"We extol you, Apostles, Martyrs, Prophets and all Saints, and we honor your holy memory, as you pray for us to Christ our God."
(Hymn of Praise of the Sunday of All Saints)
The eighth Sunday after the Resurrection, that is, the first Sunday after Pentecost, is called the Sunday of All Saints. This feast completes the cycle of moveable feasts. On this day the Eastern Church pays particular veneration to all those who are the fruit of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
"On this day, that is, the Sunday of Pentecost," we read in the Synaxary of this Sunday, "we celebrate the feast of all Saints all over the whole world in Asia, Libya, Europe, in the north and in the south. Our holy Fathers instituted this feast and directed it to be kept after the feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, as if to set before us an example of how the coming of the all-Holy Spirit enabled them to attain sanctity. He made holy and all wise those who were of the same nature as we in order to give them the place forfeited by the fallen angels. Through Christ, he brought them to God - some through suffering and martyrdom; others through perseverance in the life of heroic virtue.
The Deacon Constantine (6c) of Constantinople, in his sermon on the first Sunday after the descent of the Holy Spirit says: "The Greek Church, by a distinguished and very illustrious feast, honors the memory of those immortal flowers which the whole earth brings forth from that soil which is con tinuously refreshed by the flowing streams of the Holy Spirit."
Here, let us briefly examine the history of this feastday, our rationale for venerating the saints, and our fundamental obligation to imitate them.
History of the Feast
1. In the Eastern Church
The veneration of the saints began with the death of the first martyrs of the Christian era. The cult of the Martyrs in later centuries incorporated also the cult of the apostles, bishops and ascetics, and religious of both sexes. Emperor Constantine the Great (†337) built a church in Constantinople in memory of the Twelve Apostles.
Before long, the cult of the New Testament saints was ex tended to include that of the Old Testament saints. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (†386) in his fifth Mystagogical Catechesis attests that during the Divine Liturgy after the consecration "we commemorate those who have fallen asleep before us, first, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, so that through their prayers and intercession, God may receive our petition. Afterwards, we commemorate the Holy Fathers and bishops who have fallen asleep before us..." Our Church commemorates the Old Testament Saints on the Sunday of the Forefathers and Fathers before the feast of the Nativity of our Lord. Some of these saints also have a special day of their own dedicated to them during the year.
Our Church Calendar dedicates each day in the year to one or more saints or classes of saints. There are multitudes of saints in heaven whose names are not recorded in the Church Calendar and whose names are unknown to the world even though they are forever inscribed in the Book of Life. Therefore, it is the wish of holy Church that fitting honor be paid to both the known and unknown saints in heaven. The first class of saints to be so honored were the holy martyrs. The feast of All Martyrs was kept in the Greek Church even during the time of St. John Chrysostom (†407). A eulogy in their honor delivered by him on the first Sunday after Pentecost remains extant. "Seven days had not yet passed," he says, "since we celebrated the holy feast of Pentecost, and once again the choir of martyrs received us, the faithful war riors and army, who do not yield to the army of angels, whom Jacob had seen, but are equally zealous and equal to them." The earliest Syrian calendar (411) commemorates all martyrs on the Friday after the feast of the Resurrection. The Calendar of the Chaldean Catholics and Syrian Nestorians on that same day commemorates All Confessors. In the fourth century in Edessa, (modern Turkey), the feast of All Martyrs was celebrated on the 13th of May. St. Ephrem the Syrian (+373) composed a special hymn for this day in honor of the Martyrs. Evidently then, the feast of All Martyrs was not celebrated on the same day everywhere; some Churches observed it as a moveable, and others as an immoveable feast. No certainty exists as to when the feast of All Martyrs became the feast of All Saints celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Under Emperor Leo the Wise (886-911), however, it is certain that this feast was already generally observed in the East for he had erected a magnificent church in honor of All Saints. Father (Prince) Maximilian maintains that, in the East, the feast of All Saints was observed earlier than it was in the West." (Lectures on the Eastern Liturgies)
Motives for Venerating the Saints
Many motives prompt us to venerate the saints and implore their intercession. Here we mention only a few. By honoring the saints we honor God, for respect shown to them is respect shown to God. The saints did not become saints by their own power their holiness is the result of God's grace. All that they are, they owe to God. The Servant of God Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky said: "The veneration of saints not only does not oppose in any way the worship that is due to God but eminently contributes to it. We honor the saints as servants of God, as our heavenly protectors who intercede for us before God and obtain from Him, for us, the forgiveness of our sins and heavenly grace." (On the Veneration of Saints)
The saints are the closest friends of God, hence, the honor we pay to them is pleasing to God, for they loved God above all things. The Second Vatican Council encourages us to venerate the saints: "It is supremely fitting, therefore, that we love those friends and co-heirs of Jesus Christ who are also our brothers and sisters and extraordinary benefactors; that we render due thanks to God for them and suppliantly invoke them and have recourse to their prayers, their power and their help." (On the Constitution on the Church, 50)
All the saints are very close to us for they, like us, were once citizens of our earth and are of our own flesh and bone. They are members of the same Church as we are, although they belong to the Church Triumphant while we still struggle as members of the Church on earth or the Church Militant. They are not indifferent to our welfare and salvation. Hence, there exists no doubt that they readily listen to all our petitions and prayers and gladly present them before the throne of God.
The Deacon Constantine, in his above-mentioned sermon - which was approved by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) acknowledges, in these words, the protection of the Saints and the powerful effects of their intercession: "You are set over the whole human race as protectors of souls, healers of bodies, strong pillars of the faith, the perfection of priesthood, the forgiveness of sins, the foundation and support of the Churches, medicine for sickness, rest for travelers, the helm of those who sail, help to the sick, a defense for those in battle, a lift to those who have fallen, a strength to the afflicted, guides to those who have lost their way, guardians of the just, a consolation to those who mourn, a mighty aid to all and a refuge of firm hope. "Our Duty to Strive for Holiness of Life. We are obliged, not only to venerate the saints and to the assistance of the saints, but also to imitate their life and holiness. All Christians are called to holiness by virtue of the sacrament of Baptism. Every person, regardless of status and condition of life, can become a Saint and is duty-bound to strive after holiness of life. Our Lord Jesus Christ addressed all people without exception when He said: "Therefore, be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5,48) St. Paul also reminds us of our duty to pursue holiness: "This is the will of God - your sanctification." (I Cor.4,3)
What is holiness? Holiness is living according to the commandments of God and the Church; it is the daily fulfillment of God's will, constant fidelity to the duties of one's state, or more briefly holiness is the Gospel translated into action. The Servant of God Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky speaks beautifully of the significance of the Gospel for our life and holiness:
"In my opinion," he says, "the source of our failures and of all the plagues that afflict our church and national life, is our failure to apply ourselves seriously to living our Christianity and the teachings of the Gospel, and for this reason, we do not convey to others the aura of holiness... The Gospel is the road to heaven; it is a life without blemish, without reproach, without vice; it is a pure, innocent, holy life by which mortal man aspires to emulate the heavenly angels. The Gospel is the way of the cross leading to the hill of Golgotha. The Christian life is a life in which each person carries a cross, suffers, and follows in the footsteps of Jesus Christ... Life according to the teachings of the Gospel is the supernatural life of God's grace, a life of God's love and of the sacrifice for God or in a word: it is a life in which each person seeks and aspires to holiness of life." (On Education)
The saints in heaven, then, are God's beloved and intimate friends; and our protectors, intercessors and benefactors; our guides and models on the path to virtue and sanctity.