The Saints of The Orthodox Church
By George Bebis, Ph.D.
GOD AND HOLINESS
It must be stated at the beginning that the only true “saint” or holy one (Hagios) is God Himself. The Bible states “For I am the Lord your God; you shall name yourselves holy and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy … ” (Levit. 11:44; 19:2 and 20:7). Man becomes holy and “sainted” by participation in the holiness of God.
Holiness or sainthood is a gift (charisma) given by God to man, through the Holy Spirit. Man’s effort to become a participant in the life of divine holiness is indispensable, but sanctification itself is the work of the Holy Trinity, especially through the sanctifying power of Jesus Christ, who was incarnate, suffered crucifixion, and rose from the dead, in order to lead us to the life of holiness, through the communion with the Holy Spirit. In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians St. Paul suggests: “But we are bound to thank God always for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because from the beginning of time God chose you to find salvation in the Spirit that consecrates you, (en agiasmo Pneumatos) and in the truth that you believe. It was for this that He called you through the Gospel we brought, so that you might possess for your own the splendour of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2: 13–14).
CATEGORIES OF SAINTS
Through the work of the Holy Trinity all Christians could be called saints; especially in the early Church as long as they were baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity, they received the Seal of the Spirit in chrismation and frequently participated in the Eucharist. In the same spirit St. Paul, when writing to the Churches he had visited, calls all the faithful “saints.” Writing to the Ephesians, he addresses “the saints who live in Ephesus” (1:1); writing to the Corinthians he uses the same expressions (2 Cor. 1:11). St. Basil, commenting on this point, writes that Paul refers to all those who are united with God, who is the Being, the Life and the Truth (Against Eunomius, II, 19). Furthermore, St. Paul writes to the Colossians that God has reconciled men by Christ’s death, “so that He may present you before Himself holy, without blemish and innocent in His sight” (1:22).
In our society, however, who can be addressed as a saint? Who are those men and women and children who may be called saints by the Church today? Many Orthodox theologians classify the saints in six categories:
The Apostles, who were the first ones to spread the message of the Incarnation of the Word of God and of salvation through Christ.
The Prophets, because they predicted and prophesied the coming of the Messiah.
The Martyrs, for sacrificing their lives and fearlessly confessing Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Saviour of mankind.
The Fathers and Hierarchs of the Church, who excelled in explaining and in defending, by word and deed, the Christian faith.
The Monastics, who lived in the desert and dedicated themselves to spiritual exercise (askesis), reaching, as far as possible, perfection in Christ.
The Just, those who lived in the world, leading exemplary lives as clergy or laity with their families, becoming examples for imitation in society.
Each and every one among all these saints has his or her own calling and characteristics: they all fought the “good fight for the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12 and 2 Tim. 4:7). All of them applied in their lives the scriptural virtues of “justice, piety, fidelity, love, fortitude, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11).
THE CONCEPT OF THEOSIS
The ultimate goal of the saint is to imitate God and live the life of deification (theosis). St. Maximos the Confessor (seventh century) writes that the saints are men who have reached theosis; they have avoided unnatural development of the soul, that is, sin, and tried to live the natural way of life (i.e., living according to created nature), turning and looking always towards God, thus achieving total unity with God through the Holy Spirit (On Theology, 7.73).
It may be stated here that the Saints are first of all “friends” of God. Secondly, through their genuine piety and absolute obedience to God, they pleased Him and have therefore been “sanctified” both in soul and body, and subsequently glorified in this world. Third, they have been accepted in God’s bosom after their passing from the world into eternal life. Fourth, many of them have been given special “grace” or “favour” to perform miracles either before their departure from this world or after. Fifth, they have been granted the special gift to pray and intercede for those still living in this world and fighting the “good fight” for the glory of God and their own perfection in Christ. This intercession springs from the fact that they also are part of the “Communion of Saints”. They share prayers and good works with Christians on earth and there is a constant interaction and unity between the glorified saints in Heaven and Christians who still live in the world.
THE INTERCESSION OF THE SAINTS
The fact that Christians ask the prayers of saints and their intercession is prefigured in the New Testament. St. Paul asks the Christian Ephesians, Thessalonians, Colossians and Romans to pray for him (Ephes. 6:19, 1 Thesal. 5:25; Colos. 4:3, and Rom. 15:30-31). In every Liturgy, we ask God the Father to accept, on our behalf, “the prayers and the intercession” of all the Saints who now live in heaven. The Fathers of the Church also accept as a matter of course the prayers and the intercession of all the saints.
