What We Believe About the Saints and the Theotokos
In the Orthodox Church we invoke and venerate saints. They are an essential part of religious life. In fact, it has been said that warm veneration of the Theotokos and the Saints is the soul of Orthodox piety. We shall devote this chapter to a study of why we honor saints and what role they play in the story of our salvation.
THE CELEBRATION OF GOD'S SALVATION
In honoring the saints we celebrate God's accomplished work of salvation. Archbishop Paul of Finland writes, "In glorifying the saints' spiritual struggle and victory, the Church is in fact glorifying God's work of salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit; it experiences the salvation already accomplished in them, the goal towards which the members of the Church militant are still pressing on (Phil. 3:12,14)". Thus, by remembering the saints we celebrate what the Holy Spirit has done in their lives.
How greatly God honors our nature through the saints. Father John of Kronstadt, a saintly Russian priest, emphasized this when he wrote:
"How the Creator and Provider of all has honored and adorned our nature! The saints shine with His light, they are hallowed by His grace, having conquered sin and washed away every impurity of body and spirit; they are glorious with His glory, they are incorruptible through His incorruption. Glory to God, Who has so honored, enlightened, and exalted our nature".
The saints show us what a glorious destiny we have in God. Through the glorious example of their lives, they point the way to our becoming "partakers of divine nature."
WHAT IS A SAINT?
Let us share some inspiring definitions of sainthood. A saint is one who makes God's goodness attractive.
Saints are forgiven sinners living out their lives in the forgiveness God has given them.
Saints are people who make it easier for others to believe in God. A little girl said once as she looked at a saint in a stained glass window: "A saint is a Christian who lets God's light shine through".
St. Symeon the New Theologian says that the reason vigil lights are placed before the icons of the saints is to show that without the Light, Who is Christ, the Saints are nothing. It is only as the light of Christ shines on them that they become alive and resplendent.
A saint is one who is constantly conscious of being a sinner and rarely, if ever, conscious of being a saint. In fact, it has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: sinners who think they are saints, and saints who know they are sinners. The most outstanding personalities in Orthodox spirituality, those who saw the uncreated light of God, never said they had reached that high level of spirituality. The people around them detected it from the distinct radiance they generated.
It has been said that when a saint gets to heaven, he will be surprised by three things. First, he will be surprised to see many he did not think would be there. Second, he will be surprised that some are not there whom he expected to see. Third, he will be surprised that he himself is there.
A saint is one who sees himself in the sins of others.
A saint is one in whom Christ lives; one who opens his life to Christ and lives as Christ wills him to live.
A saint is one who has been made actually what Baptism declares him to be, one set apart for God.
God's saints are not those who wear the biggest halos. They are ordinary people who go to work, pay taxes, talk to friends. But when God speaks, they obey.
God's saints are often afraid but they count on God's promise, "Fear not." They know they are weak, but they depend on His strength. They sin, but grieve over every lapse. The never feel they have attained, but constantly press on toward their goal (Phil. 3:14).
"The saints show the way and are forerunners. The world is not yet with them, so they often seem in the midst of the world's affairs to be preposterous. Yet they are impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animators of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant" (William James, 1842-1910).
Saints are the most convincing answer to atheism and agnosticism.
A saint is someone who shows us what the Christian life is really all about.
A saint is a sinner who keeps trying.
Francis R. Line wrote these words entitled "A Saint?":
"What made Francis a saint?
It was simple.
Love of God and love of neighbors –
That was all.
He lived the two great commandments.
He really loved.
He loved God
With all his heart,
With all his mind,
With all his soul,
With all his strength.
As for his neighbors –
He gave his whole life to them
In loving word and deed and service.
It is simple, being a saint.
There are only two rules.
It is simple
But it isn't easy."
Saints are people who have consecrated themselves wholly to strive to express in their daily lives the love of God as revealed in Jesus.
The Greek word for saint hagios comes from a root word that means not like anything else, different. Saints are different from the people of the world. They march to the tune of a different drummer. They are conformed to the will of God in Christ.
As members of the Body of Christ, the Church, saints are the hands of God by which He accomplishes His work in the world today. Even after their deaths they perform works of love as intercessors in heaven who pray for us.
After a Christian missionary surgeon had operated on an African woman for cataracts and restored her sight, she said to him as she was leaving, "Good-bye, God." The doctor hastily explained that he was not God only a poor weak servant of His. That he was – but the woman saw God in him. So, a saint is one who makes God real to people today.
After visiting the home where a saint had lived, a person said, "There was an aroma of God in that room that 200 years could not erase. I think I'm better because I visited there." A saint is "the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved" through whom Christ "spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere" (2 Cor. 2:15-16).
All of us are involved in the process of deification, i.e., becoming like God in Christ. The saints are those who, having advanced closer to that goal, can help the rest of us through their example and prayers.
Listen to this beautiful definition of a saint as a mirror of Christ:
"Francis of Assisi was poor,
Frail in purse and body.
No excess possessions,
No surplus muscles or strength.
Plain sandals, rude cloak, rough cowl.
Not much to look at.
No one saw him when they looked.
They saw the one he reflected.
He was a mirror of Christ".
— by Francis R. Line
A saint is a mirror who reflects not himself but Christ.
"CALLED TO BE SAINTS''
St. Paul wrote to the Romans: "To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints ..." (Romans 1:7). To the Corinthians he wrote: "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints..." (I Cor. 1:2). When Paul was writing to the Christians in Rome and Corinth, reminding them they are "called to be saints," he was not writing to people likely to figure in stained-glass windows, but to a motley collection of shop-keepers, minor civil servants, converted prostitutes, prizefighters and slaves. These were the people he called God's "holy ones" – called to be like Christ their Lord, agents and instruments of His continuing work in the world. These were the "saints". And so, by God's grace, are we.
Every Christian is called to perfection and is capable of revealing the image of God hidden in him. But only a few become so transfigured through the Holy Spirit during their earthly life that they can be recognized as saints by other Christians and officially canonized as such by the Church. This should not draw our attention away from the fact that every baptized Christian is called to be a saint. In the New Testament the saints were not a spiritual elite but the whole body of Christians. That never meant that all Christians were regarded as having reached a sinless perfection. In that sense there are no saints in the New Testament, for even the best of Christians are far from perfect. The only saints the New Testament knows are forgiven sinners who are always ready to place their utter dependence on God's mercy and grace.
Thus, there are the Saints, with a capital "S", those officially recognized and canonized by the Church, and there are the saints with a small "s", who are the whole body of Christians – you and I included. We, too, are called to be men and women in whom others can in some way meet the living Christ. We can appreciate our call to be saints when we realize that saints become saints not so much because of the unusual things they do but rather because of the unusual degree to which they give themselves to Christ. By our daily faithfulness to Christ, each of us is a saint in the making. Made in the image of God and baptized in the Trinity, every Christian has the potential of sainthood.
Fr. Kallistos Ware writes, "It must not for one moment be thought that there are no saints except those publicly honored as such. Those who are mentioned in the calendar form but a small fraction of the whole Communion of Saints; besides them there is a great host whose names are known to God alone, and these are venerated collectively on the Feast of All Saints (observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost)".
FROM EVERY CLASS AND OCCUPATION
Saints come from every class and occupation, every temperament and background. They show us how Christ can be imitated in everyone's life including our own. As we have models in business, science, homemaking, etc., so we have faith models. We have soldier-saints, scholar-saints, politician-saints, missionary-saints, parent-saints, praying-saints, healer-saints, worker-saints, and most important of all, sinner-saints. Saints are not perfect people: to be a saint is to be the best one can be by God's grace. That is why every saint is different and why every Christian can be one.
The Saints were people who were just as human as we are. They were jealous, spiteful, scheming, lustful, often depressed and utterly discouraged. They did not walk through life with halos gleaming, with kindness and love streaming from them 24 hours a day. There were strong disagreements among them. St. Paul and St. Barnabas, for example, had a strong difference of opinion as to whether to take John Mark along with them on a missionary journey. Their disagreement was strong enough to make them agree to go their separate ways. Writing to the saints at Corinth, St. Paul reminds them that some of them had been fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, covetous, extortioners . . . but now in Christ they were washed and sanctified, he tells them. Thanks be to Christ Who washes our soiled humanity and transforms it into an attractive image of Christ that serves as an inspiration to others.
St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: "So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. . ." (Eph. 2:19). Every Christian has status. He or she belongs. We are fellow citizens with the Saints and members of the household of God! Christians should be taught from infancy to have the right kind of family pride: the kind that makes us want to live up to the family standard. The Head of our family is Christ Himself. Some of our brothers and sisters are the Theotokos, John the Baptist, the Apostles, St. Basil, St. Chrysostom and countless others. We belong to them, and they to us. It is a distinguished family tree.
A Christian does not walk alone as if sealed in a space capsule. We are members of God's family. As such, we must help and be helped by others. Orthodox Christianity does not espouse a narrowly individualistic "God-and-me" relationship. The Church is a family, God's family, in which we are concerned for one another. In the words of St. Paul: "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (I Cor. 12:26).
The Russian theologian Alexis Khomiakov (1804-60) said, "We know that when one of us falls, he falls alone; but no one is saved alone. He is saved in the Church, as a member of her and in union with all her other members."
As members of the household of God, Orthodox Christians feel that they can call upon their brothers and sisters in the faith – the Saints – for family support. This they do through prayers, beseeching the prayers of the Saints in their behalf.
The late Fr. George Florovsky, eminent Orthodox theologian, wrote:
"The final purpose of the Incarnation was that the Incarnate should have a "body', which is the Church . . . Christ is never alone. He is always the Head of His Body. In Orthodox theology and devotion alike, Christ is never separated from His Mother, the Theotokos, and His 'friends', the Saints. The Redeemer and the redeemed belong together inseparably. In the daring phrase of St. John Chrysostom, inspired by Ephesians 1:23, Christ will be complete only when His Body has been completed."
Speaking on the concept of the Church as the family and household of God, Nicolas Zernov wrote:
"The Orthodox . . . regard the saints ... as teachers and friends who pray with them and assist them in their spiritual ascent. Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry was surrounded by disciples who did not prevent others from meeting Him, but on the contrary helped newcomers to find the Master. In the same manner fellowship with the saints facilitates communion with God, for their Christ-like character brings others nearer to the divine source of light and life."
THE HEROES OF OUR FAITH
At Yankee Stadium, the home of the New York Yankees, there is a "Yankee Hall of Fame." One can spend a number of hours reading about all the great Yankee stars of the past. By putting on earphones one can hear their voices on recordings; telling among other things what their greatest thrills were as Yankee players.
God has a "Hall of Fame." In Hebrews chapter 11, He has listed some of the heroes and heroines of faith – men and women who trusted in God for their salvation. It is a thrilling chapter to read.
The Saints are in God's "Hall of Fame." They are the heroes of our faith. Carlyle said once, "Show me the man you honor, and I will show you the kind of man you are." It has been said that we are fresh out of heroes for our young people today. We are exalting punks. Saints make excellent heroes for children. They are powerful allies for parents and ideal heroes for children. It is for this reason that an Orthodox Christian is given the name of a saint at Baptism. In fact, the great St. John Chrysostom said, "Let us afford our children from the first an incentive to goodness from the name that we give them. Let none of us hasten to call his children after his forebears, his father and mother and grandfather and grandmother, but rather after the righteous – martyrs, bishops, apostles. Let one be called Peter, another John, another bear the name of one of the saints. Let the names of the saints enter our homes through the naming of our children."
It is not only the names but also the exemplary Christ-centered examples of the Saints that can enter our homes if parents will encourage children to learn about their patron saints. It is the custom among Orthodox to keep an icon of one's patron saint in one's room, to invoke his prayers and to celebrate the festival of one's patron saint as his/her Name Day. To many Orthodox this is a date even more important than one's actual birthday.
It is not just children who need heroes; adults also need them. In fact, in the early Church the veneration of saints was not imposed on the people by the hierarchy or the Church Councils. It was a practice that the people themselves began. It was a spontaneous act of the local community. They began to venerate certain exemplary Christians and often petitioned the Church to canonize them.
Hero worship is part of human nature. Most of us want someone to look up to and admire. We need role models in our Christian faith. We grow to be like the people we admire. If the desire for holiness is to be encouraged, one must see, not only its perfection in Christ, but approximations to it in the Saints. In fact, if we see such holiness only in our Savior and not in His people (the Saints), we may be disposed to consider holiness as an impossible ideal which we imperfect humans can never attain. We learn best when we see concrete examples of how to live the life of Christ in the world today. This is why the Saints are a challenge to us. They can shake us out of our complacency with our mediocre way of following Christ. Each saint shows us some particular aspect of the life of Christ and in imitating them we imitate Christ. Thus, St. Paul could tell his converts, "I urge you, then, be imitators of me" (I Cor. 4:16).
Looking back to his childhood, a noted author wrote:
"We grew up with the strength of the tribe. If anyone were to attack me, he'd have to take on all my uncles and aunts. Families were secure. . . I had bleachers all around me, filled not only with family, but with all the grown-ups in the township, cheering me on when I did well and groaning when I failed. . .
"All sorts of young people today run the race with only silence from the bleachers. It's a lonely race. Grandparents are a thousand miles away, uncles and aunts scattered to both coasts and overseas, parents often busy with double jobs, harried by their own affluence, or casualties of the divorce courts."
"A CLOUD OF WITNESSES"
It is because we are "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" that we are exhorted to "lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely" (Hebrews 12:1).
It is because we are "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" that we are challenged to "run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1).
It is because we are "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" that we are admonished to look "to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2).
The Saints are more than just watching us. They are surrounding us with their prayers, their cheers and the challenging stories of their victories in Christ.
We are not alone as we proceed on the journey to the kingdom. We are part of God's great family which includes those who have gone on before us. Just as it makes a difference in the lives of children when the bleachers are filled with uncles, aunts, and grandparents, so it makes a difference when we know that the bleachers of heaven are filled with Saints, cheering us on with their prayers and challenging us with the examples of their lives.
Orthodox Christians believe that there is only one Mediator between God and man, Jesus: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ" (I Tim. 2:5).
The Orthodox theologian Kritopoulos explains why Orthodox Christians invoke the prayers of Saints. He writes:
"We do not say to a Saint, "Saint N., save, redeem, or see that I obtain such and such goods' . . . but 'Saint N., pray for us' . . . Nor do we call Saints 'Mediators', for there is only one Mediator between God and man, . . . Jesus Christ, Who only is able to mediate between the Father and us . . . Not as mediators do we call upon Saints, but as intercessors . . . before God for us, who are our brethren . . . The Holy Spirit makes known unto them the needs of those who invoke them . . . and they intercede saying, 'not in our own deeds or merits – for we have nothing worthy in Thy sight – but in the deeds and merits of thy Only-Begotten Son, …do we pray to Thy Majesty, O thou Most High God' . . . Whence the Church asks nothing more from the Saints than that they intercede to God for us and beseech Him for all things useful to us."
Just as we pray for each other in this life so we continue to pray for one another in the other life. As Archbishop Paul of Finland writes, ". . . life continues after death. It would be strange to think that the prayers of a devout Christian reach God during his temporal life in this world, but not afterwards when he has 'departed and is with Christ' (Phil. 1:23)." 8 Indeed, early inscriptions, as in the Roman catacombs, show that the first Christians prayed for those who had died, and also asked their prayers.
Orthodox Christians do not ask for the prayers of Saints because they feel that they are more accessible to us, more human, more understanding, more merciful.
This would be an insult to God's love and a denial of His Incarnation through which God emptied Himself and took on our human nature because He cared so much for us.
Jesus is not some awesome Power in heaven Who looks down at us from a distance – too holy and too great to be approached. He is most approachable. Did He not say, 1 'Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest"? (Matt. 11:28). And, "Him that cometh to Me, I will in no wise cast out" (John 6:37)? And do we not read in Hebrews: "For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:15-16)? No Saint can ever be more accessible or approachable than Jesus.
THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
Although Saints are not substitutes for Christ, Orthodox Christians believe firmly in the communion of saints. By this we mean that the Church Triumphant in heaven is not insensitive to the needs and sufferings of the Church Militant on earth. The two churches remain connected through the bond of love which is expressed through prayer. The communion of saints is a communion of never-ending prayer.
