On the Sunday of All Saints of North America, Fr. Irineos examines the question of “What is a Saint?” by looking at the readings from Vespers and the Epistle for this Sunday.
A rough transcript is provided below:
Chosen, Glorified and Crowned
A Homily for the Sunday of All Saints of North America
Glory to Jesus Christ!
On the second Sunday after Pentecost, the Tradition is for the Church to commemorate the saints who have shown forth in the local lands. So in Russia, today is the Sunday of All Saints of Russia. In Greece, All Saints of Mt. Athos is celebrated. But here, despite our Greek lineage, we will celebrate All Saints of North America, because this is the land where we mission. These are the fields we are called to harvest. And right here, to be sure, holy Orthodox saints have walked among us and stand as shining examples of the faith.
Orthodoxy began in North America in Alaska. In 1794, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries—among them Saint Herman of Alaska – to establish a formal mission in Alaska. Many Alaskan natives were converted to the Orthodox faith, as the monks translated the services into the native languages. Alsaka was also the site of the first martyrdom of an Orthodox Christian in North America, when St. Juvenaly was killed by natives who opposed the mission. The first Greek Orthodox community in the Americas was founded in 1864, in New Orleans, Louisiana, by a small colony of Greek merchants. That parish still exists.
Since those earliest days, the Church has produced saints. This is of course a blessing. But if we are going to talk about that, and about the commemoration of our NA saints, first we should probably better understand what a saint is, and why they are important. Now as I mentioned last week, the Sunday of All Saint, that vast majority of saints are unknown to us. They reposed in faith and dwell in the glory of the Father, their names known only to those who knew them in their earthly life. But there are a small number – small in relation to the number of faithful since this inception of the Church – who are known to us – whose glorification has been revealed to us in the Church and whose memories we honor in the festal calendar, in our prayers, and in our hymns.
St. John Chrysostom tells us that the saints “are our parts and our members….that they are glorified, but their preeminence does not estrange them from our bond with them” because in them is love and their love joins and binds us, despite the difference in dignity.” St. John of Kronstadt says that the saints are our elder brothers in the one House of the Heavenly Father” that they are always with us in God and that they teach us and guide us to Eternal Life through the services of the Church. In many of our hymns we refer to the saints as pillars of the Church, as St. John the Theologian wrote in the Apocalypse (what Protestants call the Book of Revelation, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God.”
Despite the long history of the recognition and veneration of saints in the Church, in modern times, we still hear people who criticize the recognition of saints as something outside the bible, or a tradition of men! But let’s look at that idea. And to do so, let’s look at some of the reading from this Feast. To start with, let’s consider the Old Testament readings from Vespers last night. (By the way, if you ever need an encouragement to make Vespers as much a part of your weekly worship as Divine Liturgy, the hymns and the readings for Vespers set the stage for the Divine Liturgy to come, as you are about to see! If you make a habit of attending Vespers, and praying the hymns and listening to the readers, you will have a new perspective on the Liturgy, because you will enter it with an understanding of how the Church views particular feasts and saints that we are celebrating or commemorating that Sunday. I try to do what I can in the homily, but my meager efforts are nothing compared to the carefully preserved hymns of the Church).
The First Vespers Reading was from Isaiah, and it is set against the backdrop of the delivery of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity, and a challenge to idolators. And we read in the prophesy “Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he:” So we understand that the Lord chooses certain servants who will know and believe, and he uses them as witnesses.
The next Vespers reading was from the Wisdom of Solomon. Here we read “1 But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them. 2 In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery, 3 And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace. 4 For though they be punished in the sight of men, yet is their hope full of immortality. 5 And having been a little chastised, they shall be greatly rewarded: for God proved them, and found them worthy for himself. 6 As gold in the furnace hath he tried them, and received them as a burnt offering.” This Old Testament passage seems to clearly presage the martyrs, the promise of life eternal, and the special place the saints hold with God.
The final Vespers reading was also from the Wisdom of Solomon: “But the righteous live for evermore; their reward also is with the Lord, and the care of them is with the most High. 16 Therefore shall they receive a glorious kingdom, and a beautiful crown from the Lord’s hand: for with his right hand shall he cover them, and with his arm shall he protect them. 17 He shall take to him his jealousy for complete armour, and make the creature his weapon for the revenge of his enemies. 18 He shall put on righteousness as a breastplate, and true judgment instead of an helmet. 19 He shall take holiness for an invincible shield. 20 His severe wrath shall he sharpen for a sword, and the world shall fight with him against the unwise.” Now this passage is a rebuke to those who mock the Orthodox for our veneration to the saints – who say, they are dead, they can’t help you – only God can help you! Nonsense. Absolute nonsense. Not only do we know the righteous live with Christ, Solomon tells us they are glorified, crowned and become a weapon for God, but yet they are with us in the world, for “The world shall fight with them against the unwise.” Isn’t that exactly what happens when we ask the saints to pray for us or come to our aid. Glorified and crowned by God, they – not of their own power but of God’s – come to us in our spiritual battles.
Honestly, for any who doubt the intercession of saints, these three passages annihilate their fatalist way of thinking. If they can’t hear this scripture and understand the power of the saints who live in God, their blindness may well be incurable. Never, never let anyone tell you the saints are dead! What heresy! How can something dead fight with us?
Now this brings us to today’s Epistle – the first epistle we read from Romans – and we heard “For there is no respect of persons with God.” And this is something that people who question the saints will often quote, saying that we are all the same to God. But that misunderstands the passage – which is in reference to Jews and Gentiles – neither has any greater standing before God. Born rich? Dirt poor? A prince? A slave? To God there is no difference. That is what the passage teaches – because it continues: “not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts;” In this, there is a great difference in persons before God.
So where does this leave us? We know God calls certain people – the righteous – to be his witnesses, that they live forever with him, glorified and crowned and armed as his weapon fighting with us on the earth. That, dear ones, is a saint. Nothing less.
And here in North America, whether it is Fr. Herman of Alaska, the martyr Juvenaly, the martyr Peter, Raphael of Brooklyn, St. John Maximovitch, or any other righteous, glorified and crowned example, they are alive in Christ and with us in our spiritual battles. All we need to do is call upon them.
So brothers and sisters, as we return to this liturgy, let us draw on the example of our local saints who on this very land shone forth in righteousness, illumining for us all the narrow path to our salvation. Let us be assured of their prayers and intercessions whenever we find the Evil One working against us. And may the Holy Orthodox Church continue to bear fruit in this land, for the preservation of the faith and the edification of the faithful.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Glory to Jesus Christ!