In one of his letters, St. Basil explicitly writes that he accepts the intercession of the apostles, prophets and martyrs, and he seeks their prayers to God (Letter 360). Then, speaking about the Forty Martyrs, who suffered martyrdom for Christ, he emphasizes that “they are common friends of the human race, strong ambassadors and collaborators in fervent prayers” (Chapter 8). St. Gregory of Nyssa asks St. Theodore the Martyr “to fervently pray to our Common King, our God, for the country and the people” (Encomium to Martyr Theodore). The same language is used by St. Gregory the Theologian in his encomium to St. Cyprian. St. John Chrysostom says that we should seek the intercession and the fervent prayers of the saints, because they have special “boldness” (parresia), before God. (Gen. 44:2 and Encomium to Julian, Iuventinus and Maximinus, 3).
THE VENERATION OF THE SAINTS
In the Orthodox Church the worship (latreia) given to God is completely different from the honour (tim) of love (agape) and respect, or even veneration (proskynesis), “paid to all those endowed with some dignity” (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. III, 40). The Orthodox honour the saints to express their love and gratitude to God, who has “perfected” the saints. As St. Symeon the New Theologian writes, “God is the teacher of the Prophets, the co-traveller with the Apostles, the power of the Martyrs, the inspiration of the Fathers and Teachers, the perfection of all Saints … ” (Catechesis, I).
Throughout early Christianity, Christians customarily met in the places where the martyrs had died, to build churches in their honour, venerate their relics and memory, and present their example for imitation by others. Interesting information on this subject derives from the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp (ch. 17-18), according to which the early Christians reverently collected the remains of the saints and honoured them “more than precious stones.” They also met on the day of their death to commemorate “their new birthday, the day they entered into their new life, in Heaven.” To this day the Orthodox have maintained the liturgical custom of meeting on the day of the saint’s death, of building churches honouring their names, and of paying special respect to their relics and icons. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.), in summarizing this practice of the Church, declares that “we adore and respect God our Lord; and those who have been genuine servants of our common Lord we honour and venerate because they have the power to make us friends with God the King of all.”
The feast days and the celebrations honouring the saints had become a common practice by the fourth century. The twentieth canon of the Council of Gangra in Asia Minor (between the years 325 and 381) anathematizes those who reject the feast days of the saints. So great was the esteem in which the Apostles, prophets, and martyrs were held in the Church, that many writings appeared describing their spiritual achievements, love and devotion to God.
Together with the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp , information on the veneration of the Saints derives from the Martyrdom of the Martyrs of Scilli, a small town in North Africa (end of the second century). The list of sources includes St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony; St. Basil’s Homily honouring the “Forty Martyrs”; Gregory of Nyssa’s Homily honouring St. Theodore; St. John Chrysostom also delivered a considerable number of sermons dedicated to the Martyrs of the Church.
The Fathers, and all early Christians in general, paid especially great respect to the relics of the martyrs. In addition to the sources already mentioned, Eusebius of Caesarea, the Church historian, says that “those who suffered for the glory of Christ always have fellowship with the living God” (Church History, 5:1). In the Apostolic Constitutions (5:1) the martyrs are called “brothers of the Lord” and “vessels of the Holy Spirit.” This helps to explains the special honour and respect which the Church paid to the relics of the martyrs. St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and St. John Chrysostom remind us that the relics of the martyrs “are filled with spiritual grace,” that even their tombs are filled with a special “blessing.” This Patristic practice still continues today, and people from all over the world visit churches that possess the relics of martyrs and saints. Also, according to the ancient tradition, the consecration of new churches takes place with the deposition of holy relics in the Holy Table of the sanctuary.
