ON THE SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST the Byzantine Churches observe the Feast of All Saints. As we read in today’s Synaxarion at Orthros: “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 then – to complete the number of that fallen angelic order – restoring them through Christ and sending them to God, some by the witness of martyrdom and blood, others by their virtuous conduct and way of life…”.
As we read this we may wonder just how many saints there are. For the definitive answer we need only look to the Book of Revelation. The seer – identified in the first chapter as John – tells us that “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). No one can count the number of those whom the Holy Spirit has sanctified through the Apostles and the Churches they founded.
The white robes are said to recall the “Garments of Light” – the fullness of Divine grace – with which Adam and Eve were clothed in the Garden before the Fall. In Revelation 6:11 these robes are given to the martyrs as a sign that they have preserved their union with Christ through the witness they bore. The palm branch is the ancient “symbol of victory” (Palm Sunday troparion). The martyrs’ palms represent how they “vanquished their persecutors and crushed the powerless arrogance of demons” through their struggles (martyrs’ troparion).
Christians who witnessed the sufferings and death of martyrs were the first to preserve their memory, often by treasuring their relics or belongings. Once the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ceased, the recognition of the martyrs became more public and official.
Veneration of saints was usually a local matter. Saints were honored where they had lived or died. As the Church spread into new areas, those who brought the Gospel also brought a devotion to their local saints. When they brought the saints’ relics as well, a new shrine would be established and the saint honored there as well.
Many saints are still venerated only locally; others have been included on the general calendars of the historic Churches. The Theotokos, the apostles, the evangelists, and other New Testament figures as well as many of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets are universally venerated. Some well-known saints, like St Nicholas and St George, have found a place on the calendars of all Churches.
Each of the ancient Churches has its own list of saints. In most Eastern Churches this list is called the Synaxarion, a collection of information about each saint on the days the saint is commemorated. The basic Synaxarion used in the Byzantine Churches is that of the Mar Saba Monastery near Jerusalem. Each local Church has added its own saints to this list as well.
Thus St Nicodemos the Hagiorite, who edited the Synaxarion for the Church of Constantinople at the beginning of the nineteenth century added a number of saints, particularly the “New Martyrs” who suffered since the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century. Each national Byzantine Church (Russian, Serbian, etc.) has added its own saints to the Synaxarion.
The Western equivalent to the Synaxarion is the 16th century Roman Martyrology. Pope Gregory XIII revised a ninth-century French work to accompany his new Calendar. This list has been augmented over the years as new saints were canonized.
To give a hint of just how many recognized saints are venerated in the historic Churches let us list the saints honored on just one day, May 23, in the calendars of the various Churches.
Venerated by Both East and West – Saint Michael the Confessor, ninth-century Bishop of Synnada in Phrygia Salutaris, who was tortured and exiled during the revival of iconoclasm following the Second Council of Nicaea.
Venerated on the same day in the:
Greek Synaxaria – Holy Myrrh-bearer Mary, the wife of Cleopas (1st century); Manaen (Manahen), prophet and teacher of the Church of Antioch (Acts 13:1) (1st century); Martyr Seleucus, and Hieromartyr Michael the black-robed, monk of Mar Saba Monastery (9th century).
In the Roman Martyrology – Hieromartyrs Desiderius of Langres (c. 411,)Epitacius of Tui and Basileus of Braga (1st c.), Desiderius of Vienne (7th c.), the holy martyrs Quintian, Lucius, and Julian (5th c.), Mercurialis, bishop of Forli (5th c.) Euphebius, bishop of Naples, (2nd c.?), Eutychius and Florentius, (6th c. monks venerated in Byzantine Churches on Aug 23) and St. John Baptist de Rossi, (18 c.) Also remembered on this day are the holy martyrs in Cappadocia who died by having their legs crushed, in the persecution of Maximian Galerius (4th c.) and those martyrs in Mesopotamia, who, at the same time, were suspended in the air with their heads downward. Being suffocated with smoke, and consumed with a slow fire, they consummated their martyrdom.
In the Slavic Churches saints honored on this day are Damian of Garegi, Georgia (12th c), Euphrosyne of Polotsk (12th c.), Ioannikios of Serbia (13th c.), Paisius of Galich (15th c.), Synaxis of saints of Yaroslavl and Rostov (one of the oldest Russian eparchies) and the New Martyrs of Kholm and Podlasie (who suffered during World War 2).
Also remembered today in various Slavic Churches: Simon, Bishop of Suzdal (c. 12th century), Abramios of Yaroslavl (1219, Anthony, Bishop of Rostov (1336), Paisius of Galich (1460), Adrian and Bogolep of Uglich (late 15th c.), Saints Anthony and Joannicius of Zaonikiev Monastery (16th c.), monks Dorotheus of the Pskov Lavra, (1622), Hilarion of Podolsk (17th-18th c.), Alexander the Wonderworker of Pereyaslav (17th c.), and Joachim of Sartoma (17th c.).
The Maronite Church honors Mar Tobias the Merciful (from the Biblical Book of Tobias) in addition to Michael of Synnada.
The Coptic Church commemorates St Philotheos of Antioch, martyred during the Great Persecution of Diocletian, and St John IV, Coptic Pope of Alexandria (+792).
Many Orthodox and Greek Catholics also commemorate first millennium Western saints. On this day these include saints from the Roman Martyrology as well as these locally venerated saints: Patricius, Bishop of Bayeux in Normandy (+469), Goban, of Old Leighlin (6th/7th c.), Syagrius of Nice (+787) and Guibertus of Brabant (+962).
How many saints are there? By this count over forty saints are commemorated by name on this day alone in addition to those remembered in groups! The historic Churches remember upwards of 15,000 saints every year, not to mention those known only to God.
These days have seen a number of New Martyrs and Confessors witnessing to Christ despite ISIS and other hostile regimes. Many of their stories can be found on line. In a sense the Synaxarion is still being written.
By the prayers of all your saints, O Lord, have mercy on us and save us!