Being a Saint

“Orthodox lay theologian Paul Evdokimov reminds us that becoming a saint has little to do with virtue and a great deal to do with goodness, being like God. And everyone can be like God! . . .

‘[S]aints by their nature are as disturbing as they are inspiring. They inspire by their glorious witness and achievements: they are the promise that we can truly live as God intended, in God’s own image. But they disturb, for they are the constant reminder of how much we fall short of the life to which we are called. We are given our true model and challenged to conform to it. Hagiography, like the saints who are its subjects, also inspires and disturbs, for it too, contains an ever-present critique of our failings as a church. (Susan Ashbrook Harvey)’

(Michael Plekon, Hidden Holiness, p. 2 & 23)

All Saints: What We All Should Strive to Be

Hebrews 11:33-12:2                     Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38, 19:27-30

Today in the Church, the first Sunday after Pentecost, we honor all the saints of our Church.  Last Sunday we commemorated the coming of God’s Holy Spirit on the world, and today we commemorate all those who were transformed by the Holy Spirit and who are the holy ones of God – the saints.

Saints are models of transformation.  They are people just like all of us, who lived in this world.  They show us it is possible to follow Christ, to be a Christian, even fully united to and transformed by Christ in this world, in our lifetime – despite the world and the times we live in!

The icons of saints, which we see in our churches and homes,  do not offer to us picture perfect portraits of these men and women as they would have been seen in this world, but rather offer us a glimpse of these Christians as deified humans, as humans residing in the Kingdom even when they are portrayed on earth.  They help us to see people as God sees them – holy, in God’s image and likeness, spiritual and spirit-filled.  Icons are reminding us that there is far more to any human than what the eye can normally see.  For the saints are humans who shine with the divine light, who reveal to us the image of God, who show us what it means for a human to be united to God, to attain theosis.

Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)  The answer is revealed in the lives of the saints, who lived for Christ and who revealed the kingdom in this world in their lives.  For Christ is the One who deifies humanity.  What the saints lived for, struggled with, suffered for, tells us who they believed Jesus to be –  the incarnate Lord, God and Savior.  The saints reveal Christ not only in what they taught but in their very being and in how they lived and died.

Christ’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”,   gives rise to a second – “Who do you say you are?”  or  we can turn the question around and ask our self, “Who am I?”  For in answering the question about who we think Christ is, we come to the answer for the second, who am I?  – a disciple of Christ, a child of God, a member of the Body of Christ, one of God’s chosen people, one of the redeemed, someone united to God.

In the saints we see people from all walks of life united to Christ – males, females, children, even teenagers!  Housewives, businesspeople, students, soldiers, government officials, laborers, leaders, teachers, doctors, merchants, farmers, slaves, wealthy, poor, the educated and the illiterate. Christ dwelling in people with diverse personalities, differently gifted and educated, with various talents and differing incomes.  People deified by Christ, and those just beginning to follow Him.  Terrible sinners who repented and people who had spent a lifetime devoted to Christ.  [Just to challenge us Americans a bit: though saints come from every walk of life with every kind of personality, as far as I know, no Democrat or Republican has been declared a saint.  We won’t find sanctity in our politics, and we won’t bring holiness to America through political parties or polarities.  Of course, maybe some day someone will be declared a saint even though they have a political identity, left or right.]

Each and everyone of you is capable in your own life of being a Christ-bearer, of having Christ dwell in you.  Christ does not wait until you are morally perfect before uniting Himself to you.  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).   You can at any time invite Christ into your hearts – you are capable of making room in your hearts for Christ today and at every moment of your life.  In fact we are all and always either making room for Christ in our hearts or expelling him from our hearts by what we think, say and do.   And none of that is dependent on the status of your life – those things laid upon you at birth over which you had no control – gender, skin color, native language, wealth, social status, IQ, or personality.  Christ stands at the door of every heart and seeks entry into our hearts.  It is our decision as to whether we let Him in or not.

