Hebrews 11:33-12:2; Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30
On this first Sunday after Pentecost, we commemorate all those who are so filled with the Holy Spirit that they shine brightly with holiness as saints of God. It is fitting that we do so right after Pentecost, for it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we may become “partakers of the divine nature” in fulfillment of the hopes of those who looked forward to the coming of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Our risen and ascended Lord sent the Holy Spirit upon His followers in order to bring them into the eternal communion of love shared by the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Pentecost fulfills the words of the Prophet Jeremiah: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Jer. 31:33-34) As St. Paul wrote, through the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we become “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” (Rom. 8:16)
The saints have entered into holiness by their receptivity to the “living water” of the Spirit flowing in and through them as a sign of the salvation of the world. (Jn. 7:38) We do not know the names of all the saints, but God knows them as those who have entered into the blessedness of the heavenly kingdom. As members together with them of the same Body of Christ, we ask for their prayers and also strive to follow their example of faithful witness to the Lord. The root meaning of the word “martyr” is witness, and from the origins of the faith those who have refused to deny Christ even to the point of death have provided powerful testimony to the Savior Who has liberated them from the fear of the grave. Their example inspires us to bear witness to Him in ways appropriate to the circumstances and calling of our lives.
No one becomes a martyr or a saint merely by his or her own willpower or religious observance. Had that been the case, the righteous of the Old Testament could have found perfection before the coming of the Messiah. But as our reading from Hebrews states, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” The fulfillment of God’s promise was not limited to the people of Israel, but was extended to all people with faith in the God-Man Jesus Christ, in Whom we participate as adopted sons and daughters, for as St. Paul wrote, “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal. 4:6) The forerunners of faith in the Old Testament point us to Him. We read today, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”
From the events described in Acts to today, our Lord’s saints and martyrs have opened themselves to embrace the power of the Holy Spirit so profoundly that they have accepted the inevitable tension of being faithful to Him in our fallen world, despite their strong temptations to the contrary. We must not imagine that it is any easier for them to take up their crosses than it is for us. By putting faithfulness to Christ first in their lives, they become His beautiful icons in distinctive ways. St. Moses the Black was a former violent criminal who became a Desert Father through long ascetical struggle. He ultimately accepted death when his monastery was raided on the grounds that a violent ending was fitting for someone who had formerly lived by the sword. St. Maria Skobtsova went through a period of atheism, was involved in Russian revolutionary politics, and was twice divorced before becoming a nun with a blessing to undertake social ministry with miserable people on the streets of Paris. She died in a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews, by some accounts taking the place of a fellow prisoner in the gas chamber on Good Friday.
They were able to offer their lives so fully to God because, like all the saints, they died to their passions as they became living icons of the Lord’s healing of the human person. They could say along with Saint Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) Regardless of whether we are called literally to shed our blood for Christ, we must all pursue the living martyrdom of refusing to deny the Savior and to place love of anyone or anything before Him. That is what it means to take up our crosses and follow Him as we die to all that would deter us from uniting ourselves to Christ in faith and faithfulness.
We must not imagine that our witness to the Lord is somehow less important or urgent because no one is threatening to murder us for our faith. Instead, we must bear witness to the Savior in the midst of whatever challenges we face today in our own lives, whether in our families, our workplaces, or anywhere else. Christ said, “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father Who is in heaven.” Though we may lack the spiritual vision to see it, each of us acknowledges or denies Christ every day of our lives. Whether we are doing so is revealed by whether we are becoming like those who, according to Christ’s teaching, will be blessed in the heavenly kingdom: the poor in spirit; those who mourn for their sins; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. If we are to bear witness for Christ, that is who we must become. If we do not, we will lack the strength to conform our character to His as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” If our lives are not characterized by actions that manifest Christ’s salvation and lead others to glorify God, then we are in effect denying that we have anything to do with the Lord. (Matt. 5: 3-16)
The path to holiness is incompatible with using religion to glorify ourselves. It does not involve efforts to gain power or influence over others out of pride. It is not about telling people what they want or do not want to hear in order to get them to think of us in any particular way or to do our bidding. The way of all the saints is simply to “seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness” with the trust that God will provide what we need and what is best for all concerned. (Matt. 6:33) In order to do so, we must acquire the spiritual clarity to discern when faithfulness to Christ is at stake and how to act in the circumstances before us. We must learn to order our loves for people and the other blessings of this life in light of obedience to the greatest commandment: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:37) Doing so is the only way that we will gain the strength to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Matt. 22:39) Loving our neighbors in this way is hardly the same thing as obsessively seeking their approval or convincing ourselves that we must maintain a certain standing in their eyes. We should treat them simply as we would like to be treated as children of God and leave the rest in His hands.
Let us live, then, as those who have tasted the living water of the Holy Spirit and know that nothing can truly satisfy us—in this life or in that which is to come—other than uniting ourselves to Christ in holiness. That is how each and every one of us may come to shine radiantly with the divine energies. That is the great hope that is set before us on this Sunday of All Saints as we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”