Death and the Saints

Sunday of All Saints, June 15, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Death and the afterlife are topics which are often on the minds of clergy, but they were especially on my mind this past week, as we not only experienced the death of one of our sisters in Christ in this parish but my own family also came face to face with the possible death of my mother, thousands of miles away in South Africa where she and my father were visiting on business. But death is no stranger to Orthodox Christians. One might even say that we are a Church that confronts death with a boldness and frankness that are rarely seen elsewhere in the world.

And on this Sunday of All Saints, we again confront death. It might not seem obvious that this should be a day when we confront death, when we celebrate a feast for all the saints. But if we look into how this feast day came to be celebrated in the Orthodox Church, we will understand perhaps a little better.

Initially, this feast was the Feast of All Martyrs. During this feast, the Church celebrated all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their love and faith in Jesus Christ. The word martyr itself means “witness,” and so a martyr is one who witnesses to Christ even in death. And the martyrs were in the early Church those who were most immediately venerated as “holy,” which itself is a word meaning “set apart.” And in the Greek of the early Church, holy and saint are the same word.

But the Church also recognized that it was not only those killed for their faith who witnessed to the truth of Christ in a holy way but that there were others. And so the word saint came to be applied to other witnesses, as well. So this Sunday’s commemoration includes all the saints, whether they were killed for their faith or not. And this feast developed further to what it is today, which is a celebration not only of all the saints whose names are listed in the canonical books of the Church but of all the saints who have been well-pleasing to God, even if their names and stories are unknown to the Church.

It is in this broadest sense that I would like us to contemplate today the meaning of this feast and most especially the meaning of what it means to be a saint. The Scriptures make use of the word saint in a broader sense than just what we usually now think of, namely, someone who is “officially” a saint, whose name is included in the synaxarion, who may have hymns for church services dedicated to them, who may have icons, etc.

In the Scriptures, saint is used to refer of course to those departed who are venerated from of old, as we heard in today’s reading from Hebrews, who did all those amazing things like subduing kingdoms, stopping the mouths of lions, etc. But it is also used to refer to those who are not yet departed from this earthly life—indeed, saint is used in Scripture to refer to all faithful Christians.

Now, if a “saint” can be any faithful Christian, does it then make sense to single out certain people as “saints” in a more “official” way, such that they are publicly venerated? Yes, of course it does, for the Scriptures themselves do it, as we heard in Hebrews today. We hear in that epistle that “all the saints” did those marvelous things, but of course that is not true of “all the saints” in that broadest sense meaning “every Christian.” So we can rightly use the word saint to refer to those people who especially witnessed to faith in Christ in an extraordinary way, and we can also use it to refer to all Christians, to all of ourselves, though it is probably best rightly said not directly about oneself. To say “I am a saint” could be pretty misleading!

But what is perhaps most interesting here is that, after Paul says in Hebrews all those amazing things that these saints have done, he links them together with his readers. He writes this: “And all these, having obtained a witness through their faith, did not receive the promise, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

He has been speaking of Old Testament saints, of course, so when he says that they “did not receive the promise,” he is referring to the coming of the Messiah Whom they had not yet received. But more importantly, he says that God had foreseen something better, that “apart from us they should not be made perfect.” What this means is that the perfection of the promise given to those who are in Christ among Paul’s audience is the same perfection given to those who came before Jesus’ advent. And we may also, I think, say quite rightly that this is the same perfection given to the saints who came after.

Thus, the holiness of the Old Covenant saints, the holiness of the saints of the New Covenant, and whatever holiness we in our unworthiness may have received from God, is really all the same. We may think of ourselves as something radically different from the saints, but we’re really not. They’re just people, just like us. The difference is just one of degree, not of kind. They may be better at being witnesses to Christ, but they are not something that we’re not. We’re all witnesses. We’re all saints.

So what does all of this have to do with death? That’s where we started today, with the claim that Orthodoxy takes a long, hard look at death and confronts it. In the passage we read from Hebrews, Paul says that the reason the saints suffered all the things they did and did not try to escape those sufferings was “so that they might obtain a better resurrection.” That’s the link here between the saints and death.

As Christians, we believe in the resurrection. We believe that everyone will be resurrected at the end of time, the “first fruits” of that promise being the resurrection of Christ Himself, which is what also enabled that general resurrection for all mankind. All mankind will be raised—some to a resurrection of judgment and some to a resurrection of life. But if we desire a “better resurrection,” as Paul describes the resurrection of life, then we have to do as the saints did—suffer for Christ, suffer in a Christlike manner, and not seek to escape that suffering.

So what is a saint? A saint is one who bears not just the hope of future resurrection to eternal life within himself, but someone who makes that hope truly present within his everyday life. This week, as I myself witnessed death and a close brush with it, I was reminded very intensely of that hope, and that hope came shining through,

When we die, we enter into a time of waiting while our souls are separated from our bodies. But there will come a future time when all the dead will be raised, and our souls and bodies will be put back together. That hope that Christians especially bear within us of not just “life after death” but rather “life after life after death” can have a radical effect on our lives right now. It is why we do not have to fear death, either for ourselves or for our family and loved ones, because we know that it is only temporary. Death itself will have an end to it. We will of course miss those who depart before us, and it is right that we should grieve, for death is a terrible thing, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our grief is a hopeful grief, a godly sorrow.

But even beyond not fearing death, we also have the possibility of bearing resurrection within our lives at this very moment, by anticipation of what is to come. For one thing, because we know that there will be a time after death, a time after the resurrection when a renewed heaven and earth will be established, all ruled by the perfect presence of God, that means that we can hold all earthly orders—including governments—somewhat lightly. Our ultimate citizenship is elsewhere. We accept earthly governments and structures as useful but only temporarily useful. We don’t have to let politics and systems and power get to us.

More importantly, however, we can know that what we do in this age that orients us toward the age that is to come will itself last into that age to come. The love that you now give will last forever. The suffering that you now experience will last forever, though not as suffering but rather as refinement and perfection. It is suffering here, but there it will be glory.

The gifts that you give, the work that you do, the compassion and creativity that you show—all these things are the building blocks of the true civilization that is being established and is already breaking through. We see the beginnings of that civilization here in the Church, where God’s order is most perfectly expressed, but that order will someday become universal.

We often think of “heaven” as some kind of static “place” we go to when we die, but the age to come is really about the age that will happen after that temporary waiting period we go to when we die. There will be work to do in the age to come, things to be fashioned and built and created. It will be a new creation from God, but we don’t have to wait until then. We can participate in it right now. What we do now that contributes to that resurrected reality will last forever. We build now and invest now for that ultimate future. There will be much to do then, and we can begin working on it now. And we do that because we have that hope of resurrection.

So as we face death, as we face suffering, as we face all the struggles of this world, let us remember that we do so not as those who have no hope. We do all this with hope. We do all this with a sense of progress, that here we are really accomplishing something. And those who have been shown to the Church as saints, even those who have not been formally named among their number but nonetheless have kept that hope within themselves, they are all building something, too.

And that is how we confront death. Death is just another chapter—a short chapter and not the last chapter—in the great story of Christ’s resurrection, that resurrection that will someday encompass this whole universe. But for now, that resurrection breaks through here and there. But someday, we will all rise up, and everything we build to everlasting glory in this age will be there in the age that is to come. And what glory and joy that will be!

To Christ, Who is the resurrection and the life, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.