Great controversies have occurred in the past over the special honour due to the icons of Christ as well as those of the saints of the Church. The Iconclastic controversies which began in Byzantium in the seventh century shook the entire church. The Fathers of the Church, however, declared quite clearly that the honour belongs to the “prototype” and not to the material image of Christ or the Saints. The Acts of the Fourth session of the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (787 A.D.) illuminate this particular point:
“We accept (aspazometha) the word of the Lord and his Apostles through which we have been taught to honour (timan) and magnify (megalynein) in the first place Her who is properly and truly the Mother of God (Theotokos) and exalted above all the heavenly Powers; also the holy and angelic Powers; the blessed and all-lauded Apostles; and the glorious Prophets and the triumphant Martyrs who fought for Christ; holy and God fearing Doctors, and all holy men; to seek their intercession (presveies), to make us at home with the all-royal God of all, so long as we keep his commandments and strive to live virtuously. Moreover we accept (aspazometha) the image of the honourable and life-giving Cross, and the holy relics of the saints; and we receive the holy and venerable images; we accept them and we embrace them, according to the ancient traditions of the Holy Catholic Church of God, that is to say our holy Fathers, who also received these things and established them in all the most holy Churches of God and in every place of His dominion. These honourable and venerable images, as has been said, we honour, accept and reverently venerate (timitikosproskynoumen): the image of the incarnation of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and that of our immaculate Lady, the all-holy Mother of God, from whom he pleased to take flesh and to save and deliver us from all impious idolatry; also the images of the holy and incorporeal Angels, who appeared to the just as men. Likewise we also venerate the figures and the effigies (morphas, eikonismata) of the divine and all-lauded Apostles, the God-speaking Prophets, and the suffering martyrs and holy men, so that through their representations (anazografiseos) we may be able to be led back in memory and recollections to the prototype, and participate in their holiness”
(Nicene and Post–Nicene Fathers , Vol 14, p. 541).
THE FEAST DAYS OF THE SAINTS
The early Christians used to meet on the name-day of a saint, which in practice usually was the day of his death. These gatherings took place either around the tomb of the saint or in the church, which kept and preserved his holy relics, or in churches with great historical and theological significance. Such a gathering, called a feast-day or festival (Panegyris), commemorates the memory of the saint. The faithful participate in these feasts to listen to an encomiastic speech praising the deeds or the martyrdom of the venerated saint, and in general to derive spiritual profit. An interesting description is that of the panegris of St. Thekla of Seleucia in Asia Minor (mid-fifth century), and of St. Demetrios in Thessalonica, Greece (twelfth century). The Church Fathers and the canons of the Church accepted this type of gathering, which still takes place, but they strongly warn against the “commercialization of such festivals” (Speros Vryonis, Jr., “The Panegyris of the Byzantine Saint,” The Byzantine Saint, 1981).
The Orthodox Church gives a special place to the honour and veneration of the Virgin Mary the Mother of God, the Angels, and St. John the Baptist. Concerning the Virgin Mary, as Mother of God, suffice it to say that the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus (431 A.D.) officially adopted the term Theotokos in her honour. There is a period of fasting (the first 14 days of August) and numerous feasts and hymns dedicated to her. Her image is traditionally painted above the Sanctuary and called “more spacious than the heavens” (Platytera). The Virgin Mary, being the mother of God, earnestly intercedes for us, for she gave her flesh to Christ in all humility and obedience, so that the Word of God could become man.
The Orthodox believe the angels to be incorporeal beings, created by God before the actual creation. They are immortal, not by nature but by the grace of God, and are called “second lights,” the first light being God Himself. Their nature was originally changeable, but after the Incarnation of Christ, the angels were considered as saved (sesosmenoi) and, therefore, unaltered. The Fathers believed that every believer has his own “guardian angel”; the angels pray for us, sing, and unceasingly glorify the Holy Trinity. They also serve as examples that people should follow.
St. John the Baptist, whose icon is found on the Iconostasis of all Orthodox churches, was the prophet who baptised Christ and prepared His coming on earth; yet he suffered martyrdom for his holiness and obedience to the will of God. The Church has five feasts in honour of St. John the Baptist.
CANONIZATION OF SAINTS
The Orthodox Church does not follow any official procedure for the “recognition” of saints. Initially the Church accepted as saints those who had suffered martyrdom for Christ. The saints are saints thanks to the grace of God, and they do not need official ecclesiastical recognition. The Christian people, reading their lives and witnessing their performance of miracles, accept and honour them as saints. St. John Chrysostom, persecuted and exiled by the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, was accepted as a saint of the Church by popular acclaim. St. Basil the Great was accepted immediately after his death as a saint of the Church by the people. Recently, in order to avoid abuses, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has issued special encyclical letters (tomoi) in which the Holy Synod “recognizes” or accepts the popular feelings about a saint. Such an example in our days is St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain (1955).
Since the early Christian period there have been preserved many moving descriptions of the lives and martyrdoms and the miracles of the saints. They were (and still are) called synaxaria (from the Greek word Synaxis, meaning a meeting in the church for liturgical purposes, where the lives of the Saints were read). St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain composed synaxaria of the saints during the eighteenth century; and, most recently, Fr. George Poulos and Dr. Constantine Cavarnos have written lives of the saints in English.