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