Another word whose meaning has changed over the centuries is the word saint, The form of our English word saint comes from the Latin sanctus, or holy one but originally did not refer just to the dead. In the Old Testament this word refers to the Jews, God’s chosen people. Thus Psalms 148:14 reads, “He will raise up a horn for His people, a praise for all His saints— for the people of Israel, who are close to Him.” A person was “a saint” because he or she had a special relationship with God.
In the New Testament the saints are those of every nation who have been joined to Christ in baptism. Thus, when St Paul writes to the Romans he passes on his greetings to “Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them” (Romans 16:15). As we often sing in our Liturgy, “all of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The deepest relationship to God we have is to have put on Christ in this mystery.
Venerating the MartyrsOur tradition of venerating the saints began in the early Church as Christians gave up their lives rather than deny Christ. The martyrs were the first “dead believers” to be counted as saints in the modern meaning of the term. In many places it became customary to serve the Eucharistic Liturgy on the anniversary of a martyr’s death, often at his or her place of burial.
Writing in c. 400 ad, St Augustine explained this practice as he knew it: “We, the Christian community, assemble to celebrate the memory of the martyrs with ritual solemnity because we want to be inspired to follow their example, share in their merits, and be helped by their prayers. Yet we erect no altars to any of the martyrs, even in the martyrs’ burial chapels themselves.
“No bishop, when celebrating at an altar where these holy bodies rest, has ever said, ‘Peter, we make this offering to you’, or ‘Paul, to you’, or “Cyprian, to you”. No, what is offered is offered always to God, who crowned the martyrs. We offer in the chapels where the bodies of those he crowned rest, so the memories that cling to those places will stir our emotions and encourage us to greater love both for the martyrs whom we can imitate and for God whose grace enables us to do so…
“But the veneration strictly called ‘worship’, or latria, that is, the special homage belonging only to the divinity, is something we give and teach others to give to God alone.” (Treatise against Faustus).
Why did St Augustine have to explain this practice? Perhaps because some of his readers – even among the Christians themselves – were confusing the veneration of the martyrs with the pagan’s worship of their gods and goddesses.
Graffiti on the walls of the Roman catacombs are evidence that early Christians asked the martyrs buried there to pray for them. It was not long before Christians who has suffered punishment but had survived were honored as “confessors” who had confessed their faith by the sufferings they endured.
Holy AsceticsWhen the martyrdom of Christians ceased in the Roman Empire, asceticism became the way believers found to offer their lives to God. By spending their lives in continual prayer and self-denial, ascetics sought to live as if they were dead to the world. The Church came to see them as “angels in the flesh” and make pilgrimages to their cells in order to obtain their blessings.
The veneration which believers had for their local ascetics continued after the ascetic’s death. Their cells and the places where they were buried (if known) became shrines in which these holy men and women would be honored and their intercession sought.
Since hierarchs were often taken from the ranks of the ascetics, it became the practice to honor leading bishops (the “Church Fathers”) as saints. Basil the Great, his companion Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, were such hierarchs.
Perhaps the first Christians living in the world to be honored as saints were the “equals to the apostles” known for spreading the Gospel, beginning with the witnesses to the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene and her companions. Later, healers and wonder-workers during life or after death would be so honored as well.
Shrines and RelicsIn the first millennium, veneration of the saints centered on their tombs or the places in which they lived. People came from elsewhere on pilgrimage to honor them. As the Church spread, people in other areas wanted to venerate these saints “in person” by acquiring their relics or belongings for veneration. When the city of Constantinople was founded in the fourth century, its bishops obtained relics of as many saints as they could. They were frustrated in their attempt to get a relic of the Theotokos (she had been assumed into heaven), and had to content themselves with her garments.
Items belonging to or touched by a saint were the oldest form of relics in the Church, being mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. When St Paul was ministering in Ephesus, the Scriptures relate, “Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them” (Acts 19:11, 12). Venerating such items became another way of experiencing God’s power at work in the saints.
Canonizing SaintsAs we have seen, recognizing a believer as a saint was initially a local affair. Those who had seen how a martyr or confessor had suffered, or how an ascetic had lived, acclaimed them as sanctified and venerated them in the place where they had lived or died, generally under the supervision of the local bishop. For a saint to be venerated by the wider Church, the blessing of the local synod of bishops with the Metropolitan or Patriarch was required. This procedure is still followed by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Beginning in the eleventh century, the Western Church required papal approval for a saint to be recognized and commended to the faithful for veneration throughout the world.
Let us continuously chant unto our God, for He has richly poured forth grace. As Joel preached beforehand, “I will pour out,” he writes, “from the Spirit upon my sons and daughters.” For this strength guided the champions in word and power and silenced the mouths of those against You, O Most Merciful One.
They were not swayed by vain wealth, for they loved Your Kingdom. They neglected things of this life and kept in memory the incorruptible. They went forth on the road, preferring to die rather than to live, that they might pass on to Your life and be fed with Your good things, O Most Merciful One.
From a Kondakion by St Romanos