Thus, besides our Church Family on earth, we belong to a larger family of God, which includes those who have gone before us. We are united with those in heaven. We call this the Communion of Saints, that is, the union of all who share in the life of Christ, whether on earth or in the other world.
Commenting on this, Fr. Kallistos Ware writes:
"In God and in His Church there is no division between the living and the departed, but all are one in the love of the Father. Whether we are alive or whether we are dead, as members of the Church we still belong to the same family, and still have a duty to bear one another's burdens. Therefore just as Orthodox Christians here on earth pray for one another and ask for one another's prayers, so they pray for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray for them. Death cannot sever the bond of mutual love which links the members of the Church together.''
Fr. John of Kronstadt writes on the communion of saints: "We live together with them (the Saints in heaven), in the house of the Heavenly Father, only in different parts of it. We live in the earthly, they in the heavenly half; but we can converse with them, and they with us."
How effectively the Communion of Saints is expressed on the walls of Orthodox Churches where the angels, prophets, apostles, martyrs and saints are all gathered together with the worshippers around the figure of the All-Ruling Christ in the dome. The entire Church, that in heaven and that on earth, converses with each other and lifts its heart in praise to God.
Sergius Bolshakoff caught this when he visited the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mt. Athos. He writes: "The church had its own air of mystery. A few red lamps burned before the golden iconostasis and the icons on the stand. Hieratic saints solemly looked down from the blue walls. It seemed as though they, too, had come to assist at the Liturgy, representing the church triumphant".
Noting the small congregation in church one Sunday morning, a cynic said to the priest, "Not many in church this morning, Father. Not many at all." The old priest replied, "You are wrong, my son. There were thousands at church this morning. Thousands and thousands and tens of thousands." For, the priest had just read in the prayers of the liturgy: "Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify thy glorious name, evermore praising Thee . . ."It was the Communion of Saints in action!
Among all the Saints, the Orthodox Church reserves a special position of honor for the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is venerated as the most exalted among God's creatures, "more honorable than the cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim."
The titles given to Mary by the Orthodox Church: Theotokos (Mother of God), Aeiparthenos (Ever-Virgin), and Panayia (All-Holy) serve a theological purpose. Far from elevating her to a position as a fourth person of the Trinity, such titles seek to protect and proclaim the correct doctrine of Christ's Person. The Mother is venerated because of the Son and never apart from Him. Too often a refusal to honor the Theotokos goes hand in hand with an incomplete faith in the Incarnation, i.e., the mystery of God becoming man in the Person of Jesus.
Nicholas Cabasilas has written: "The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father, of His Power and His Spirit ... but it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin. . . Just as God became incarnate voluntarily, so He wished that His Mother should bear Him freely and with her full consent." Mary stands as the greatest example of man's free response to God's offer of salvation. She stands as an example of synergy, or cooperation between man and God. God does not force His will on Mary but waits for her free response which she grants with those beautiful words: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Thus, Eve's disobedience is counterbalanced by Mary's obedience. She becomes the New Eve as Christ is the New Adam, lifting by her obedience the curse that the first Eve brought upon the human race by her disobedience.
The Immaculate Conception of Mary is not recognized as a dogma (official teaching) by the Orthodox Church. According to this Roman Catholic dogma, Mary was cleansed of original sin by God while still in her mother's womb in order that the All-Pure Son of God might be born through her. Since such a teaching denies the free response of man to God, the Orthodox Church believes that Mary was cleansed of all sin at the Annunciation after she had agreed to accept God's offer. It was at that point that the Holy Spirit came upon her to make her fit to receive the Word in her womb. At that moment she became "blessed" and "full of grace".
The Bodily Assumption of Mary to heaven which was formally declared as official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in 1950, remains a pious belief in the Orthodox Church based on tradition. According to this belief Mary's body was taken up to heaven after her death, as will our body at-the Second Coming of Jesus. Thus, in Mary's case, the Resurrection of the Body has been anticipated. Although the hymns of the Church that are sung on the Feast of the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos (August 15) clearly affirm such a belief, the Orthodox Church has not declared the Bodily Assumption of Mary to be a dogma since in the words of Vladimir Lossky, "The Mother of God was never a theme of the public preaching of the Apostles; while Christ was preached on the housetops . . . the Mystery of His Mother was proclaimed only to those who were within the Church. . . It is not so much an object of faith as a foundation of our hope, a fruit of faith, ripened in Tradition. Let us therefore keep silence, and let us not try to dogmatize about the supreme glory of the Mother of God."
Summarizing what the Orthodox Church believes about the Theotokos, we may say that the Virgin sits in the first pew leading us in our prayers to her Son. Her whole life and purpose are simply to bring us to Him. In the words of the Greek Orthodox theologian. Dr. N. A. Nissiotis:
"As shown in the icon, Mary is never alone but always with Christ. Thus prayer to her is the prayer of the Church with her to the incarnate Son. One should rather see in Mary, the 'Most Holy' (Panaghia), the first and the fullest of the Saints, leading them in a continuous intercession to her Son. The worshipping Church is not praying to the 'Theotokos' but praying with her to God. She is the animating power, the leader of this continuous intercession of the Community of Saints to the Trinitarian God."
Orthodox Christians do not worship the Theotokos and the Saints; rather they venerate them. God alone is worshipped. Anyone who claims that the Orthodox worship Saints is guilty of bearing false witness against his neighbor since we clearly do not believe this. The Saints are reverenced as reflections of the Christ image. It is God Who is glorified through His Saints. They are praised for what God has done in and through them.
Reverence for Saints is enhanced through the use and veneration of icons which are ever-present in Orthodox homes. The icon becomes a meeting place, an existential encounter, a window through which we look on the Saints not as shadowy figures from a remote past but as contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the same household of God. We feel free to call on them through prayer for family support as they intercede to God in our behalf. For example, St. Basil writes, "I accept the saintly Apostles, prophets, and martyrs, and in my prayer to God I call upon them and through their prayer I receive mercy from our God who loves all humanity" (Epistle to Amphilochios).
There is in man an innate sense of reverence for moral greatness. In Orthodox Christianity this reverence finds expression in the veneration of the Saints, the moral giants of our faith. The Orthodox believer's daily association with the Saints, whose lives glorified Christ, serves to form the Orthodox lifestyle.
The veneration of Saints serves also as a safeguard of the true faith and as a test of Orthodoxy. Any teaching that is not in harmony with the lives and faith of the Saints is rejected as false. All that is in harmony is welcomed for the enrichment it brings.
"HAVING REMEMBERED ALL THE SAINTS"
As we have said, we do not pray alone during the liturgy. We pray together with all the Saints. This is expressed when the priest says, "Having remembered all the Saints, again and again in peace let us pray to the Lord." The saints here refer to both the living and departed members of the Church.
More than once during the liturgy the deacon calls on us to pray with the similar exhortation; "Calling to remembrance our most holy, pure, blessed and glorified Lady, Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary together with all the Saints, let us commit ourselves and each other to Christ our God." Here we see clearly that the purpose of bringing to mind the Theotokos and all the Saints is to lead us to a deeper commitment "to Christ our God." The focus is not on the Saints but on Christ. After we have remembered the Saints, we move on "to commit ourselves and each other to Christ our God." Having fixed our gaze on others in the family of God who have rendered perfect service to His excellent glory, we are properly inspired to offer ourselves in total surrender and commitment to Christ, our Lord.
The names of the Saints, i.e., those who rejoice in heaven in fellowship with their Lord, are legion. They are known only to God. Of these countless Saints, the Church on earth remembers only a few whose holiness struck the imagination of the Christians of their era. The process of canonization in the Orthodox Church is described by Nicholas Zernov:
"Canonization in the Orthodox Church begins locally. Its first requisite is continuous and increasing love and veneration .... by members of his community. The next step is reached when the hierarchy of a local church undertakes to examine all the records left by the holy man or woman, and if these prove satisfactory, then the last part of the act is performed and canonization is announced and other autocephalous churches are informed. This considered judgment of the Church is essential, for sometimes people of exceptional spiritual gifts, but not necessarily of sound moral life and Orthodox faith, attract admiration and can mislead their followers." 14
RELICS OF SAINTS
The veneration of the relics of Saints dates back to the early Church. According to the Orthodox belief the body remains a Temple of the Holy Spirit even after death. Redeemed, cleansed, sanctified by the blood of Jesus, consecrated by the indwelling Spirit, the bodies of Saints are drenched, as it were, to their very bones with divinity. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) writes:
"Though the soul is not present, a power resides in the bodies of the saints because of the righteous soul which has for so many years dwelt in it, or used it as its minister" (Catechetical Lectures (XVIII, 16).
