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 D.C., 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 (Επίκλησις) 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 the prayer includes those known only to God.
Last Sunday, 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 (Lk 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. For the blood of the martyrs was shed 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. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection (ibid,35),
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 live to witness the Incarnation, it was by the Incarnation of Christ and His Passion that they were redeemed.
They were perfected and sanctified by the same Holy Spirit that descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost. God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us
The earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His Resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many (Mt 27:51-52). This was in fulfillment of the prophecy of the Prophet Ezekiel: Behold, I will open your tombs, bring you up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your tombs to lead you, My people, up from their graves (37:12-13). The Saints entering the Holy City is an image of the resurrected humanity entering the Heavenly Jerusalem. Thus, they experienced the Resurrection of Christ.
Come, believers, let us strike up a chorus today; let us reverently celebrate and splendidly honor the glorious and solemn memory of all the Saints; and let us salute them and say, "Rejoice! O glorious Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, and Hierarchs! Rejoice! O devout Monastics and the Righteous! Rejoice! O host of honorable Women! All Saints, intercede with Christ on behalf of the world, and pray that He enable our leaders to protect us from foreign enemies, and that He grant our souls the great mercy (2nd Festal Doxastikon of Vespers)."
A Blessed Feast Day to All!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
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BONUS: Y2AM has released a brand new ministry training course. And check out our "Live the Word" episode for the Sunday of All Saints: