What makes a person a saint?
Today, the first Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the Sunday of All Saints. Those of us who grew up in the western church knew the celebration called by this name in a different way. The western church remembers all the saints on November the first, the day after what is called, “Hallowe’en.” The Druids in Ireland held a festival on October 31st, and among those associated with that day was their god of the dead. When the western church encountered this festival, it made an effort to take it from its pagan roots and make it a Christian celebration to honor the saints who had died. All Saints Day – or “All Hallows Day” (“hallowed” being a word that means, “to make holy”) was the result; and at that time, as we still do, a Vigil service was held before the feast; so All-Hallows Eve (“eve” being short for “even” or “evening”) became Hallowe’en.
Our feast of All Saints is not at all the same, although the name suggests it might be. What was last Sunday? It was the feast of Pentecost, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit of God, Whom our Lord Jesus Christ had promised to send to His disciples as He was preparing to ascend into heaven. Now, the Holy Spirit has come; the Church has been established, and is strengthened and guided by the Holy Spirit; and each one of us who has been baptized and chrismated in the Orthodox Church has received this same Spirit. So, today we celebrate the means by which we are sanctified, by which we may become saints. This brings us back to the question, what makes a person a saint?
One of the reasons we have icons in our churches and icons in our homes is to remind ourselves that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses: the holy men and women who have shared our faith and way of life, and who, by their struggles and ascetic labors of prayer and fasting and worship and giving and forgiving and humility and service have shown us, in their words and deeds and lives the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, the same life given to each one of us in our baptism, empowered by the same Holy Spirit Who descended upon the disciples in the upper room. The holy men and women were no different than any of us. They are made of the same nature, the same “stuff” as we are; yet they did so well, they grew so close to God, that they left this world behind, and lived the life of the kingdom of heaven instead. We honor them for their example, and we ask them to pray on our behalf, trusting that the greatness of their love for God will be shared with us as well. The icons are a way to honor and remember them, and to be encouraged to follow their example. But what made it possible for those we venerate, whose icons are on our walls, to achieve what they achieved? How did they take hold of holiness?
Sanctity – that is, holiness, or saintliness, or godlikeness – is the work of the Holy Spirit. To be a saint is to be consecrated by the Holy Spirit – set apart for the purposes of God. We consecrate the chalice and diskos and other holy vessels and instruments used for the Mystical Supper. We consecrate vestments for the altar and preparation table, and vestments for the clergy and the altar servers. We even consecrate icons! Once consecrated, we no longer use any such item for routine or everyday use. That which has been consecrated is used only for the service of God. (Pay attention now: here’s where it’s going to get interesting…)
When you were baptized and chrismated, YOU were consecrated. YOU became a bearer, like the Theotokos, of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. YOU became a temple of the Holy Spirit. This means that we are ALL saints; even if we don’t live like saints, even if we have not yet mastered our passions, even though our lives are still stained and fouled by our sins. This is part of the reason why we celebrate the feast of All Saints on the first Sunday following Pentecost: to remind each one of us of our high calling; to remind each one of us that we are saints – that is, we have been consecrated, set apart for the service of God: not the service of the world, or of our flesh, or of our passions. We are meant to serve God; and to the extent that we have failed to do so, we have failed to do what the saints on the icons have done: to show to us and to the world the life of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, let us celebrate today appropriately, giving thanks to God for the gift of the Holy Spirit, giving thanks to God for the gift of the examples of holy living we have in the saints; and giving thanks to God for the gift of His grace, so that we may repent of our sins, and come to our senses, and do our part in being consecrated, serving God, and serving God in each other, so that He will be glorified, and our souls may be saved.