Last week, we celebrated the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. St. Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that as the Apostles and the Mother of God patiently awaited the promised Comforter “…suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind…and there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” From that very moment, the Apostles and disciples were changed. Before, they were fearful. After Pentecost, they were courageous. Before, they lacked understanding and comprehension. After Pentecost, they were filled with divine wisdom. Before, they were simple men and women. Afterward Pentecost, they were truly the children of God.
That is why this week, the Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the Sunday of All Saints. Saints are nothing more and nothing less than the fruit of the Holy Spirit. They are men and women who were just like any of us, yet after being tested in the storm and purified in the fire, they become more than mere men and women. Saints have truly become vessels of the Holy Spirit, and they follow Pentecost as surely as summer follows spring. Yet, ironically, the world tells us that saints are irrelevant. Even people who call themselves Christians accuse us of superstition and even heresy in our veneration of, and pleas for intercession to, the saints of the Orthodox Church.
How do we reconcile this? How can we honor our scripture readings today and at the same time accept the teaching of these others who call themselves Christian? And even more to the point, how can we accept that worldly teaching and reconcile it with our common experience, which shows us the power and godliness of the intercession of the great saints of our Church? We find our answer by answering three pointed questions.
First, what is a saint?
Second, is there hope that you and I, ordinary men and women, can hope to emulate the saints, and even that we may become saints?
Third, what is the ministry of the intercession of the saints?
So – what is a saint? Today’s readings tell us the answer to that question, although the words are admittedly hard. In our Gospel, Christ utters perhaps the most challenging words we find in scripture: “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in Heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him I also will deny before my Father which is in heaven. He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me is not worthy of me.”
At first blush, we recoil from these words. On the one hand, we may say that we always confess Christ, and point to our presence in church as proof of that. On the other hand, we instinctively shy away from the apparent command to despise those we love. If we do either of those things, however, we are wrong on both counts.
Christ has told us in this passage what marks a person as a saint. A saint will confess Christ before men. This is not, mind you, simply a matter of verbal utterances. Confession has very little to do with what we speak. It has very little to do with what I say as I stand before you. It has virtually nothing to do with the words of the sharp dressed men and women that you see on television. We find a person’s confession, his or her most deeply held beliefs and convictions not in what that person says, but in how that person lives. If I speak fine words to you today, but tomorrow you find me living otherwise, then there is no truth in me. If I cajole and persuade you to adopt a certain belief, a certain conviction, but my own life belies that conviction, then there is no true confession in me. If someone stands before you and tells you that they have found Jesus, but then he lives as though Christ were a stranger, then he has denied Christ before men.
The key, as we Orthodox have always known, is that faith is found not in our words, but in our actions. We live our confession of Christ, we do not simply speak it. A saint is someone who lives according to what he believes. His life is a constant labor to follow the commandments of Christ. His silence speaks volumes. His meekness brings peace to all those around him. His sanctity is a living witness for God. So a saint is a person who has struggled to surrender his passions; who surrendered his or her will to Christ, who for the love of God has abandoned self.
That is all well and good. But what of our second question? Are we all called to the arduous path? The answer to that question is simply yes. I cannot overemphasize that. We are all, each and every one of us, called to be perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect. For us, as Orthodox Christians, perfection is a matter of choice. We can choose to confess Christ, and that choice must be made anew, with every passing minute, with every new day.
But still we hesitate. What, we ask, are we to make of the last part of the reading, about parents and brothers and sisters?
We know that there are circumstances where these words are taken literally. When a man or woman becomes a monastic, they often must put their former family life behind them, as part of their martyrdom for Christ. They put aside all that they have and all that they treasure, for the sheer love of God. But you and I live in the world, and we are also mindful of commandments to honor our parents, and we ourselves must live in a web of relationships that constitute our world. To be sure, we must have our priorities straight. The Blessed Augustine said that when our mother and our father say ‘love us’, we should answer ‘I will love you in Christ, not instead of Christ. You will be with me in Him, but I will not be with you without Him.’