Fr. Kallistos Ware reminds us that the veneration of the relics of Saints in the Orthodox Church proceeds from a highly developed theology of the body:
"Belief in the deification of the body and in its eventual resurrection helps to explain the Orthodox veneration of relics. Since the body is redeemed and sanctified along with the soul, and since the body will rise again, it is only fitting that Christians should show respect for the bodily remains of the saints. Reverence for relics is not the fruit of ignorance and superstition, but springs from a highly developed theology of the body." 15
We read in "The Martyrdom of Polycarp": "So we later took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold, and laid them away in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us, so far as possible, to gather together in joy and gladness to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before, and to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter."
Canonized saints are but a tiny fraction of those who are with God in heaven. They are merely a few whom the Church projects as examples to spur us on to holiness. They are proof that holiness and heaven are attainable. Such Saints circulate through the Church Year assuring us again and again: "I made it. So can you. So must you!"
A cartoon in "The New Yorker" some time ago pictured a couple in a mid-town Manhattan apartment drinking martinis while the man said to the woman: "So what if Albert Schweitzer did escape the rat-race! Name three others!" The Church names more than three others! It points to a host of others – not only the Saints of the past but also the saints of the present. For, Scripture and the Liturgy call every baptized Christian a saint. When the priest says in the Divine Liturgy: "The saintly things (agia) to the saints (ayiois)," he is speaking not to the Saints on the iconstasis but also to the contemporary saints who are participating in the liturgy. The saintly things (the Body and Blood of Jesus) are offered to them (the living saints) to nourish their life in Christ. We are saints from the moment of baptism. We continue to be saints testifying and shining for Jesus in the world today as we maintain our fellowship with Him through prayer and the sacraments.
In the words of D.M. Prescott: "Each of us, the most unsaintly as well as the most spiritually minded, has a next step (to take) which will take him nearer to God; and all He asks of us is that we take that step."
A person once came to a religious teacher and exclaimed rather excitedly that someone had invented a robot, an artificial man. The great teacher was not impressed. "Show me someone who can create a saint," he said, "and I shall be impressed."
Our Lord Jesus specializes in creating saints!
"If man is not rising upwards
to be an angel,
depend on it.
He is sinking downwards
to be a devil.
He cannot stop the beast."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge "Table Talk"
1. By remembering and honoring the saints we celebrate what the Holy Spirit has done in their lives. God is praised in and through His saints.
2. The saints are those who, having advanced closer to the goal of theosis (becoming like God in Christ), can help the rest of us through their example and prayers.
3. Made in the image of God and baptized in the Trinity, every Christian has the potential of sainthood and is called by God to be a saint. Just as there are Saints with a capital "S", those officially canonized by the Church, so there are "saints" with a small "s", all baptized and committed Christians.
4. Saints are our brothers and sisters in the household of God. We pray to God not only as individuals but also as members of God's family together with the saints. We may call upon them for family support beseeching their intercession in and through Christ.
5. The Saints are the heroes of our faith, God's "Hall of Fame", who offer all of us a great incentive to virtue.
6. As a great "cloud of witnesses", the saints fill the bleachers of heaven cheering us on with their prayers and challenging us with the example of their lives.
7. Since Jesus Christ is the "one mediator between God and man", saints are not mediators but intercessors. We do not pray to Saints; rather we ask them to pray for us.
8. The Theotokos (Mother of God) is venerated and honored because of her Son and never apart from Him. She is the Panaghia, the first and fullest of the Saints, leading the Church in a continuous intercession to the Trinity.
9. Saints are not worshipped; they are venerated. Only God is worshipped.
10. Orthodox Christians respect and venerate the relics of the Saints (bodily remains) because the body along with the soul is redeemed and sanctified; one day it will rise from the grave to be with God forever.
What We Believe About Eschatology or Life After Death
A few years ago a significant number of books were written on what happens after we die. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' book "On Death and Dying'' and Dr. Raymond Moody's best seller "Life After Life" brought the subject of life after death to the attention of many people. It was common to hear people on the street and in social gatherings talking about a subject that for many years was taboo, i.e., what happens after we die.
For Orthodox Christians the only real evidence for life beyond the grave is to be found in God's word, not in Kubler-Ross or Moody or anyone else. Many of these authors have been involved in mystical experiences and the occult which are tools of Satan according to the teachings of our Church. The promise of life after death is assured solely by the resurrection of Jesus. "Because I live, you shall live also," said Jesus. No Christian should ever base his faith on anything but the word of God as interpreted by the Church. We should never allow human experience to speak with more authority than the Scriptures on this issue.
In addition to all the talk about life after death, not since the Middle Ages has eschatology been so popular a subject of discussion. Eschatology is just another one of those Greek words for how the world will end. There are those who believe that in the end civilization will emerge perfected after some kind of world-wide calamity. Then there are those who predict that civilization will disappear al-together. Whereas a few years ago we used jo believe in evolution, i.e., that the world was getting better and better, most people now believe that things are so bad they can't go on this way much longer. They believe more in a coming catastrophe than in evolution.
The story is told about Bishop Eivind Berggrav, the famed Norwegian war-resister of the Second World War, that when he saw the devastated ruins of London, he exclaimed, "If there is a Third World War, there will be nothing left". "Nothing but God!" Berggrav's British host rejoined.
President John Kennedy once said to the famous evangelist Billy Graham, after playing a round of golf with him in Florida, "I want to ask you a question. Where do you think history is going? What is going to be the climax, the end?"
It is a question that is being asked by many today; a question to which many false and misleading answers are being given; a question which affects each one of us. It is an important question that we shall endeavor to answer on the basis of God's word and the Sacred Tradition of the Orthodox Church.
WHAT IS ESCHATOLOGY?
What we shall be talking about is called in theology eschatology. Il comes from a Greek word, eschatologia, which means the doctrine or study of the last things. Eschata in Greek means the last things. It refers to the study of such events as death, the end of the world, the particular or intermediate judgment, the Parousia, the second coming of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, heaven and hell.
Christian eschatology tells us that the life we now live will not come to an end. It is headed somewhere. Our years on earth, however many or few, are not the whole story. There is more ahead.
We cannot escape eschatology. If we reject Christian eschatology, we will replace it with another version of eschatology. For example, the statement, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die," is an eschatological statement. It is talking about the end of your life and mine. It is telling us that death is supreme. It will get all of us in the end. So it behooves us to enjoy ourselves to the fullest before death catches us and puts an end to us.
In a similar way, our Christian faith is eschatological. In contrast to the secular eschatology of "Eat, drink, and be merry . . .," our Christian faith tells us: God is more powerful than death. In fact, He sent His Son, Jesus, to destroy death. In Christ, death does not destroy life. It fulfills life. God confronts each one of us in Christ to offer us life. In the words of the Apostle John, "He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life" (I John 5:12). The decision we make about Christ, i.e., whether we receive Him, ignore Him, or reject Him, determines whether we spend eternity with God in heaven or without Him in hell. For the unbeliever the end of the world may mean annihilation, destruction, catastrophe; for the Christian, however, the end of the world means the beginning of eternity, the inauguration of a new and better life, the coming of the Kingdom of God for each of us personally.
So whether we are believers or unbelievers we are involved in eschatology. Something is going to happen to us at the end of our lives. Depending on what we do now it can be either the greatest good or the greatest calamity.
To see how eschatology fits into God's plan of salvation let us examine the four stages of grace:
1. Preparation, which, simply stated, means God calls us to be converted, to change the whole direction of our life so that it is headed toward God.
2. Justification, which is our being cleansed of sin through baptism and after baptism through repentance. We become justified, just-as-if-we-had-never-sinned.
3. Sanctification, which is the process of being sanctified or made holy. This is the Christian's gradual growth in Christ. It includes the putting on of Christ and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Here prayer and the sacraments play an important role.