God’s love is extended to everyone, and to all people, even to people we don’t like.

The goal of the Christian life is not to make the world more ‘believer friendly’ but to build up in ourselves a willingness to serve God and live faithfully no matter what the cost to ourselves, no matter how others may view us.  Our challenge is to be able to pass along to the next generation the Faith and the desire to take up the cross to follow Christ (Mark 8:34).  We have to show some joy and zeal for being disciples and bearing our crosses so that those who observe us will want to join us and have in their hearts what we have in ours.

Our spiritual warfare happens not mostly in church or when we are at prayer, though it does happen there too.  Our spiritual warfare is most real when we are watching entertainment on our computers or TVs, or when we listen to music, or are tempted by pornography, or lured by political trash talking.  Holiness exists when we choose how to spend out time or what to fill our hearts and minds with.  Where our treasure is there will be our heart (Luke 12:34).

To whom do we give our allegiance?  Who is the Lord whom we obey?  This is the real spiritual warfare.  And this battle occurs wherever we are – at home, at work, at school, on the beach, in a restaurant.    Will I accept any thought that comes into my head, or will I let Jesus Christ be Lord of my heart, mind, thoughts and feelings?  Will I be willing to repent of those things in my heart which are so dear to me and define my sense of self but which Christ defines as sin?  Will I believe everything I think, or will I submit all to the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ?

The spiritual life is a life of accountability.  We have to give account to God for all we think, do, believe, say, watch, listen to, repeat, copy, imitate.  We should be giving account to one another – to our spouses, to our father confessor, our sponsors and godparents, our brothers and sisters in Christ, our fellow parishioners.  We are responsible for the health of the parish – when one suffers, we all suffer and when one is glorified we all are glorified (1 Corinthians 12:26) .

We are not called to be a political force in the world.  [A good challenge to those whose identity as Republicans and Democrats comes before seeing themselves as Christian.]  We are called to witness to the presence of the Kingdom of God in our lives.  The battle between good and evil is not really out in the world, in our politics, or philosophical proclivities.   As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:  “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” The battle between good and evil takes place in your heart!  It is not a war that we read about in some distant land, we feel it within ourselves.  The battle is won or lost in each of our hearts, on a daily basis.

Look at your calendars and your schedules on your cell phones.  What time have you intentionally planned for God in your daily lives?  How is God present in your home, in your dining room, in your bedroom, in your office?    We train ourselves to use computers and technology, to be better cooks, engineers, parents, we learn about health and physical fitness.  What are you doing to be a better disciple of Christ?

What time do you devote to repentance?  For Jesus called all of us to repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.  This is how we become the saints of God.  Holy things are for the holy ones, and you are to change your lives to be the holy ones of God.  Holiness is not just something imposed on you from heaven, it emerges from the battle in your heart, and then emanates to the world through how you live, what you say and what you do.

Saints: Dedicated to God

If you want to learn from the lives of the saints what complete dedication to the love of the Lord means and from Holy Scripture inspired by God, look to Job. How he gave up all he possessed, so to speak: children, wealth, livestock, servants, and everything else that he had, stripping himself completely to escape and save himself. He even gave up his very clothing, throwing it at Satan; yet all the time he never blasphemed in word, neither in his heart nor with his lips before the Lord. But on the contrary he blessed the Lord saying: ‘The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away. As it has pleased the Lord, so be it. Blessed be the name of the Lord‘ (Jb 1:21). Although it was true that he had many possessions, but tested by the Lord, he showed that God alone was his possession.

Just as the bodily eyes see all things distinctly, so also to the souls of the saints the beauties of the Godhead are manifested and seen. Christians are absorbed in contemplating them and they ponder over them. But to bodily eyes that glory is hidden, while to the believing soul it is distinctly revealed. This is the dead soul the Lord raises to life out of sin, just as he also raises up dead bodies as he prepares for the soul a new heaven and a new earth (Rv. 21:1; Is 65:127) and a sun of righteousness, giving the soul all things out of his Godhead.

(Pseudo-Macarius, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, p. 71 & 203)

The Oxymoron of Law and Love

Righteousness does not consist in correct behavior but in genuine co-suffering love…No deed has any moral value unless it proceeds from the heart motivated by love. Otherwise it is simply ethical or correct behavior according to one or another system of laws, a human work which anyone in any culture  with or without faith in God can attain to.

The Old Testament Law could help to preserve society but it could not save anyone, no matter how diligently they fulfilled it to the letter. Moreover, since it could not transform the heart, it could not even preserve the nation from falling constantly away from God. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the only one who fulfilled righteousness was motivated solely by love, co-suffering love.

And this is why our Lord Jesus Christ became our righteousness on the cross and imputed that righteousness to us through faith.

(Lazar Puhalo, For a Culture of Co-Suffering Love, p. 14)

Holy Things for the Holy Ones!

The Holy Things are for the Holy Ones! 

One is holy, one is Lord: Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father. Amen.  (from the Divine Liturgy)

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.  (Mark 10:18)

St. Nicholas Cavasilas commenting on the Divine Liturgy says:

On the point of approaching the Holy Table…partaking of the Mystery is not permitted to all …  

The holy [Mysteries] are for the holy!  

…  The faithful are called holy because of the Holy Mysteries of which they partake, because of him whose Body and Blood they receive.

Members of His Body – flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone – as long as we remain united to him and preserve our connection with him [i.e., live in communion with the altar – Ed.], we live by holiness, drawing to ourselves through the Holy Mysteries, the sanctity which comes from that Head and that Heart. But if we should cut ourselves off, if we should separate ourselves from the unity of this most holy Body, we would partake of the Holy Mysteries in vain, for life cannot flow into dead and amputated limbs. And what can cut off the members form this holy Body? It is your sins which have separated me from you, [Is. 59.2], says God. Does all sin then bring death to man? No, indeed, but deadly sin only; that is why it is called deadly. For according to St. John [1 Jn. 5.16,17] there are sins which are not deadly.

That is why Christians, if they have not committed such sins as would cut them off from Christ and and bring death, are in no way prevented from partaking of the Holy Mysteries and receiving sanctification…   (quoted in The Divine Liturgy of the Great Church, p. 107)

For St. Nicholas Cabasilas the words in the Liturgy – Holy things are for the holy! – is packed with meaning.  The “holy things” refer to the Holy Mysteries such as Holy Communion.  These Mysteries are given not for everyone, but to the Holy Ones of God, the saints.  In the Liturgy they are given to the Faithful.  The people of the parish are (and are to be!) the Holy Ones of God.  For him, it is obvious why there is a practice of “closed” Communion.  One has to desire to be among the faithful, among the Holy Ones to receive the Holy Mysteries.  They are gifts for those who seek the Lord – for those who choose and desire to live a holy life.  Holiness is not magic that can change someone into something they are not.  Holiness comes to those who choose to be united to the Holy One of God, Jesus Christ.  We maintain holiness by maintaining our unity with Christ whose Body is the Church.

Fr Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World leads us into the mystery:

“Holy” is the real name of God, of the God “not of scholars and philosophers,” but of the living God of faith. The knowledge about God results in definitions and distinctions. The knowledge of God leads to this one, incomprehensible, yet obvious and inescapable word: holy. And in this word we express both that God is the Absolutely Other, the One about whom we know nothing, and that He is the end of all our hunger, all our desires, the inaccessible One who mobilizes our wills, the mysterious treasure that attracts us, and there is really nothing to know but Him. “Holy” is the word, the song, the “reaction” of the Church as it enters into heaven, as it stands before the heavenly glory of God.   (Kindle Location 389-395)

For Fr Schmemann holiness is the goal of our spiritual sojourn.  When we receive the Holy Mysteries of God and become the Holy Ones of God, we have come to the very purpose of our existence.  In the Holy Mysteries we are united to the One who is Holy, Jesus Christ.

