Sunday of All Saints

WHAT DOES THE HOLY SPIRIT LOOK LIKE? We know from the Scriptures that the Father cannot be seen, but has manifested Himself to us in His Son. “No one has seen God at any time. The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18). And we know that the Son, incarnate, became visible in His humanity. He looks like one of us. This is why we are able to have icons of Him. As St John of Damascus wrote in On the Divine Images, “It is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, uncircum-scribed, invisible God. … But it is obvious that, when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the Invisible One becomes visible in the flesh, then you may draw His likeness” (1:7, 8). But what about the Holy Spirit? Has He become visible to flesh? Can we see the face of the Holy Spirit?

In a sense, we can. The “face of the Holy Spirit” is the face of the saints. The very existence of the saints testifies to the presence of holiness in the Church, for no one can become a saint except by the Holy Spirit. The “face” of the Holy Spirit is not in the monuments which have been erected by Christians over the centuries, impressive as they are. Rather it is in those who have lived the way they did because the Spirit of God dwelt within them.

The priest of the French village of Ars, St Jean Vianney, knew the Holy Spirit firsthand, we might say. He wrote, “If the damned were asked, ‘Why are you in hell?’ they would answer, ‘For having resisted the Holy Spirit.’ And if the saints were asked, ‘Why are you in Heaven?’ they would answer, ‘For having listened to the Holy Spirit.’ When good thoughts come into our minds, it is the Holy Spirit who is visiting us. The Holy Spirit is a power. The Holy Spirit supported St Simeon on his column. He sustained the martyrs. Without the Holy Spirit, the martyrs would have fallen like the leaves from the trees” (Catechesis on the Holy Spirit).

This intimate connection between the Holy Spirit and the saints is proclaimed in the Byzantine Churches, which celebrate the Feast of All Saints in connection with the Feast of Pentecost. On Pentecost we say that the Holy Spirit has come upon the Church. On the next Sunday, we demonstrate the truth of this claim by pointing to the saints.

The Spirit is certainly present in any saint, but it is in the totality of all saints that we find the “face” of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are many and varied; no one person can encompass them all. The Church describes the particular gifts of the saints by designating categories for us to understand and revere them. There are prophets and apostles, martyrs, hierarchs, ascetics, unmercenaries, fools for Christ, and more. There are saints whose names we know, and those we do not. There are saints whose lives are documented, and others whose name is their only memorial. All together they reveal to us the “face” of the Holy Spirit. It is noteworthy that what the West calls the “communion of saints” is referred to in the East as “the communion of the Holy Spirit.”

In fully appointed Byzantine churches we find ourselves surrounded by icons of the saints. Frescoes of the saints cover the walls, panel icons in shrines or on icon stands are displayed for veneration. These are not distractions from the altar or pulpit but a wordless demonstration that we are one body with the saints in Christ by the operation of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not simply the assembly of those physically present; it is the gathering of all who are in Christ.

The Gospel on the Saints

The Gospel passage read at the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of All Saints is not a continuous episode. Rather it is an assemblage of three teachings concerning what it means to aspire to holiness. The first step is that we are called to bear witness to Christ in the world. “Therefore, whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). Our faith is not meant to be practiced privately, for our personal consolation alone. Rather we are to be witnesses to Him before others.

In today’s world, “bearing witness” often means “pointing the finger at” some atrocity or injustice. We are called to “point the finger at” Christ, much as John the Baptist did: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The simplest way to “point the finger” at the person of Christ is to wear a cross or display an icon in public. Often Evangelical Protestants (who do not display icons) will erect a plaque in their home or on their door with this verse: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”(Joshua 24:15).

A few years ago, the British government prohibited Christians from wearing a cross in the workplace. A Foreign Office statement defending the policy said, In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross was a generally recognized form of practicing the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith.” In response, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, commented, “The irony is that when governments and courts dictate to Christians that the cross is a matter of insignificance, it becomes an even more important symbol and expression of our faith.” The policy was successfully challenged by two women who had been disciplined for wearing a cross at work.

Witnessing to Christ – even in the Church – may make one unpopular and oppressed. “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). The witness to Christ is thus called, to not only wear a cross, but to bear the cross as Christ did.

The saint is one who has heard the Gospel call to put God first in their lives. We may be proud that we go to church, pray or fast. So did the Pharisee in Christ’s parable (see Luke 15:11-32). The saint, however, is a person who is ready to put everything else aside to focus on God and His love for us. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37).

The spiritual son of St Simeon the New Theologian, Nicetas Stethatos, says that there are three kinds of people in the world: “the carnal man, who wants to live for his own pleasure, even if it harms others; the natural man, who wants to please both himself and others, and the spiritual man, who wants to please only God, even if it harms himself” (cited in Tito Colliander’s Way of the Ascetics, 5). The ascetic in a monastic setting or in the world strives to be that spiritual man: to love nothing or no one more than God.

The final section in this Gospel pastiche is Christ’s promise that those who have left home and family for His sake will receive a hundred times more in this life, and eternal life in the age to come (see Matthew 19:29). This promise is often interpreted to mean that those who go off to serve Christ will prosper materially. It may be the opposite: that those who place Christ first in their lives will find that He is worth a hundred times more than what the world has to offer and that they will find contentment in what they do have – a place in the kingdom of God.