4. Glory, which refers to what will happen to us after death, i.e., we shall see God's glory and share in it. This is the last, or the eschatological stage. The first three stages: preparation, justification, and sanctification culminate in the glory stage. "When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory" (Col. 3:4). This is what lies ahead for the believer.
THE WHOLE PURPOSE OF THE CREED
Because Christ has overcome sin and death, because He is the living Lord of our lives, we have a future: death is not the last word in human destiny. This powerful theme of unquenchable hope runs through the whole New Testament and is expressed so effectively in the Nicene Creed.
The Creed delineates exactly what we are waiting for in the future. We are waiting for the second coming of Jesus. We are waiting for the resurrection of the dead. We are waiting for the life of the ages to come. To use the words of the Creed, "And I wait for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. . . He (Jesus) shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, of Whose kingdom there shall be no end."
This is the end. This is the purpose. This is the great goal toward which the entire creed is marching. If you drop the end of the Creed which talks about the coming of Jesus and the life of the world to come, you might as well stop reciting the rest of it, because it has no meaning left in it.
"I believe ... in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord." Why is Jesus one of the focal points of the Creed? The answer is to be found again in the Creed: "Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven." That is what it is all about. He the beloved Son of God, of the same essence with the Father, came down from heaven, was crucified, died and buried. He rose on the third day and is now sitting at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. But why? What for? Why this strange expedition all the way from heaven to earth? Why this incredible story of God become man? Why does God have to die and rise again? Why any of this but for one reason? God did it in order to come and take us with Him to a specially prepared place so that we might be with Him forever. This is what God desires for each of us as the end point, the omega, of our lives. This is our Christian eschatology – yours and mine – which Jesus expressed so beautifully in His priestly prayer to the Father, "Father, I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which Thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24). This is why Fr. Florovsky stated that "eschatology is not just one particular section of the Christian theological system, but rather its basis and foundation, its guiding and inspiring principle, or, as it were, the climate of the whole of Christian thinking. . . The Christian perspective is intrinsically eschatological."
THE LAST CHAPTER
Life is complex. Things never seem to turn our right. Many times it is like a detective story where the plot seems very confused. One is not at all certain what the outcome will be. But in the last chapter the detective summons all the suspects into a room, proceeds to unravel the mystery, shows the pattern running through it, and reveals how he knew the guilty man. It is only in the light of the last chapter that the rest of the book makes sense.
Now if one had read the last chapter first, then one would be able to make a good deal more sense out of the story. Knowing what happens in the last chapter, one would see meaning and significance in the events as they took place.
In His great love God has allowed us to read the last chapter. He has allowed us to see that we live in a world where the final victory has been won. The cross was not the end for Jesus; neither will it be the end for those who believe in Him. The Risen Christ will have the last word. And the last word is:
"In the world you have tribulation but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
The final chapter is the Parousia, the Second Coming of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment and the establishment of the endless Kingdom of God. If we know this in advance, what a profound difference it should make in our attitude toward suffering, toward evil, toward death, toward everyday life.
One of the very vital and existential truths with which Christian eschatology confronts us is death – your death and mine. We do everything to try to repress the reality of death. But Jesus talks about it repeatedly. He talks about it because He has the greatest good news to share with us about how He defeated death, actually trampled upon it by His own death, in order to grant those who are in the tombs, and to each one of us as we face our own death – the promise of everlasting life.
When St. Paul talks about death he uses a figure of speech which compares the earthly body to a tent that is used for a time and which at death is exchanged for a heavenly house (see 2 Cor. 5:1-4). This reminds us of the words of our Lord Jesus when He spoke of heaven as a place where there would be many rooms for His people to live in. "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (John 14:1-3). All this means that when the moment of death comes for the believer he will move from the tent he is presently living in – his earthly body – and will take up residence in a permanent home Jesus has prepared for him.
One of the most beautiful illustrations of what death really is like for the Christian believer is the following. There was a little boy who had an incurable illness. Month after month, the mother tenderly nursed him. But as the time went by, the little fellow gradually began to realize he would not live. One day he asked his mother: "Mom, what is it like to die? Does it hurt?"
Tears filled the mother's eyes as she fled to the kitchen to see about something on the stove. She knew the question had to be faced. She leaned against the kitchen cabinet, her knuckles pressed white against the wall, and breathed a quick prayer: "Lord, tell me how to answer him." And the Lord did tell her. Immediately she knew what to say.
She returned to his room. "Kenneth," she said, "You remember when you were a tiny boy you used to play so hard, when night came you would be too tired even to undress, and you would tumble into mother's bed and fall asleep? That was not your bed. It was not where you belonged.
"In the morning you would wake up and find yourself in your own bed in your own room. Your father had come with big strong arms – and carried you into your own bed. Kenneth, that's what death is like. We fall asleep. Then our heavenly Father picks us up with His mighty hands and carries us to heaven. Later, when morning comes, we wake up and find ourselves not in a strange place but in our own room – in a place where we belong".
That is what death is for the Christian: moving day. We move from one room in our Father's house (a temporary room which St. Paul calls a tent) to a permanent room which shall be our very own in heaven. It is, in effect, a true homecoming. As the door closes on this life, God opens a new door to a heavenly life.
As surely as God sent us to earth, He has given us a return ticket. As Jesus said, "I come from God and I go to God." Life is like a round-trip journey. We come from God and ultimately we go back to Him.
Aristides, a pagan Greek, in 125 A.D., wrote to one of his friends about the new religion, Christianity, and its attitude toward death. A sentence from one of his letters reads, "If any righteous man among the Christians passes from this world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God, and they escort the body with songs and thanksgiving as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby."
St. John Chrysostom summarized the Christian's attitude toward death when he wrote:
"When a dear one dies, the unbeliever sees a cadaver, but the Christian sees a body asleep. The unbeliever says that the dead person has 'gone'. We agree, but we remember where he has gone. He has gone where the apostle Paul is, where Peter is, where the whole company of the saints are. We remember that he will rise, not with tears of dismay, but with splendor and glory."
Thus, physical death, the separation of soul and body, which occurred as a result of sin and as punishment for it, loses its fearful aspect for those who have been redeemed in Christ. It opens the door to a glorious new life with God in heaven. Death is now swallowed up in victory (I Cor. 15:54). "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (I Cor. 15:21-22).
Let us apply this faith to a specific example.
What if you had an eight-year-old boy and the doctor told you that he had only a few minutes to live, what would you say to him?
Or, what if you were a priest, and the parents of that child came to you, and said, "Father, won't you say something to Johnny? He has only a few minutes left." What would you say? What would I say?
Well, this actually happened once. A splendid Christian woman who happened to be a scrubwoman in the hospital where little Johnny was a patient had come to know him well. Upon learning that he did not have much longer to live, she walked calmly into Johnny's room, sat on his bed, took his thin hands between her calloused palms, and said, "Listen, Johnny, God made you. God loves you. God sent His Son to save you. God wants you to come home with Him."
With great difficulty Johnny raised himself up on his elbow and said, "Say it again." She repeated: "God made you. God loves you. God sent His Son to save you. God wants you to come home with Him." Johnny looked into her beautiful face and said, "Tell God, 'Thank you' ".
These beautiful words of the Christian scrubwoman summarize our theology of death.
THE PARTICULAR OR INTERMEDIATE JUDGMENT
Now we face the question: what happens immediately after a person dies? Is there immediate judgment? Do we just sleep until the Second Coming of Jesus? What lies ahead for us the moment after we die? The Orthodox Church teaches that immediately after death a person is judged. He or she experiences a foretaste of the punishment or reward that will be received in its entirety as the Second Coming of Jesus. It is much like a runner who has come in first in a track meet. He knows he has won. He basks in the satisfaction of victory. He is already in heaven, as it were, but he has to wait until the banquet in the evening to receive the trophy. It is then that he will be granted his reward officially.
The Synod of Constantinople (1672 A.D.) expressed our belief regarding the Particular Judgment as follows:
"We believe that the souls of the departed are either in bliss or in torment as each one wrought, for immediately after the separation from the body they (the souls) are pronounced either for bliss or suffering and sorrow, yet we confess that neither the joy nor the condemnation are as yet complete. After the General Resurrection, when the soul is united to the body, each one will receive the full measure of joy or condemnation due him for the way in which he conducted himself, whether for good or bad."
