to Christ our God.” Having fixed our gaze on others in the family of God who have rendered perfect service to His excellent glory, we are properly inspired to offer ourselves in total surrender and commitment to Christ, our Lord.
The names of the Saints, i.e., those who rejoice in heaven in fellowship with their Lord, are legion. They are known only to God. Of these countless Saints, the Church on earth remembers only a few whose holiness struck the imagination of the Christians of their era. The process of canonization in the Orthodox Church is described by Nicholas Zernov: “Canonization in the Orthodox Church begins locally. Its first requisite is continuous and increasing love and veneration... by members of his community. The next step is reached when the hierarchy of a local church undertakes to examine all the records left by the holy man or woman, and if these prove satisfactory, then the last part of the act is performed and canonization is announced and other autocephalous churches are informed. This considered judgement of the Church is essential, for sometimes people of exceptional spiritual gifts, but not necessarily of sound moral life and Orthodox faith, attract admiration and can mislead their followers.”
THE VENERATION of the relics of Saints dates back to the early Church. According to the Orthodox belief the body remains a Temple of the Holy Spirit even after death. Redeemed, cleansed, sanctified by the blood of Jesus, consecrated by the indwelling Spirit, the bodies of Saints are drenched, as it were, to their very bones with divinity. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) writes: “Though the soul is not present, a power resides in the bodies of the saints because of the righteous soul which has for so many years dwelt in it, or used it as its minister” (Catechetical Lectures (18:16).
Fr. Kallistos Ware reminds us that the veneration of the relics of Saints in the Orthodox Church proceeds from a highly developed theology of the body: “Belief in the deification of the body and in its eventual resurrection helps to explain the Orthodox veneration of relics. Since the body is redeemed and sanctified along with the soul, and since the body will rise again, it is only fitting that Christians should show respect for the bodily remains of the saints. Reverence for relics is not the fruit of ignorance and superstition, but springs from a highly developed theology of the body. ”
We read in The Martyrdom of Polycarp : “So we later took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold, and laid them away in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us, so far as possible, to gather together in joy and gladness to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before, and to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter.”
CANONIZED SAINTS are but a tiny fraction of those who are with God in heaven. They are merely a few whom the Church projects as examples to spur us on to holiness. They are proof that holiness and heaven are attainable. Such Saints circulate through the Church Year assuring us again and again: “I made it. So can you. So must you!”
A cartoon in “The New Yorker” some time ago pictured a couple in a midtown Manhattan apartment drinking martinis while the man said to the woman: “So what if Albert Schweitzer did escape the rat-race! Name three others!” The Church names more than three others! It points to a host of others-not only the Saints of the past but also the saints of the present. For, Scripture and the Liturgy call every baptized Christian a saint. When the priest says in the Divine Liturgy: “The saintly things (agia) to the saints (ayiois),” he is speaking not to the Saints on the iconstasis but also to the contemporary saints who are participating in the liturgy. The saintly things (the Body and Blood of Jesus) are offered to them (the living saints) to nourish their life in Christ. We are saints from the moment of baptism. We continue to be saints testifying and shining for Jesus in the world today as we maintian our fellowship with Him through prayer and the sacraments.
In the words of D.M. Prescott: “Each of us, the most unsaintly as well as the most spiritually minded, has a next step (to take) which will take him nearer to God; and all He asks of us is that we take that step.”
A person once came to a religious teacher and exclaimed rather excitedly that someone had invented a robot, an artificial man. The great teacher was not impressed. “Show me someone who can create a saint,” he said, “and I shall be impressed.”
1. By remembering and honoring the saints we celebrate what the Holy Spirit has done in their lives. God is praised in and through His saints.
2. The saints are those who, having advanced closer to the goal of theosis (becoming like God in Christ), can help the rest of us through their example and prayers.
3. Made in the image of God and baptized in the Trinity, every Christian has the potential of sainthood and is called by God to be a saint. Just as there are Saints with a capital “S,” those officially canonized by the Church, so there are saints” with a small “s,” all baptized and committed Christians.
4. Saints are our brothers and sisters in the household of God. We pray to God not only as individuals but also as members of God's family together with the saints. We may call upon them for family support beseeching their intercession in and through Christ.
5. The Saints are the heroes of our faith, God's “Hall of Fame,” who offer all of us a great incentive to virtue.
6. As a great “cloud of witnesses,” the saints fill the bleachers of heaven cheering us on with their prayers and challenging us with the example of their lives.
7. Since Jesus Christ is the “one mediator between God and man,” saints are not mediators but intercessors. We do not pray to Saints; rather we ask them to pray for us.
8. The Theotokos (Mother of God) is venerated and honored because of her Son and never apart from Him. She is the Panaghia , the first and fullest of the Saints, leading the Church in a continuous intercession to the Trinity.
9. Saints are not worshipped; they are venerated. Only God is worshipped.
10. Orthodox Christians respect and venerate the relics of the Saints (bodily remains) because the body along with the soul is redeemed and sanctified; one day it will rise from the grave to be with God forever.
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