The 90’s were a golden age for basketball. I didn’t watch the sport a lot, but I loved seeing Michael Jordan dunk the ball and lead the Chicago Bulls to NBA dominance. If you were to ask me ‘what is a basketball player?’ I would likely give you two answers. I may point to the obvious ten players on the court representing two teams, or Michael Jordan. THIS is a basketball player- an exemplar of the sport. He made others around him better and everyone wanted to imitate his commitment and passion. As a young fan I used to lower the hoop and dunk with my tongue hanging out too… Hah! (If you can’t relate please imagine someone who is a wonderful example of their calling and inspires you).
My intention, other than dating myself with my story, is to offer an important correlation. Saints are Christians in general, but there are also those who lived exemplary lives dedicated to their calling. They served God in piety, holiness, and even martyrdom. Col. 1:1-2 says, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colossae…” Church history is replete with exemplars of the faith. They are brothers and sisters who excelled in their efforts of holiness for God’s glory, leaving an indelible mark on our world. They fought the “good fight for their faith” (1 Tim. 6:12 and 2 Tim. 4:7) and embodied the scriptural virtues of “justice, piety, fidelity, love, fortitude, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11).
As an adult, it is the example of the saints that I truly long to emulate!
What is a saint?
‘Saint’ comes from the Greek word ἅγιος, which means holy. The term ultimately points us to God, the Holy One. The emphasis on saints in the Orthodox Church primarily recognizes God’s holiness in men and women. They are filled with his grace, sanctified in soul and body, and subsequently glorified with the Lord.
In the Old and New Testament we see an emphasis on being ‘saintly.’ In Lev. 11, 19, 20 & throughout Torah God tells his people to ‘be holy for I am holy.’ We must consecrate ourselves because we are His people and submit our will to His (1 Pet. 1:16). This is not a call reserved for pastors and priests only. Every baptized believer must recognize that they are God’s temple with his indwelling Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16) and called to holiness.
The Orthodox Church has several different categories of saints. Apostles were the first to spread the Gospel. Evangelists are those who continue to spread the Gospel. Prophets are those who presented God’s righteous standard to an obstinate people and also predicted and prophesied Messiah. Martyrs are those who died for the sake of their witness for Christ. Fathers & Hierarchs of the Church are those who faithfully defended the faith in word and deed. Monastics are those who dedicated their lives to spiritual exercise and holiness (asceticism). Finally, the righteous ones are those who led exemplary lives as clergy or laity and serve as examples. All of these individuals have one thing in common- a dedication to loving God & living a holy life.
St. Maximos the Confessor writes that the saints are those who have reached theosis, they are now united with God through the Holy Spirit (On Theology, 7.73). (Theosis is the process of sanctification and ultimate salvation. It is seen as a process of holiness in the believer’s life rather than a single moment (a prayer you prayed) because we are saved (2 Tim. 1:9), we are being saved (1 Cor. 1:18), and we will be saved (Rom. 5:9-10). Life is a struggle, a journey of discipline, discipleship, and growth in holiness. We believe in the ongoing and never-ending work of God in our lives of which we can participate with the ultimate goal of union with God.)
Personal impact of saints
Every Orthodox Christian picks a patron saint for their baptism and chrismation. Each time they receive the Eucharist they state their baptismal name and we celebrate our name saint day by commemorating their life and legacy. I picked two saints and my baptism name is Ephrem Chad. St. Ephrem the Syrian is a Syriac poet who wrote some of the earliest commentaries of the Old Testament. Read more about Ephrem here. I also chose St. Chad of Lichfield. Read more about St. Chad here. Each person picks their patron saint for different reasons. For me, both of these saints inspire me to follow God more closely and serve him more passionately.