Thus, after death we begin to experience a real foretaste of heaven or hell, but we shall have to wait for the Second Coming before we can receive the fullness of our reward.
The judgment that takes place after death is called the Particular or Intermediate Judgment. It is clear that the soul does not sleep during this time. The word "asleep" applies only to the body. This is why the place where the body is placed is called "cemetery" from the Greek word Kimitirion, a place where one sleeps. The soul, however, does not sleep after death. It is fully conscious, experiencing its reward.
Can there be anything like repentance after we die? The Orthodox Church teaches that the state of the soul at the Particular Judgment (immediately after death) is fixed and unchangeable, that is, there can be no moral improvement or repentance beyond the grave. The place for such improvement is in this life. "We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day," said Jesus, "night comes, when no man can work" (John 9:4). In His mercy God gives us many chances to repent and return to Him. But this should not lead anyone to presume upon God's goodness. One day there will be a last chance.
THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
We see much of what we believe about the Particular or Intermediate Judgment illustrated in the story of the rich man and Lazarus as told by Jesus. When Lazarus died "he was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom." That is rabbinic language for paradise. This parable tells us that we are not alone at the moment of death. God sends His angels to carry us, to escort us, into His Presence.
In that life beyond death, Lazarus and the rich man are not asleep. They are very much alive. They recognize each other. They remember their life on earth. "Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish." The rich man in his great affluence had been ignoring poor Lazarus, dying of starvation on his doorstep. Now he was paying the price for his lack of love. "Being in torment ... he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame." To show that there can be no repentance, no moral improvement, no salvation beyond the grave, Abraham tells the rich man, "…between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us."
One cannot pass from hell to heaven beyond the grave. The time and place for that is in this life. Jesus calls us to faith and repentance today. For today, now is the day of salvation.
Already in this life God prepares us for the Particular Judgment. Whenever we choose God's will, we experience a bit of heaven in the satisfaction that God bestows on us through the voice of conscience. We enter already by anticipation into eternal life. Likewise whenever we deliberately disobey God s will, we experience a foretaste of hell through the terrible pangs of conscience. The moral order of God's universe keeps breaking in on us constantly to prepare us for the judgment to come.
Thus, we may distinguish three stages in life.
1. Our life on earth which is the arena of grace and the preparation for heaven;
2. the particular judgment which takes place after death during which lime, while the body sleeps, the soul experiences a foretaste of heaven or hell and
3. the Resurrection of the dead and the Final Judgment at the coming of Jesus when the soul and the body will be reunited for eternity to receive in full their crown of glory or punishment.
This is the faith we live by. This is the faith we die by. When the end comes, we too will be able to say together with St. Paul: "The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing" (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
THE LAST DAYS
The Scriptures mention six events that will occur before the Second Coming of Jesus:
1. The preaching of the Gospel to all nations (Matt. 24:14).
2. The return of Israel to Christ (Rom. 11:25-26).
3. The coming of Elijah and Enoch in the last days (see Rev. 11).
4. The appearance of the Antichrist.
5. A mass apostasy or falling away from the true Christian faith led by false teachers (Matt. 24:4-5).
6. Wars, revolutions, famines and earthquakes (Matt. 24:6-8).
Commenting on the meaning of these six events that will precede the Second Coming, Fr. Kallistos Ware writes:
"Scripture and Tradition speak to us repeatedly about the Second Coming. They give us no grounds for supposing that, through a steady advance in 'civilization', the world will grow gradually better and better until mankind succeeds in establishing God's kingdom upon earth The Christian view of world history is entirely opposed to this kind of evolutionary optimism. What we are taught to expect are disasters in the world of nature . . . warfare between men . . . apostasy … tribulation . . . (the) Antichrist who . . . will be . . . not Satan himself, but a human being ... in whom all the forces of evil will be concentrated and who will for a time hold the entire world under his sway. The brief reign of Antichrist will be abruptly terminated by – the Second Coming of the Lord, this time not in a hidden way, as at His birth in Bethlehem, but ‘sitting on the right hand of power' (Matt. 26:64). So the course of history will be brought to a sudden and dramatic end, through a direct intervention from the divine realm."
The six signs that will precede the Second Coming are sufficiently vague as to keep the exact time of His coming a mystery. How many times, for example, in history have Christians thought that the Antichrist had come in the person of Nero, Hitler or Stalin? How many times have there been mass apostasies from the Christian faith led by false teachers? How many times have there been revolutions, famines, and earthquakes which made many believe that the Coming of Jesus was imminent? Despite these six signs we have no exact timetable from God regarding the Second Coming of Jesus. We know neither the day nor the hour. "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. . . Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Matt. 24:36, 42). He will come "as a thief in the night" (I Thess. 5:2).
You ask, why did not God tell us when Jesus will come again? For very good reason. He wants us to be constantly prepared, to maintain constant purity in our lives. Augustine put it this way: "This one day God has concealed from us that we may keep a better and closer watch over the others days of life."
When company comes to your home, you like to know the exact hour of their arrival so that you can have the house clean and ready for their arrival. If you do not know when they are coming, you will have to keep the house clean and neat all the time.
I read recently of a conversation between two of our, Roman Catholic brethren:
"Oh, my Lord! He's coming!"
"Jesus, you idiot. O, Lord! Where's the nearest confessional?"
"Because I'm not ready, that's why! What a way to run a world. Doesn't He know I've been too busy lately? Why didn’t He give us a little advance warning?"
"About two thousand years ago".
The whole theme of the Christian's life is watchfulness, preparedness, expectant faith. The end is always imminent, always spiritually close at hand. We are constantly only a heart beat away from judgment. "And just as it is appointed 1 for men to die once, and after that comes the judgment . . . (Heb. 9:27). How well this sense of urgency is captured by the words of St. Andrew of Crete, recited each Lent in the Great Canon:
"My soul, O my soul, rise up! Why art thou sleeping! The end draws near, and soon shalt thou be troubled. Watch then, that Christ thy God may spare thee, For He is everywhere present and fills all things."
The Lord Jesus said,
"Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I say to you, he will gird himself and have them sit at the table, and he will come and serve them. . . You also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Luke 12:35-40).
God will one day step into history in the Person of Jesus to judge the living and the dead. "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body" (2 Cor. 5:10), The purpose of Judgment is not to make us afraid but to drive us to repentance so that we may become truly "His people" by faith, hope and love. God's judgment is redemptive. He wants all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth.
THE VICTORY MADE MANIFEST
The Second Coming of Jesus is the goal toward which all of life is moving, (he harbor toward which the ship of life is sailing. The victory of Christ achieved by His ressurection remains to the world a hidden victory, seen only through the eyes of faith. The Second Coming of Jesus will be that point in history when the victory of Christ will be seen and made manifest to all eyes, and the world will come to know what the Church already knows: that Jesus Christ is Lord!
The Second Coming of Jesus shows us that God has a plan for the world, that history is not a haphazard collection of chance events which are going nowhere. The Second Coming tells us that the world is going somewhere. It has a supreme purpose. The whole of creation is marching toward the time when Jesus will come again as Judge and Lord of all. Every one of us will appear before Him to give an account of our life. This is how much God cares for each one of us personally; this is how much what we do in life today and every day matters to Him. At the end of life each of us will have a personal and private audience with the Lord of the Universe! Every liturgy reminds us of this when it invites us to pray for "a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ." The whole of life, then, for the Christian is a preparation for the parousia, the Second Coming of Jesus. When the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away; we shall see Him not as in a mirror darkly but face to face (I Cor. 13:9-12). We shall be looking upon His glory forever (I Thess. 4:17) in a "new heaven and a new earth" (2 Peter 3:3-13).
WHAT WILL HAPPEN ON THAT DAY?
1. The Bible tells us that when the Lord returns: "All the tribes of the earth will ... see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory: and He will send out His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the earth to the other" (Matt. 24:30, 31).
2. At the return of the Lord the dead are to be raised up. "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven . . . and the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive . . . shall . . . meet the Lord . . ." (I Thess. 1:16-17).