But the Church has also understood these words in a different fashion. The Fathers tell us that Jesus is also speaking of our attachments to our sins, and our passions. This is the same way that the Church has understood the command that we give up houses and lands, our possessions and family. The Blessed Theophylact forcefully makes the point when he says:
“You then, O reader, hasten to sell your possessions and give to the poor. Possessions are, to the wrathful person, his anger; to the fornicator, his disposition for debauchery; to the resentful person, his remembrance of wrongs. Return the passions to the creators of the passions, and then you will have treasure, which is Christ.”
In the end, Theophylact and Augustine are telling us the same thing. We must make a choice. And our choices have enormous consequences. Do you remember our Gospel reading from the Sunday of the Last Judgment? In that reading, Jesus tells us that on the last day, on the judgment day, vast numbers of people who believe themselves to be Christians will be condemned, solely and simply because while they may have frequently and fervently confessed the Lord with their mouth, they have failed to confess Him in their actions. In the same way, in the Book of Revelations, St. John the Theologian relates words of Christ in regard to the church of Laodicea. They weren’t bad Christians necessarily, but they weren’t particularly good ones either. They were people without fervor, without that essential flavor that the love of God confers. In words that should trouble us, Christ says of them: “I know your works: you are neither hot nor cold. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”
There is no half measure for us, there is no Christianity of convenience. As Christ tells us, and the saints show us, there is only the narrow way, the path shown us by the Church.
And there arises our final question, where we ask what is the ministry of intercession of the saints? In making our way down that sometimes difficult path to holiness, the saints are our models, our guides, in the never ending quest for sanctity. In the saints we find not only models of true Christianity, we also find intercessors and friends who will help us. Our own experience, and the experience of millions of Orthodox Christians, bears this out. The saints pray for us before the throne of God, and they will, for the glory of God, intercede in our lives. They are with us, they worship with us, and they are awaiting our prayers to them seeking their intercession before Christ. St. James – the good one, you know — wrote that “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” What man, what woman, is holier, more righteous than the saints in Christ? Their prayers have great power, and they will help us in unexpected and surprising ways. Their intercessions, though, are not the result of their own glory, but that of God. As we sing in our tropar to St. Elizabeth, “As the full moon brightly reflects the light of the sun, you reflected the Glory of the Messiah, the Light of Wisdom!” That is the role of the saints when they intercede for us.
This is not really the time for show and tell, but I want to make just this one exception. Something came into my hands this week that really brought home to me the surprising and powerful way that saints help us. I received a phone call from a person on Thursday, a person I had never met before. The man said that he had heard that I like icons, and he had one that he had gotten in what used to be Yugoslavia after World War II. He was not Orthodox, and had no idea what the icon portrayed or who the saint was. He was interested in selling it. Would I like to see it?
Of course, I said yes, and he brought it to my office a little while later. I looked at it, and was completely puzzled. The saint appeared to be St. Nicholas, but he was holding a sword in one hand. I had never seen the like. I enlisted the help of a friend of mine who is very knowledgeable about iconography, and on Friday, he had some tentative answers.
The icon is known as St. Nicholas Mozhaisky. We all know about St. Nicholas, and we are familiar with many of the stories the Church has collected regarding his wonderful intercessions. But I was completely unfamiliar with the story behind this icon. Some of you are probably already familiar with it, so forgive me. Briefly, however, the story behind the icon is that in the 13th century, the town of Mozhaisky, fairly close to Moscow, was under attack by Tatars, and was on the verge of falling to those armies. The people prayed fervently to St. Nicholas for protection. He responded to their prayers, and through his prayers, the armies were repelled and the city was saved. The story is told that St. Nicholas himself appeared above the gate of the city.
I knew about St. Nicholas’ labors for children, and for sailors, and for unnumerable people in all walks of life. I knew about his defense of the Church at the First Ecumenical Council. But I had never heard this story, and it taught me something. What it taught me is that the saints listen to our prayers, and they will intercede for us before the throne of God in ways that we do not expect, and cannot anticipate. And on this, the Sunday of All Saints, we remember and honor them, all of those men and women. Some we know very well, such as St. Nicholas, and others are hidden from us and unknown to the Church. But each saint shows us the life in Christ, the love of Christ and the love that each Christian must have for each other.
June 22, 2008