Sunday, May 22, 2016

There is one holiness

For All Saints Sunday 

Icon of All Saints
16-20 c.

Paul addresses most of his epistles to the saints of this or that city. And, I hope, if he were writing to us, he would say the same and would address the saints among us.

Although, when he addresses the Galatians, he does not call them saints. His letter is written to rebuke them because they have been turning to a different gospel, a perversion of the gospel of Christ.

So, if Paul were writing to our church, would he call us saints? Or, would he, as he did addressing the Galatians, leave that part out? Are we following the gospel of Jesus Christ that Paul preaches? Or are we accepting a different gospel, receiving a different spirit, or preaching another Jesus (cf. 2 Cor 11:4)?

Some in Galatia were holding up circumcision and the works of the old law over and against faith working through love in Christ, the love which in truth fulfills the whole law (cf. Gal 5:6,14). This excessive regard for externals I don’t think is the typical error of our age, but we are inclined toward other errors.

Sometimes, we excessively internalize our faith. We regard it as a private matter, not something to be discussed in public. We are sometimes cowards and we sometimes fail to acknowledge Christ before others. Today, Christ tells us that if we acknowledge him before others, he will acknowledge us before his Father. That is, he will make us his saints. Likewise, if we deny him, he will deny us before his Father (Matt 10:32-33).

If we love Jesus, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). Among other things, He commands us to acknowledge him before others (Matt 10:32). He commands us to go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15). And he commands us to baptize every nation in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).

If we keep these commandments, Christ will acknowledge us before his Father (Matt 10:32). He will remember us forever. And so we will live forever in him, our resurrected Lord. In Christ, we will know the Father, which is eternal life (John 17:3). This is holiness indeed: oneness with God. This is what it is to be a saint.  

This word “saint” is interesting. If we look at the Greek, ἅγιος, it’s the same as the word for holy. Sometimes Greek has many words for which we have only one, as in the case of “love,” but sometimes, it goes the other way and they have one word, for which we have many. And this is the case with the word ἅγιος, which means holy, which means saint, which means sanctuary (e.g Heb 8:2). At times, even Jesus is simply called the Holy – ὁ ἅγιος (e.g. Mark 1:24). This is worth keeping in mind when we think about the saints. Saint and Holy are utterly synonymous. There is no difference at all in the mind of the fathers, or in the mind of Paul. There are not two holinesses, but one holiness. If someone or something is holy, it can only be because they are partakers of the one holiness.

The single greatest teaching of the second Vatican council, in my opinion, is that there is a universal call to holiness. This is not a new teaching. Not by any stretch.  This was already the teaching revealed by the Lord God through Moses in the wilderness of Sinai 3,310 years ago – or so. The Lord our God says in all ages, “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44-45).

There’s a tall order. The holiness of the Lord our God cannot be overstated. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord, the God of hosts. Three times holy is he. In Hebrew, this is a superlative. He is the holiest one and the source of all holiness, in whom is any holiness that is.

Yet, as the Lord, he is God of hosts, that is, as Fr. Stephen Freeman puts it, God of a huge crowd. He is in and with and surrounded by his saints. “Orthodox worship and prayer,” Fr. Stephen writes, “is simply crowded. Though we worship only the Triune God, we nevertheless do so in company with a ‘great cloud of witnesses.’” God, who alone is holy, has chosen not to be alone in his holiness, but to surround himself with those he has made holy, those he has made one with himself by his grace.

In the Divine Liturgy, after the consecration, the priest holds the holy lamb and says, “Holy gifts to holy people.” Does this mean you have to be a saint in order to come forward to receive Holy Communion? Yes, it does! There is no difference between “saint” and “holy.”

Then how do we become saints? None of us is sinless – but among the saints are sinners, every degree of sinner, and every kind of sinner – just like us. So when I say, yes, we have to be holy before we come forward, we have to be saints before we receive the holy things which are for the holy ones, I am speaking of a miracle of God’s mercy and grace with which we cooperate through prayer and humility and confession of our sins. We do not make ourselves saints, the Lord makes us saints.

Every saint he makes is unique. We honor them all. We need them all. Just as in one body, every member is different, yet every member needs the others for the whole body to thrive (cf. Rom 12:4-5). Every person that God makes, God wants and needs for his purposes. We are wanted and needed by God. We should seek God’s purpose for our own lives. As Fr. Thomas Hopko points out, if we are condemned or damned it will not be because we are not the Theotokos, or we are not John the Baptist, or we are not Isaac the Syrian. It will be because we are not truly ourselves. It is for not being who God created us to be that we could be damned. The ultimate authority on who we should be and what we should do is our author and creator.

He reveals a lot of this to us through the Church, so don’t think this means that we can go it alone. Because God gave us the Church to guide us into holiness, that is, into the person that God made each of us to be. Going it alone was never his vision for any human being. We are communal creatures. We are a community of persons, in the image of God, who is a community of persons. The Church is that community - that coming together as one with God and one another.

Abba Dorotheos of Gaza has a beautiful image of a wheel, in which the center – the axis – is God, and each of us are somewhere along the spokes of the wheel. You see, the closer we get to God, the closer we get to each other. Also, the further we get from God, the further we get from each other.

For this reason, it makes no sense to receive communion – to enter into communion with God – if we have animosity toward our brother or sister (Matt 5:23-24). There is no communion with God without communion with one another. First of all, we must “be reconciled with everyone and have no animosity toward anyone.” This is the first rubric in the Liturgikon.

Before we dare to approach with the fear of God and with faith, we pray that the holy mysteries be for our healing and not for our condemnation. We pray that the Lord make us worthy to receive. And we pray for mercy. This prayer – this Kyrie eleison – is our path to holiness. Holiness never comes from relying on the self, but rather on the one to whom we pray. To rely on the Lord, who alone is holy and who alone can make us holy.

So, when the priest holds the Eucharist in his hands and says, “Holy gifts to holy people” what can we say? We can only say, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.” All holiness that is comes from the holy one.

The holy one, Jesus Christ, teaches us how to be holy in today’s gospel. We must confess Christ before others, we must love him more than all others, even more than our fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. And we must take up our cross and follow him (Matt 10:37-38). These are Jesus’ own words. This is his prescription for holiness.

When we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ and we begin to become one with him. We must thereafter imitate him, especially in his self-sacrificial love, to remain and grow toward ever greater union with the holy one, Jesus Christ, who is one in essence with the Father who is holy.  

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