3. At the return of the Lord, judgment will take place. St. Paul writes, "This judgment will issue in . . . Christ's personal coming from Heaven with the angels of His power. It will bring full justice in dazzling flame upon those who have refused to know God or to obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Their punishment will be eternal exclusion from the radiance of the Face of the Lord, and the glorious majesty of His power. But to those whom He has made holy His coming will mean splendor unimaginable. It will be a breath-taking wonder to all who believe – including you, for you have believed the message that we have given you" (2 Thess. 1:7-10).
Fr. Kallistos Ware writes, "The Orthodox attitude toward the Last Judgment and Hell is clearly expressed in the choice of Gospel readings at the liturgy on three successive Sundays shortly before Lent. On the first Sunday is read the parable of the Publican and Pharisee, on the second the parable of the Prodigal Son, stories which illustrate the immense forgiveness and mercy of God towards all sinners who repent. But in the Gospel for the third Sunday – the parable of the Sheep and the Goats—we are reminded of the other truth: that it is possible to reject God and to turn away from Him to Hell."
Judgment means that we shall be seen by God one day as we truly are, with nil our masks and pretension stripped away. This is what happened to Peter after he denied Jesus. He saw Jesus once. Jesus looked at him and Peter couldn't return the look. He was judged, seen as he truly was. It was that look that helped Peter realize the great sin he had committed. It led him to repentance and forgiveness.
We may expect mercy from God. There is no sin He will not forgive if man repents. It is only for unrepented sin that there is no forgiveness – not because God refuses to forgive but because man does not seek forgiveness. We would all like to be given a second chance after death. But God gives us a second chance – a thousand second chances – in this life. He became man in the Person of Jesus; He died on the cross to forgive us; He rose from the grave to destroy death for us; He forgave the penitent thief just before he died to show how many second and third Chances He is willing to give us. He continues to plead with each one of us personally with His Spirit through the voice of conscience. His love and mercy are [continually offered to us through the Church and the Bible, but even God cannot 'force' people to love Him or it is not true love. Part of the meaning of human |freedom is that it gives us the awful privilege of saying "No" to God and refusing His love.
THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY
One of the events that will occur at the Second Coming of Jesus is the resurrection of the dead. By resurrection of the dead we mean the raising of the bodies of all those who have died and the reunion of the body with the soul by the power Of the Almighty. St. John of Damascus tells why the resurrection of the body is necessary: "If the soul alone exerted itself in the battle for virtue, then it alone should be crowned. If it alone was defiled …in justice it alone should be punished. But since neither soul nor body had existence the one apart from the other, nor did the soul apart from the body exercise itself in virtue or vice, quite rightly are both to receive their due reward together."
The Greek Orthodox theologian Androutsos called the resurrection "a creative net of divine greatness and might, dissolving the rule of death and raising up ill the dead along with the living before the divine bar of judgment. Just as God Creutcd all things out of nothing, so, through the same creative power He restores human bodies to their first essential form". According to St. Paul the bodies of the dead, when raised, will be incorruptible and spiritual bodies like the body of the Risen Christ during His appearances to the disciples following the resurrection. An (i spiritual body it will no longer need the marriage relationship and will not be susceptible to death. It must be borne in mind that the Scripture passages of the New Testament that deal with the Resurrection of the dead and the General Judgment do not give all the details about what will occur. In the words of one respected Orthodox theologian, "nor must they be taken literally, since they are pictures portraying to us the inconceivable grandeur of that day."
When trying to describe the resurrection of the dead, St. Paul uses an analogy from nature. He reminds his readers that when they sow grain, the seed must first "die" before it can produce new life. Though the "body" of the seed is different from the "body" of the full grown wheat, there is still continuity between them.
What is reaped is different than what is sown, and yet it comes from what is sown.
He goes on to explain that the same is true with the resurrection of the dead. It is "sown" a physical body, he says, but it is raised a spiritual body.
"What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.
It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.
It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.
It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body."
(I Cor. 15:42-44).
In the resurrection we shall not have our weak earthly bodies but new bodies, fashioned by God. Yet there shall be continuity between them. It will be our present body but transformed and renewed as St. Paul describes in Phil. 3:20.
"But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself" (italics added). In the final analysis the questions of "How the dead are raised? With what kind of body do they come?" (I Cor. 15:35) remain beyond human understanding: "Lo! I tell you a mystery" (I Cor. 15:51), says Paul. The main truth is that God, in His own way and fashion, will transform us so that we may continue to live in constant fellowship with Him, glorifying Him through all eternity.
Speaking of the continuity between the earthly and the resurrected body, St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes,
"It is this selfsame body that is raised, although not in its present state of weakness; for it will 'put on incorruption' (I Cor. 15:53) and so be transformed ... It will no longer need the foods which we now eat to keep it alive ... for it will be made spiritual and will become something marvelous, such as we cannot properly describe".
Both the Old and New Testaments agree that body and soul cannot be split apart. We are both psyche (soul) and soma (body). We are a unity (psychosomatic). We are not just one or the other; we are both, and God will keep body and soul together for all eternity. Thus, eternal life is a transforming rather than a junking of life on earth. When God came to earth to save man, he took on not only a human soul but also human flesh. He came to save the whole man, body and soul.
God created man to be a unified being of body and soul and to remain so for all eternity. It was the fall of Adam that brought about the separation of body and soul in death: "Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return" (Gen. 3:19). Through the Resurrection of Jesus God's original plan for man is restored. At the Second Coming the body will be resurrected to be reunited with the soul.
This is the faith of the New Testament. This is the faith of the early Christians. This continues to be the faith of the ancient Orthodox, Catholic and Apostolic Church: that through His Resurrection the Lord Jesus has completely conquered death. As a result of His victory the dead will rise again "in Christ" to enjoy eternal life in spiritualized and transfigured bodies and in a totally new creation. St. Gregory Palamas said, "When God is said to have made man according to His image, the word 'man' means neither the soul by itself nor the body by itself, but both together." Both together will be saved. Both together will be transfigured. Both body and soul will spend eternity together in a new heaven and a new earth.
St. Athanasius speaks of the resurrection of the body as the great monument of Christ's victory over death:
"The supreme object of his coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body. This was to be the monument to his victory over death, the assurance to all that he had himself conquered corruption and that their own bodies also would eventually be incorrupt; and it was in token of that and as a pledge of the future resurrection that he kept his body incorrupt."
THE GENERAL JUDGMENT
Following the resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of Jesus, the General Judgment will take place. As Jesus said, "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at his left. Then he will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food. . . Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food. . . And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25).
The same Jesus who came humbly in Bethlehem to be our Savior will come again at the end of time to be our Judge. The purpose of His first coming was to prepare us for the Second Coming. The One who will meet us at the end of the road is the One with Whom we may walk hand in hand on the road of life right now. In fact, we may even minister to Him in the persons of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick. The single most important criterion by which we shall be judged is the royal virtue of love: love of God and love of neighbor. "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me" (Matt: 24:40).
Remember that the Lord Jesus as Judge on the last day will not condemn those who have sinned, but those who have sinned without repenting. He forgives and saves those who have repented of their sins. For this reason He came into the world: to SAVE. That was the purpose of His coming; that was the dream of His heart; to save us all so that we might be with Him in His glory forever – not one missing!
Fr. Kallistos Ware writes,
"The Last Judgment is best understood as the moment of truth when everything is brought to light, when all our acts of choice stand revealed to us in their full implications. When we realize with full clarity who we arc, and what has been the deep meaning and aim of our life. And so, following this final clarification, we shall enter – with soul and body reunited – into heaven or hell, into eternal life or eternal death". *
Daniel Webster was once asked, "What is the greatest thought you have ever had?" Pondering a moment, he replied, "The greatest thought I have ever had was my accountability to God.'' Without this fact of the ultimate justice of God, when all the inequities will be balanced and the injustices corrected, life would be a "tale told by an idiot". Nothing would make sense. Everything would by unreasonable, nonsensical, meaningless.
There have been those in the history of Christianity who have believed in the so-called millennium. This is a teaching that holds that when Christ returns He will reign on earth with His disciples for one thousand years. Based on a literalistic interpretation of Revelation 20, and espoused by heretics in the early Church (Gnostics and Montanists), the idea of an earthly millennium was rejected by the Church. It is mentioned neither in the Nicene Creed nor its doctrines as are the Second Coming and the General Judgment.