The Beauty of Holiness

“From earliest times man called sacred or holy that which he perceived as the supreme value, demanding reverence, acknowledgement, awe, and thanksgiving; which at the same time attracted man to itself, inspiring familiarity and intimacy. We speak of the sacred feeling of homeland, of the sacred love towards parents, of sacred awe in the face of beauty, perfection, wonder. Thus, the sacred is that which is higher, purer, demanding all that is best: the best sentiments, the best efforts, the best hopes in man. The peculiarity of the sacred is precisely in the fact that it demands from us an inner awareness of self-evident and free desires; yet not simply an awareness, but action and life consistent with this awareness. The awareness that two times two makes four, or that water boils at a specific temperature leaves us neither better nor worse; such an awareness belongs to the righteous and the unrighteous, to the ignorant and the intelligent, the genius and the simpleton. But if we experience a sacred awareness in terms of beauty, or moral perfection, or a special intuition about the world and life, then this awareness immediately makes some demand on us, effects some change in us, invites us somewhere, captivates us, seduces us.

How simply and beautifully Pushkin described this in his famous poem, “The memory of a glorious moment….” The poet forgets the “vision,” the instruction of “disturbing storms,” the dispersion of “previous hopes,” and writes,

…my soul was stirred

And once again you came,

A passing vision,

A glimmer of beauty pure.

In fullness beats my heart,

Feeling once again

The resurrection of divinity,

And inspiration, and life,

And tears, and love.

Here is the description of the sacred as beauty. This experience changes life in its entirety, fills it, in the words of Pushkin, with meaning, and inspiration, and joy, and the divine. “

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Our Father, pp. 26-28)

All Saints (2018)

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men,” He says, “him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10.32).

Notice that we cannot boldly proclaim our faith in Christ and confess Him without His strength and assistance. Nor will Our Lord Jesus Christ speak out on our behalf in the age to come, recommend us to the heavenly Father and make us His kin, unless we give Him reason to do so. To make this clear, He does not say, “Whosoever shall confess me before men”, but “Whosoever shall make his confession in Me” (Matt. 10:32), that is to say, whoever is able, in Christ and with His help, to declare his faith with boldness. Likewise, again, He does not say, “I will confess him”” but “I will acknowledge what is in him“, meaning that His confession will be in respect of the good fight and patient endurance which such a person has shown in the cause of godliness.

Take note, however, of what He goes on to say about those who are cowardly and betray the Faith: “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33). Here He does not say, “Whosoever shall deny in Me”, since the person who denies God does so because he is bereft of God’s help. Why has he been abandoned and forsaken by God? Because he first abandoned God by loving what is transitory and worldly more than the heavenly and everlasting good things promised by Him. In His turn, Christ will not just disown what is in him, but deny him himself, finding in him nothing at all that could be used in his defense.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 200-201)

Purity of Heart: Not Just Skin Deep

“What is more, because purity is a means to be like God, it is a matter of internal disposition rather than of external ritual observance. It must rule a person’s language precisely because, as the Lord says, speech reveals the person within, the heart (Matt . 5:22; 15:18; Paed. 2.6.49). The language of the Christian is free of impurity (Eph. 4:29; 5:3ff; Paed. 2.6.50). It is wrong to be preoccupied with external propriety if the person within is impure. The Scribes and the Pharisees are whitewashed sepulchres.  They washed the outside of the cup, but left the inside dirty. It is the impurity of the soul that must be cleansed…

St. John the Forerunner

External beauty is very misleading: it does not lead to the love and beauty which are imperishable (Sir. 9:8; Paed. 3.11.83). For Clement, purity is above all a reasonable virtue, which prevents human beings from becoming like beasts and renders them capable of seeing God (Ps. 49:12, 20 [48:13, 21, LXX]; Sir. 33:6; Paed. 1.13.101ff). Many times Clement insists on the fact that only the pure of heart see God (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 2.10.50) The vision of God face to face is the vision of the Truth, and only a small number can attain to it, for only the pure of heart see God. The Savior came down in order to lead us to this purty and definitive vision.”    (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 5.1.7) (Paul M. Blowers, The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, pp. 120-121)

Saints of North America

Expressing the Holy Trinity in Ourselves

The aim of the Christian life, which Seraphim described as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God, can equally well be defined in terms of deification. Basil described the human person as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius, as we know, said that God became human that we humans might become god.

The saints, as Maximus the Confessor put it, are those who express the Holy Trinity in themselves. This idea of a personal and organic union between God and humans — God dwelling in us, and we in Him — is a constant theme in the Epistles of St Paul, who sees the Christian life above all else as a life ‘in Christ’. The same idea recurs in the famous text of 2 Peter: ‘Through these promises you may become partakers of the divine nature’ (i,4).

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 225)

Make Holiness Perfect (2 Cor 7:1)

For I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.  (Leviticus 11:44)

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In any English translation of the New Testament, a host of English words are necessary to capture the full range of basically one Greek word – agios.    We need all of these English words to encompass the various uses of agios in Greek:  holy, holiness, saint, sanctify and sanctification.   In the New Testament, the basic Greek word for holy is used about 260 times.  About 90 times it is used in conjunction with God’s Spirit – the Holy Spirit.  It is used about 120 times to refer in one way or another to humans, God’s people, individuals, prophets, believers.  It is also used in reference to Jesus, God, the temple, a place/city, angels, a kiss, the Law, Scripture and the covenant.   If we take away all of the references to the Holy Spirit, we see that holiness in the New Testament is most often used about people, the believers, the Church members.   Almost never in the New Testament is it used about things – Holy Water, Holy Icon, Holy Chalice, Holy Vestments, etc.   We have the Sunday of All Saints, which is all the people who are holy.  This Sunday follows Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit.   Holiness is about us and our way of life more than about miracles and magic taking hold of things and making them holy.

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Holiness in the New Testament is far more a state of being for humans and also the way we live.  The New Testament does not focus on holy things and doesn’t tell believers to do so either.  Holiness is more dynamic and puts us in relationship with God.  Holiness courses through our lives and is expanding the Church in baptism, the Eucharist, our growing in faith and love.   Theosis is our participation in God’s holiness.

Holiness does not get concentrated in things which we stand around to reverence or feel some closeness to God.  In the New Testament we don’t look to things to experience holiness, for holiness is to be present in our daily lives.

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We can look at a few passages from the New Testament and we get this sense that holiness is much more about us and what we are and what we are to do.  In each passage below the holiness word is emphasized.

Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth.  (john 17:7)

But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:11)

May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:23)

Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  (Heb 12:14)

and make holiness perfect in the fear of God. (2 Cor 7:1)

While God sanctifies us (makes us holy), obviously holiness is also something we can strive and something we can make perfect.  Holiness is not merely something God bestows on us, it is also something we can shape and develop in our own lives.  Holiness is thus a force in our lives, which is both given to us by God and shaped by our own lives and how we follow Christ.  God commands us to be holy!  It is something within our power to do.

Holiness as such is not some magic which makes “things” holy, but rather the very force in our lives which unites us to God.  Holiness is active in our hearts and minds – in our spirit, soul and body.  Holiness is not just for the soul, but it is for our entire being as humans and is to be present in every aspect of our humanity.  We show holiness in our lives not only in worship or in participating in the sacraments but also in stewardship, tithing, generosity, loving, forgiving, asking forgiveness, obeying Christ, being charitable, merciful, peacemakers and in all the ways we practice our discipleship.

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Orthodox often flock to where they believe holiness is – in an icon, in a monastery, in a church, in the Holy Fire.  The New Testament on the other hand points out that holiness is not so much to be sought out in things, but is to be lived in our hearts, souls, minds and bodies.  We can’t make holiness perfect in things – Holy Icons or Holy Fire – we can only perfect it in ourselves.