The writings and lives of saints can inspire us in different ways. Many saints suffered greatly for their faith and their words often bring comfort, especially in pain. For those who don’t know, I suffer from chronic neurologic pain in my back resulting in many sleepless nights. The other day I was reflecting on the words of Fr. Seraphim Rose
He states, “Why do men learn through pain and suffering, and not through pleasure and happiness? Very simply, because pleasure and happiness accustom one to satisfaction with the things given in this world, whereas pain and suffering drive one to seek a more profound happiness beyond the limitations of this world. I am at this moment in some pain, and I call on the Name of Jesus—not necessarily to relieve the pain, but that Jesus, in Whom alone we may transcend this world, may be with me during it, and His will be done in me. But in pleasure I do not call on Him; I am content then with what I have, and I think I need no more. And why is a philosophy of pleasure untenable?—because pleasure is impermanent and unreliable, and pain is inevitable. In pain and suffering Christ speaks to us, and thus God is kind to give them to us, yes, and evil too—for in all of these we glimpse something of what must lie beyond, if there really exists what our hearts most deeply desire.”
What are you struggling with or suffering from? I guarantee a dear saint’s life and words can encourage you!
How are saints recognized (canonized)?
According to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the Orthodox Church recognizes saints based on what God has done through their lives. Long before an inquiry is made they are already recognized within their community as saintly people and a determination is made based on their life and witness. In the end, we recognize that they have cooperated with God’s sanctifying work and provided an incredible example for us to follow in our mutual love for God.
One of the first things people notice about the Orthodox Church is the use of icons to depict saints. Icons serve as a theological affirmation of realities like the incarnation, God became man (Jesus icon) and the Saints, including us, who are living icons created in God’s image. (This topic will be covered more fully in a later blog discussing icons & statuary).
In addition, Saints are often correlated with miracles, either before their death or after. Just as people received healing through Peter’s shadow (Acts 5) & Paul’s clothing or physical touch (Acts 19, 28), we see a pattern of God healing people through relics (bodies or objects of his saints throughout Church history). There are extensive Church records documenting these miracles. Glory to God! (The topic of relics and miracles is too big to cover in this blog, but I encourage further study if you are interested).
The Orthodox Church also believes that saints can intercede on our behalf in prayer for our benefit and God’s glory. While these saints have departed from the earth, they are alive in God’s presence (2 Cor. 5:8). We are surrounded by a great and living cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) because God is a God of the living and not the dead!
It is important to note that ‘to pray’ does not mean worship, it means to make a request. We ask those saints in God’s presence face-to-face to intercede on our behalf just like any other friend or family member. Intercession should also not to be confused with mediation. We affirm that there is only one mediator between God and Man, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).
Why can’t I just go directly to Jesus? Of course you can and we do! You should always be addressing God first! However, we may also ask fellow-beleivers to pray for our hurts & needs.
Early Church Attestation
Christians have always asked for the intercession of the saints. In the New Testament Paul asks the Ephesians, Thessalonians, Colossians and Romans to pray for him (Eph. 6:19, 1 Thess. 5:25; Col. 4:3, and Rom. 15:30-31). In every Liturgy, we ask God to accept, on our behalf, “the prayers and the intercession” of all the Saints, those on earth and who now live in heaven.
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.”
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).
St. Gregory the Theologian uses similar language in his encomium to St. Cyprian.
St. John Chrysostom encourages believers to seek the intercession and the fervent prayers of the saints, because they have special “boldness” (parresia), before God. (Encomium to Julian, Iuventinus and Maximinus, 3).
It is in our theology of the saints that our ecclesiology (theology of the church) and eschatology (theology of last things) overlap in a beautiful tapestry of the timeless Christian community. When we enter into the Divine liturgy we join in the worship already taking place in heaven among the saints and angels. We live in the tension of ‘now but not yet’. In Christ God’s kingdom has come and yet we wait for the ultimate fulfillment. We continue to strive toward Christ-likeness in this temporal life and those who have been glorified and passed into God’s presence are united with us in the communion of saints.
Through the prayers and lives of the saints, may we be encouraged to follow their example of virtue and holiness in our mutual dedication to God.
*See the upcoming topics for our ecumenical dialogue.