What is heaven?
Orthodox theology teaches that the bliss of heaven consists (1) in deliverance from suffering, pain, grief, corruption, etc., (2) the enjoyment of the vision of God, (3) the reunion with all other righteous souls. There is also a gradation of blessedness corresponding to the moral state of each soul.
Heaven is spoken of in Scripture as "Kingdom of God," "everlasting life," "bosom of Abraham" and "paradise".
In 2 Corinthians 12, St. Paul used guarded language to speak of a contact he had with the glorious heavenly reality. He writes:
"I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up in the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know. God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter" (vv. 2-4).
St. Paul is speaking here about himself. He speaks as carefully as he does because he continued to be so astonished by the memory of the event that he could scarcely believe that it actually happened. Above all, he did not wish to fall into the trap of boasting to others about it. Paul had been given a vision of Paradise, and he knew something special about the future beyond the grave; and what he knew gave him reason to tell us that the future of believers is glorious beyond imagination. "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it ever entered into man's imagination what things God has prepared for those who love Him" (I Cor. 2:9).
One great Christian said once that if the Lord told us too much about heaven in the Scriptures, we would be so homesick for heaven we wouldn't do any work here. God is wise not only in what He tells us but also in what He does not tell us.
One of the great characteristics of heaven will be joy. Jesus Himself compared the Kingdom of God to a marriage feast. Christian joy results from the marriage of God to His people, from His constant presence in their midst. The joy of the final stage of the Kingdom of God overflows in the Gospels. For example:
— at the birth of Christ, the angels proclaim: "I bring you good news of great joy" (Luke 2:10);
— in His final discourse with the apostles at the Last Supper, Jesus says, "These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full" (Jn. 15:11);
— in the early Church we read, "And the disciples continued to be filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 13:52).
This joy is not something that will pass. It will continue eternally in heaven.
"Blessed are the pure of heart," said Jesus, "for they shall see God." Heaven is where this promise will be fulfilled. We shall enjoy the open vision of God. "We shall see Him as He is" (I John 3:2). The vision begins on earth. At the Transfiguration the disciples were able to see the divine light which shone from the Person of Jesus. St. Paul says that we are like spiritual mirrors that receive and reflect the glory of God. The Church Fathers tell us that man’s purpose in life is to be able to see the divine light as much as we are able. We too become transfigured and progress slowly from glory to glory until we attain to the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 2:18). Already in this life Christians can experience the vision of God. The ascetic Fathers sought to experience this vision of the divine light through prayer and meditation. We call this theosis or participation in the divine glory. "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" says Paul (I Cor. 13:12).(Heaven is to be with God "face to face". Our eyes are destined to Haze upon the fullness of God's glory forever.
Fr. John Meyendorff holds that this "face to face" vision of God is not to be us Origen believed, "a static contemplation of divine 'essence', but a dynamic' ascent of love, which never ends, because God's transcendent being is inexhaustible and . . . contains new things yet to be discovered through the union of love." 5 As St. Irenaeus wrote, "Not only in this present age but also in the Age (o come, God will always have something more to teach man, and man will always have something more to learn from God." In other words, we shall not be idle in heaven; we shall be constantly learning and growing.
"I consider that what we suffer at this present time cannot be compared at all with the glory that is going to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18). This is what lies ill the end of the road for the believer. "To him who overcomes," says the Risen Christ. "I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" (Rev. 2:7).
The believer who walks with Jesus on the road of life already has eternal life. "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life", said Jesus (John 6:54) Not "will have" but "has"! Heaven is a continuation of our communion with Jesus that begins on earth. As Fr. Stavropoulos writes:
"When a person receives the holy sacrament, he receives concurrently the promise of an indescribable communion with Christ in the tip to come. . . The Kingdom of God, as a communion of Christ with human beings in the Holy Spirit, is already realized in this life through the mystery of the Eucharist, The Kingdom of the age to come will be the complete and perfect form of I he communion which already exists between Christ and the faithful." 6
As heaven begins on earth sp does hell. An outstanding psychologist has written, "There is a very tangible and a very present hell on this earth. It is this – the hell of neurosis and psychosis – to which sin and unexpiated guilt lead us". We are the ones who create hell when we use the gift of free will that God gave us to say "No" to Him. To exclude God from our lives is to be In hell. God did not created us for hell. He created us for the Kingdom of heaven. We are the ones who create hell for ourselves through our prideful rebellion and disobedience. God came in the Person of Jesus to set us free from hell. We see the Risen Christ in the Easter icon smashing the gates of hell to smithereens. Not one of us can enter hell without first passing. over the hill where there is a God-man enthroned on a cross, with arms outstretched to embrace, with head bent to kiss, with heart open to love and forgive. The question that bothers me most is not, "How can God's love tolerate the existence of hell" but "Why should God die on the cross to save unworthy me from a hell which my sins so rightly deserve?" This is the great mystery.
Having been created free, man cannot be forced into a union with God. He is allowed the privilege of facing the eternal consequence of either his "yes" or his "no" to God. To deny hell is to deny free will. God does not forgive those who do not want to be forgiven. Fr. Kallistos Ware writes, "If anyone is in hell, it is not because God has imprisoned him there, but because that is where he himself has chosen to be. The lost in hell are self-condemned, self-enslaved; it has been rightly said that the doors of hell are locked on the inside".
Aristotle taught that the ultimate nature of a thing is determined by its telos or end. So it is that the ultimate meaning of man is to be found in his end. And man's destiny, man's end, is to return to God, to spend eternity with Him, to see Him "face to face." Because the Christian is secure in his eschatological hope, he can live in this world with a kind of abandon, not fearing "what might happen" to him. St. Paul expressed it this way:
"If we live, tin the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living" (Rom. 14:8,9).
Our Christian eschatology offers us great perspective for living. It revises our whole attitude toward our possessions: "If you buy anything, you should remember that you do not have it to keep. If you make use of this world's goods, remember that you have no chance to use them up, for the structure of the world is passing away" (I Cor. 7:30-31).
To see the direction toward which the whole of life is moving is to see more clearly exactly what our true mission in life is:
"The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be sane and sober and say your prayers; above all, have intense love for one another; be hospitable; and use you gifts in the service of God that He may be glorified in everything" (I Peter 4:7-11)
"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God . . . (for) we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:10-13).
Poetically speaking, history began in a garden and it will end in a garden. Once, by sin, man cut himself off from the garden and the tree of life (Gen. 3:23), but in the end God will bring him back to his proper home and he will find the tree of life freely offered for his use (Rev. 22:2).
Eschatology forces us to ask ourselves some very basic questions: What is the direction of my life right now? If I keep following this way, where will I end up? Am I headed toward God or away from Him? Is my relationship to my Savior a living one? or one of lip-service only? If I should die right now, where would I find myself? What would be my personal eschatology? Where would J spend eternity?
1. Eschatology is the study of the last things, i.e., deaths the end of the world, the Second Coming of Jesus etc.
2. Simply stated, our Orthodox Christian eschatology is expressed in the Nicene Creed when it says that Jesus "will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end. . . I wait for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come".
3. The end of life for the Christian is moving day. We move from a temporary room in our Father's house (which St. Paul calls a tent) to a permanent room in heaven.
4. At the Particular Judgment, which takes place immediately after death, we receive a foretaste of our reward or punishment which will be received in its entirety at the Second Coming of Jesus.
5. God never told us exactly when Jesus will come again. He wants us to maintain a instant state of watchfulness and purity.
6. On the last day: Jesus will return, the dead will be raised, judgment will take place, the new heaven and new earth will be established.
7. The resurrection of Lazarus is a living image of general resurrection of the dead which will occur on the last day. Every dead body will be resurrected and united again with the soul as a spiritual body similar to the one Jesus had after the resurrection.
8. Life continues eternally beyond the grave in the same direction as in life. If we lived with Christ on earth, we shall continue to live with Him in heaven. If we lived without Him on earth, we shall continue to live without Him in the life beyond.
9. Having been created with free will, man is allowed the privilege of facing the eternal consequence of either his "yes" (heaven) or his "no" (hell) to God. To deny hell is to deny free will.
10. Christian eschatology offers us great perspective for living. To see the direction toward which the whole of life is moving is to see more clearly exactly what our true mission in life is.