CATHOLICS AND ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS are sometimes criticized by people because of the reverence we show to the saints. Critics may feel that we ignore the Lord, preferring to pay homage to favorite saints. Seeing how some believers act, we may understand why some Protestants and others may feel as they do. Some devotees of the saints lavish more praise on the saints than on Christ.
While such behavior may be misguided, an appropriate devotion to the Theotokos and other saints is not. For us, the saints are the “proof” that the Holy Spirit truly came upon the Church at Pentecost. The holiness of their lives points to the grace of the Holy Spirit powerfully working in our world. The saints reveal to us the “face” of the Holy Spirit manifest in the Church. For this reason Byzantine Churches celebrate the Feast of All Saints on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read of a number of Old Testament figures renowned in Israelite history for their righteous lives or powerful deeds. The selection read at today’s Divine Liturgy does not mention any of the individuals named in the epistle (some of whom are not the most praiseworthy by modern standards). Rather it begins with the point made in conclusion: that some were powerful and defeated their enemies while others were tortured and put to death. Still others lived righteous lives in hiding and “wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:38). In either case nothing they could do could bring them eternal life. That would only become possible through Jesus Christ and His Church. As the biblical author explains, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would then be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40). We can conclude that the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer far exceeds the glory won by the rulers, soldiers and prophets of Israelite history. We can also strive to draw close to the One who is everywhere present, filling all things.
New Testament Saints
There is no one more filled with the Holy Spirit that she who is “full of grace,” the most holy Theotokos. Like her the holy prophet, forerunner and baptist John has a unique place among Christians as, in Christ’s own words, “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11). In addition to them, there are countless figures from every age in Christian history honored as saints by the various local Churches. In the Byzantine Churches it has become customary to consider the saints as belonging to one or another of the following categories:
- Prophets – God’s Old Testament spokesmen such as Elias or Isaiah who called the Jews back to the true God and His ways whenever they strayed.
- Apostles – The Twelve closest followers of Christ as well as the Seventy who were their companions: eye-witnesses to the presence of Christ on earth.
- Evangelists – The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
- Hierarchs – Saintly bishops like Nicholas of Myra, Spyridon of Cyprus or Basil the Great.
- Righteous Ascetics – Giants in the monastic life, both men and women, including elders (guides in the spiritual life) and solitaries, living in forest or wilderness.
- Martyrs – Those who gave their lives witnessing to Christ, from the Great Martyrs of the Roman persecutions, such as St. Barbara and St. George, to the new martyrs who died under modern dictators or religious extremists.
- Hieromartyrs – Hierarchs and priests who sacrificed their own lives as well as offered the Divine Sacrifice of Christ.
- Confessors – Those who survived torture or imprisonment for the Lord but escaped with their lives, like St. Maximos the Confessor.
- Unmercenaries –Those who gave of their talents freely to help the poor and the sick, such as Ss. Cosmas and Damian.
- Fools for Christ – Those who pretended to be mentally incompetent so that their spiritual gifts would not be noticed and praised, like St. Xenia of Petersburg.
- Passionbearers – Those who accepted suffering, even death, rather than to repay violence with more violence.
On this First Sunday after Pentecost the Byzantine Churches celebrate all the saints, whether their names are known or not. On the following Sundays various local Churches celebrate their own regional saints (All Saints of Russia, or North America, or the British Isles, etc.). Wherever the Holy Spirit has been at work in the Church, saints have been raised up to the glory of God.
Who “Makes” Saints?
Ultimately, of course, it is God who makes people holy by giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. When people make this gift their own and live a heroic life in Christ, others recognize it. When a local Church recognizes that one of its sons or daughters has lived an exceptional Christian life and gives evidence that they are now in glory, it publicly proclaims him or her to be a saint.
In the Eastern Orthodox Churches it is the local Church (such as the patriarchate of Constantinople or the Church of Greece) which declares saints. In the East this process is called glorification. In the West recognition of saints is called canonization (inclusion on the canon or list of saints) and is proclaimed by the Pope of Rome.
What Do We Do with the Saints?
God has placed certain saints in our lives and we would be remiss if we ignored them. We have our patron saints (those whose name we bear) and those whose icons may be found in our home. Most of our parishes have patron saints as well. We do well to venerate their icons regularly, asking their intercession with prayers like these:
Pray for me, St. N., for with fervor I come to you, speedy helper and intercessor for my soul.
Holy Father/Mother N., pray to God for us.
Observe their feast days according to the Church calendar. If there is no Liturgy scheduled, ask for one to be served in their honor. Why not?
Our most godlike Fathers decreed that we should celebrate the present feast after the descent of the all-holy Spirit as showing in a certain way that the coming of the all-holy Spirit acted through the apostles like this: sanctifying and making wise human beings taken from our mortal clay and, to replace that fallen angelic order [the demons], restoring them through Christ and sending them to God – some by the witness of blood-martyrdom, others by their virtuous conduct and way of life. Thus things beyond nature are achieved…. This is one reason why we celebrate the feast of All Saints.
A second reason is because, though so many people have been well-pleasing to God, they were unknown to humanity by name or…because it was not easy to honor them all properly because of their vast numbers. And therefore, so that we may attract the help of them all… the godly Fathers ordained that we should celebrate this feast -all those in whom the Holy Spirit has dwelt He has made holy.
A third reason is this. It was necessary for the saints who are celebrated individually day by day to be gathered together on one day in order to demonstrate that, as they struggled for the one Christ and all ran the race in the same stadium of virtue, so they were all fittingly crowned as servants of one God and sustain the Church, having filled the world on high. They stir us also to accomplish the same struggle in its different and many forms, to the degree of power that each of us has, and to press onward with all eagerness.