Let us all rejoice in the Lord, beloved, as we celebrate today’s feast in honor of all the Saints. On this day of celebration and remembrance we are challenged to remember that all of us are called to holiness. As we honor the great heroes of the faith, let us aspire to join them in the heavenly kingdom, where the joy of those who feast is unending.
My brothers and sisters, we are all called to be saints. God greatly desires that we dwell with Him forever in heaven. He reaches out to us and provides for us the way, in Christ Jesus, His Son, to be one with Him in Paradise.
The beloved disciple John, exiled on the island of Patmos, had a “vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.” All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed, “Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me. “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.” He said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-14).
The same beloved disciple wrote letters to the early Church to inspire them to lives of holiness, saying: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. Everyone who has this hope based on Him makes himself pure, as He is pure.” (1 John 3:1-3).
This is what holiness is, beloved – to become “like Him.” It happens as we live our lives in God and allow Him to live His life in, and through, us every day. We can live immersed in God in a world corrupted by the effects of sin and filled with every imperfection. As we struggle against the allure of sin and the reality of evil we can begin to “see Him as He is,” progress in the path of holiness, and participate in His ongoing work of redemption. This happens as we freely respond to grace.
The path to holiness is also the path to happiness. If we truly believe that God wants us to be happy, then it becomes easy for us to recognize that holiness is the only path true happiness. It may seem to many of us that holiness is an unattainable, even unrealistic, goal. Some may even feel that being holy is unnecessary or even undesirable because it means not doing a lot of things they enjoy, things like watching porn, being sexually promiscuous, using or selling drugs, cheating on their wives or husbands, etc. But, these are not the things that bring us happiness. Eventually, they only bring us unhappiness and discontent.
The saints we celebrate today are not only those who have been publicly canonized or glorified by the Church for veneration. On the contrary, we honor and remember all those righteous souls who from the beginning of the world have been well-pleasing to God, who have found favor in His sight, and who now enjoy eternal life with Him in heaven. Among these may be your mother and father, your grandmother and grandfather, your aunts and uncles, your brothers and sisters – all who lived righteous and holy lives and were found worthy of life in the heavenly kingdom.
The saints we celebrate today are the “great cloud of witnesses” the Apostle Paul refers to in his Letter to the Hebrews, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us.” (Hebrews 12:1).
Those who have passed from this life to the next and whom we honor today inspire us by their lives and deaths. They assist us by their prayers. They call us toward God and forward to Heaven. Our relationship, our communion, with them, is not ended by death, because they are alive in Christ. As St. Paul writes again, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38 – 39).
The early Christians honored the dead and had a special devotion and affection for the martyrs. We have accounts of the martyrdom of such saints as St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Lucy of Syracuse, St. Agatha of Catania, St. Sebastian, and St. Agnes, just to name a few. The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Smyrna gives details of how the early Christians honored the martyrs: “Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and purer than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”
For centuries, even from the Apostolic times, it has been the custom of the Church to celebrate the Divine Liturgy over the bones of the “holy ones”, the saints, who gave their lives for love of Jesus Christ and His Church. This is the origin of our practice of “entombing” the relics of saints in the altars of every Orthodox Catholic Church. In our own cathedral, we have the relics of several saints entombed in the main altar. Here in this chapel, in which we gather to make sacrifice and thanksgiving to the Lord, we are celebrating the Divine Liturgy upon an antimension, or portable altar” which contains the relics of St. James the Apostle, the first Bishop of Jerusalem. In addition, as you look around us, we are celebrating our Liturgy in the presence of the remains of many deceased Christians who have gone before us in the hope of resurrection to life eternal.
Christians do not fear death. We view it with the eyes of faith as merely a change in life. As we hear in our funeral liturgy, “Lord, for Your faithful people, life is changed, not ended; and when the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place with You in Heaven.” This is the belief of every Orthodox Catholic Christian whose faith is solidly and firmly rooted in Christ.
Death will visit and call for all of us at some point; for some it may be sooner, for others it may be much later. We do not know when we will die, but we should live every day of our life as if it is the last. That does not mean we should go out and live our lives recklessly or irresponsibly, but rather trying to do as much good as we can before our day comes.
The dates of commemorating those who witnessed to the faith by their heroic lives and deaths varied as local communities honored local saints and martyrs. Over time, those feast days became more universally accepted as the rhythm of the Church Year became more uniform.
The first account we have of honoring all the saints is that of St. Ephraim the Syrian (d. 373 A.D.). St. John Chrysostom set aside the first Sunday after Pentecost for this commemoration. So, it is on this Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost that we commemorate all the saints of the Church Universal.
The Feast of All Saints is our “family” feast day. We remember not only the canonized saints of the Church on this day, but all our loved ones who have found favor with God and now live with Him in heaven. They too, like those who gave their lives in martyrdom, have made heroic sacrifices and lived lives of holiness. Thus, we hold them up as models and effective intercessors before the throne of God on our behalf. Today’s celebration is grounded in the ancient Church teaching concerning the Communion of Saints.
Just as we pray for one another, those who have gone on before us pray for us. They are joined to us forever in the communion of love and their prayers are powerful. This ancient and firm belief is attested to in the earliest writings of the Christian tradition. For example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote: “We mention those who have fallen asleep: first the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition… (Catechetical Lecture 23:9).
Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day, mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honors when their heavenly Father honors them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself overwhelmed by a tremendous yearning.
Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company. I hope that each one of us here this morning longs to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the college of the apostles, the great host of the martyrs, the noble company of confessors, and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints, among which are included our departed loved ones. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the followers of Christ who have gone before us awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.
Come, my brothers and sisters, let us at length encourage one another in fighting the good fight. We must rise again with Christ into new life. We must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us. Let us hasten to those who are waiting for us. And let us ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory, on thinking of the things of heaven.
When we commemorate the saints, we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as He appeared to them and that we may one day share in His glory. Until then, we see Him, not as He is, but as He became for our sake. He is our Head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that Head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed of what we have done to His Body. We should want to repent and live our lives in such a manner that they give glory to God.
When Christ comes again, His death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with Him. The glorious Head of the Church will appear and His glorified members will shine in splendor with Him, when He forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to Himself.
My brothers and sisters, we should concern ourselves with attaining this glory with a wholehearted and prudent desire. So that we may rightly hope and strive for such blessedness, we must, above all else, seek the prayers and intercessions of the saints. Thus, what is beyond our own powers to obtain will be granted through their intercessions.