We Are Surrounded by so Great a Cloud of Witnesses

June 23, 2019
John Athanasatos

Since the 9th Century, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost has been known as All Saints Day. The Emperor Leo VI the Wise wanted to build a church and dedicate it to his wife, the Empress Theophano, believing that she was among the righteous. However, the Empress forbade him to do so. Instead he decided to commemorate all saints both known to the world and known only to God on the Sunday after Pentecost. This would ensure that his wife would always be remembered.

“Saints known only to God,” what does this mean? Well, a good example is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Many countries like the United States and Greece have this tradition. In Washington DC, a soldier guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 24 hours a day. The Tomb signifies those who were killed in war of which their remains could not be identified. For those who have anonymously reposed in the Faith, their identity is known only by God. It is not only on All Saints day that we remember the righteous both known and unknown but at every Divine Liturgy. At the Consecration of the Holy Gifts the celebrant intones these words: “Again, we offer You this spiritual worship for those who have reposed in the faith: forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.” This last part of this prayer includes those known only to God.

One Sunday ago, on Pentecost the Apostles received the Holy Spirit which was promised to them by Christ. From there on, in obedience to the Great Commission (“Go and make disciples of all nations”) they spread the Good News throughout the world. It is interesting to note that All Saints Day does not just commemorate all the righteous from the Apostles to present. It includes all the righteous before God from Adam to the end of time, such as: the forefathers, patriarchs and prophets. The latter preceded the Incarnation of Christ and were not there at Pentecost but did experience a taste of the things to come. The prophets spoke about the Incarnation of the Lord, His Passion and Resurrection. Christ reminded the Jews that the Scriptures spoke about Him and that He was the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. After His Resurrection, on the way to Emmaus he rebuked the two He met on the road for their disbelief: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken, ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory? And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24: 25-27).

St. Gregory the Theologian taught that the “Prophets established the Church, the Apostles conjoined it and the Evangelists set it in order.” It is the martyrs, confessors, ascetics and “every righteous spirit made perfect in faith” who continued the Apostolic work and bore witness to the faith.

In the early Church, liturgies were performed over the catacombs of martyrs. Today in many churches, the relics of martyrs are deposited into the Holy Table where the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. “But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it’” (Matthew 16:15-18) This is a powerful verse and certainly one of contention.

The Roman Catholic Church misinterprets the verse and claims that the Rock was Peter and that upon him the Church was built. In contrast, the Orthodox Church rightly teaches that it was not Peter that was the Rock but rather his confession that Christ is the Son of the Living God. It is upon this confession of faith that the Church was built. Thus, Christ is the Chief Cornerstone of the Orthodox Faith. This is why liturgies are performed over the relics of the martyrs who shed their blood for the Faith. For their blood was shed in confessing that Jesus is truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
As we heard in St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews on All Saints Day: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1). It is the Saints who are the cloud of witnesses. For they are the ones who bore witness to the Faith. We have them as intercessors before God and they are examples for us to follow. They were all human and struggled through tribulations and passions just like we do. It is their faith by which they were made perfect by God. An unwavering faith which endured through trials and tribulations. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented-of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth” (ibid 37-28).

Although the righteous of the Old Testament did not receive the promise which was to experience the Incarnation, it was by the Incarnation of Christ and His Passion that the saints of the Old Testament were redeemed and who by faith participate in His Resurrection and His Kingdom. They were perfected and sanctified by the same Holy Spirit that descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost.

“Let us, as is fitting, praise with sacred songs those who have competed by faith in all the ends of the earth, Apostles, Martyrs, godly-minded Priests, holy Women, a sacred gathering; for earthly beings were united with the heavenly and by suffering received through Christ’s grace dispassion; and now like fixed stars they shed their light on us, as with boldness they intercede on behalf of our souls” (sticheron from Vespers Saturday Evening).

A Blessed Feast to All!

John Athanasatos, PharmD, MDiv, a pharmacist, attended Long Island University and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.




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