Come, O believers, let us celebrate in song today, glorifying the memory of all the saints!
Rejoice, O glorious apostles, prophets, martyrs, and bishops!
Rejoice, O company of all the just!
Rejoice, O ranks of holy women!
Pray that Christ will grant our souls great mercy!
—Sunday of All Saints, Aposticha, Vespers
The Sunday of All Saints fittingly follows the Sunday of Pentecost, for the saints of the Church are the “fruit” and manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us. They are the living icons that are transparent to the glory of God that shines in and through each of them as a gift of the Holy Spirit. The saints—literally, the “holy ones”—have “escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of passion and become partakers of the divine nature” [2 Peter 1:4]. Created in the image of God, they “are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” [2 Corinthians 3:18].
In the Book of Revelation, Saint John has recorded his incomparable vision of the saints in heaven: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” [Revelation 7:9-10].
Since, in the one Church of Christ, the heavenly and earthly realms are united, the saints are “the great cloud of witnesses” that surround us and exhort us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” [Hebrews 12:1-2]. At the most basic level, the saints are the true friends of God: “But to me, exceedingly honorable are Thy friends, O Lord” [Psalm 138:16, LXX].
The saints put Christ above all else in the fulfillment of their Master’s words: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” [Matthew 10:37-39].
The words of the Scriptures are the seeds that nourish the life of sanctity which results in the slow transformation of a human being, made in God’s image, into the very likeness of God, so that this particular person becomes by grace what Christ is by nature. The saint is thus a scriptural man or a scriptural woman, inasmuch as he or she hears the Word of God and keeps it, acting upon and living out what is heard. The saint has responded positively to the paradoxical admonition: “Become what you are!”
Now, as we like to say today: “No pain – no gain!” If we were “bought with a price” [1 Corinthians 6:20], then we could say that the saints “bought” their sanctity at “a price,” abandoning the security, comfort and safety that, we acknowledge, are so central to our own understanding of life. (It is rather easy, though it may go unnoticed, for Christians to be transformed in Epicureans over time: avoid pain and seek pleasure). Being “destitute, afflicted, and ill-treated,” they “wandered over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” As such, God has revealed that “the world was not worthy” of them. [Hebrews 11:37-38].
The “diversity” of the saints is remarkable: fathers (and mothers), patriarchs (and matriarchs), prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith,” culminating in “our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary” [Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom].
On the Sunday of All Saints, we do not commemorate only the saints whose names have been included on our ecclesiastical calendars—those, in other words, who have been officially “glorified/canonized” by the Church and whom we remember and venerate by name. We remember all of the saints, that vast multitude, both known and unknown “who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” [Revelation 21:27]. Perhaps this will include our own ancestors who lived modest and humble Christian lives.
All of the saints, therefore, intercede before the throne of God on our behalf. They are with us and not cut off from us by death. Rather, they are now more alive than ever, and being “in Christ,” are present wherever Christ is present. The earthly lives of the saints become sources of inspiration and models for us to emulate, teaching by examples of faith, hope and love; of long-suffering, perseverance and patience; of lives steeped in prayer, almsgiving and fasting. They do not discourage us because they attained what may seem unattainable to us; rather, they encourage us to struggle to overcome our weaknesses as men and women who did precisely that in their own lives. They were not born saints or privileged from birth. They became saints by co-operating with the grace of God. We, in turn, simply need to become what we already are: saints of God through Baptism and Chrismation and membership in the Church!
Many of us are deeply impressed by the total dedication, perseverance, training, commitment and love of the sport exhibited by today’s athletes. (Possible envy of their great wealth and fame is a different subject). Many may shake their heads in disbelief or nod in admiration. Hardly anyone will call these athletes “fanatics.” But if someone is that single-minded and intent upon the life in God, that is a word that will inevitably ring out. But the saints are not fanatics – they simply have a passion for God and put the Gospel and the Kingdom of God above all else.
To be inducted into any particular Hall of Fame – from baseball to Rock ‘n Roll – is considered to be a great human achievement and a goal to which only an elite few could even aspire. However, these Halls of Fame are the secular and rather pale – if not pitiful – reflections of an earlier age’s striving for the heavenly realm of the Kingdom of God. The saints looked beyond the fleeting and temporal “glory of men” to the unchanging and eternal “glory of God.” That seems to be the vocation of all Christians—and the Lord’s desire for us.