Today we commemorate all the Saints who have ever existed. The reason for this is not because we might have missed some throughout the year but to show that this is God’s desired end for all of humanity. The net of godliness encompasses the abundant variations of our human race. From the peasant to the prodigy, the homeless to the hierarch, the monogamous to the monk; from the Patriarch Moses to Lazarus whose sores the dogs licked, the grace of God reaches out to all people and makes sinners saints.
Despite their diversity, the Saints are united in one accord as the answer to Christ’s request of the Father when He prayed, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17.21).[i] Their unity is like that of a golden chain, writes St. Symeon the New Theologian, with each one of them a link, bound to all the preceding saints in faith, love, and good works.[ii]
As the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians, “Imitate me, just also as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11.1) so also are the Saints examples of piety. And even more so when we see the end to which their piety brought them whether it be the martyrs crown (of the protomartyr Stephen or second century Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp), or the fruits of the eremitical life (which we see in St. Anthony and the contemporary St. Silouan), or even those who lived in marriage (such as St. John of Kronstadt or St. Alexei Mechev).
The Saints are exemplary because they have fulfilled the Gospel commandments. They are the ones who have kept the faith (1 Tim. 4.7), have denied themselves and carried their cross (Matt. 16.24). They suffered affliction instead of enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season (Heb. 11.25). They had trials of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment, as the Apostle Paul tells us. They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and mountains, and dens and caves of the earth (Heb. 11. 36-38), and they looked to the city whose foundation and builder is God (Heb. 11.10).
The Saints are standards not only of fidelity to the Christian faith but models and exemplars of the Christian life. They are genuinely illustrious men, true “heroes” of our time, the real superman elevated by humility and empowered not by self-will but by self-denial.
However, may we not think of the saints as only examples of the Christian life for we would be remiss to stop here. God is not the God of the dead but of the living, as Christ has told us (Mk. 12.17). The Saints do not die but live, and as Solomon says, they live for evermore; their reward is with the Lord, and the care of them is with the Most High. (Wis. 5.15). The Saints have God dwelling in them in a different way then we do presently. Having received the fulfillment of the earnest of the Holy Spirit they were given in Baptism, they have become by grace what God is by nature. Therefore, being alive and dwelling in the presence of God, they have left us not only the example of their lives but now intercede for us before to God.
For being the “friends of God,” are the Saints not also the friends of man? When we ask for their prayers we do not seek help from a dead man but from someone who is alive and who dwells with God. Does a child not ask for prayers from its mother, a husband of his wife, a friend of a friend, laymen of their priest, and spiritual children of their spiritual father so that the more God is petitioned, the easier it will be for Him to hear us?
What more needs to be said but that we should look to the activity of the saints surrounding us here today. Who has not heard about the healings and intercessions of the Great-Martyr and Healer Panteleimon, the doctor of this monastic community and its friends? And of the Mother of God, the protector of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in her Kursk-Root Icon through which she healed St. Seraphim when he was a boy after falling out of a bell tower and who since has performed numerous miracles and continues to protect our church. Who can neglect to recall the life and miracles of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, his miracles and intercessions being collected and recorded by Fr. Seraphim Rose of blessed memory. Moreover, his intercessions have not stopped, and pilgrims continually go to the church where his incorrupt relics rest and ask for his prayers and healing and receive it. Let no one doubt, for if painting the lintels of your door with blood would spare your first-born son, and by the raising of the cross in the desert, all those who were bitten by snakes were healed is this really so unbelievable? Certainly not for those who know the power of God and the honor which the saints have from Him.[iii]
To the question, “How can a dead body work miracles,” St. John of Damascus answers rhetorically, “How then, through [the Saints] are demons put to flight, diseases driven out, the sick cured, the blind restored to sight, lepers cleansed, temptation and trouble driven away[?]”[iv]
Although the Saints can be called upon anywhere - while walking, while driving, while working - they have a particular presence in their icons and in their relics, for the grace that has given life and transforms men and women into saints also resides in these objects which become vehicles through which the grace of God acts towards those who seek the help and intercession of saints. Because we come before them in prayer, it is not as though we are standing before a beautiful painting or another form of art and become inspired, but through prayer and a softened heart perhaps stricken by grief or not, petitions are made and, apart from other apparent miracles, life is bestowed and enlivened in the soul. Because of this grace, because of this action, we then seek to beautify icons and relics by bringing flowers, enshrining the icon, having molebens served because we desire to honor and pay our respects to the saint.
John, Baptist and Forerunner pray that we would begin to repent;
Holy Apostles pray that we would love God;
Prophets, pray that we would except all that God sends our way;
Martyrs, pray that we would learn to deny ourselves
Hierarchs, pray that we would keep Christ’s commandments;
Ascetics, pray that I discipline my body and make it my slave;
Venerable ones, pray that we would know how fleeting is the world;
Hieromartyrs, pray that we would be crucified with Christ;
God-loving women, pray that we would know the True Life;
all you righteous, pray that our souls be saved
All you saints, pray to God for us.
[i]Cf. Veniamin, Christopher, (trans.). Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. (Essex: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014), 204.
[ii]McGuckin, Paul (trans.). The Practical and Theological Chapters & the Three Theological Discourses. (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1982), 73.
[iii]An Exact Exposition the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Ch. 15.
[iv]An Exact Exposition the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Ch. 15.