With the feast! Tomorrow starts the Apostles fast so do enjoy some feasting today.
Look around at all the saints on the Icons around us. This is All Saints Sunday. We have been celebrating All Saints Sunday since it was first instituted in 731 by Gregory 3; pope of Rome at St. Peter’s chapel as a reaction to the Iconoclastic decree issued by Emperor Leo 3, which began the destruction of Icons and one of the bloodiest periods in the Church. Fifty years later in 787 the 7th ecumenical council – the council of councils – affirmed the veneration of Icons was essential to the fullness of the Orthodox faith or we would be denying Christ’s fully human nature. Fifty years after this, in 835 Gregory 4; pope of Rome expanded All Saints Day to be celebrated everywhere by the whole church and 7 years later in 843 the Sunday of Orthodoxy was instituted, once and for all ending the Iconoclastic struggle in the Church.
It took more than 100 years to work through and define once and for all these issues regarding Christ’s human nature. To ensure that the true faith passed down from the beginning from the Apostles stayed intact, required defying the emperor and his hand selected group of iconoclast bishops. This was a struggle over who got to control and define the faith and the Church, the bishops or the Emperor? We see that through the dedication and great sacrifices of the saints the Church always comes through these battles intact. A similar power struggle that took 80 years to work out occurred much more recently in communist Russia where hundreds of thousands of Clergy and millions of the faithful were martyred. But again we see the lasting power of the true Church that the gates of Hades shall never prevail against. Through much suffering and struggle, the Church has passed the fullness of the Orthodox faith on to every succeeding generation, until today when it has been passed down to us to guard and keep intact and pass on to the next generation. This is our sacred duty and it is important that we understand the faith so we can pass it on unaltered. When I was ordained I asked Bishop Irénée what advice he would give me. He immediately replied “Don’t make stuff up.” As we celebrate All saints Sunday, let us pray that we would be faithful to preserve and pass along the fullness and undefiled faith that all the saints held in common.
Today we ask for help from these saints gone before us, those who have successfully travelled the road leading to Christ and the kingdom of God, and are calling out for us to join them. We can learn from their experience, gaining wisdom and understanding and following the sure trail they have painstakingly marked out for us. Or we can learn the hard way from our own experience, going down dead ends and false trails and coming back waving wildly, with our hair standing on end – or in some cases leaving entirely – screaming “Not that way boys!” There are millions of our faithful brothers and sisters in Christ – these saints gone before us – a great cloud of witnesses, as Paul says in his epistle today. I read a fraction of the complete list we commemorate each day at the dismissal at the end of our Liturgy, asking for their prayers, so you get a small idea of just how much support we have available to us.
We often tend to look at the saints in awe, like we are spectators in the stands watching professional athletes who have trained and performed and are at the top of their game. The saints are greatly varied in their talents and giftings but they all have one thing in common – they intensely focused on the object of their quest – being united with Christ – “the author and finisher of our faith.” They understood why they were here for their short tour of duty on this planet, and let nothing distract them from their purpose. We look on in admiration and are inspired.
But notice that we have this completely reversed. We are the ones in the arena. They the saints are the spectators, cheering us on. In today’s epistle Paul says “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded with 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 which is set before us.” We are running the race; they have finished their race. Now is our time, we are in the arena! It is up to us to take seriously this race we run in front of God and all of heaven, with the huge crowd of angels and saints cheering us on, doing all they can to help and encourage us; and with the devil and the demons who are booing and cursing and doing all they can to discourage us, attempting to cause us to lose heart and abandon the race. It is our race we run. No-one else can run it for us. The effort we put in now will pay rewards that multiply beyond all time. The prize we run towards, that awaits us at the finish line is life abundant, eternal, beyond our most glorious imagining; communing with the Creator of all that exists, and taking our place with our true and loving family for all of eternity.
What is the great chore, the huge sacrifice we must make, in order to receive such precious and priceless treasure? What is it we must do to join with the millions of saints who have gone before us, who have finished their race and reached the blessed kingdom and claimed the priceless prize? We must reach out to “Jesus, the author, the finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” We must give to Him our entire life, always being willing to follow Him in all. We must give up our woundings, our hurts, and give them into His hands, to bind and anoint with healing oil. We must admit we have no love, or even life within us, apart from Him, and that even our most wonderful qualities are shot through with sin and selfishness, and cry out to our Saviour and to His Mother and all the saints for help.
In our Gospel reading today, we are told we must love God more than our spouses, children, parents, or anyone else. At first, this seems a little extreme doesn’t it? I mean how can we have more love than we have for our sweet newborn child? Perhaps you remember the great and all consuming love you had for your spouse in the beginning, especially before they started exhibiting those rather surprising aspects of their personality, which you somehow never noticed until after the honeymoon. Yet we are told we must love God more than this. How? Why?
I think the “Why” is simply that we really don’t know very much about pure love. Self emptying, dying to self, real love that isn’t a fleeting feeling, but a continuous ever present sacrificial reality. Christ demonstrated true love for us on the cross as He laid down His life, for the life of the world. He then tells us we too must take up our cross if we wish to follow Him. True love is demonstrated in our actions, not our feelings.
We are often quite unloving, even to ourselves. Without the love and power of God, we strive and struggle to forgive ourselves and others with little success, as we don’t have the capacity to carry it out. Human love is shot through with sin; it is full of selfishness, manipulation, control, neediness and is ultimately very stingy. Those we love the most are often the very ones we seem to hurt, and who we feel have hurt us the most. Then when hurt, we tend to retreat to protect ourselves, and our ability to trust and be open, to give and receive love, is damaged even further. On our own, we really have very little love to share, even with those closest to us. However, once we begin to allow our hearts to accept God’s love and forgiveness, we start to change, as our hearts begin to soften.
Today’s scripture is not a call to love our spouses, children, parents and others less. It is a call to be filled with Christ and His love above anything else. This is the “How.” Rather than closing up, protecting ourselves, and once again nursing our wounded feelings, we need to learn to automatically turn to Christ. We will then be able to actually love our families exponentially more than we are even capable of imagining! Only the love of Christ can ever truly heal and transform. He is waiting, to come and abide in us, to cleanse us from all impurity, to save our souls and to fill us with His true love.
Once we allow Christ to start to penetrate our stony hearts, by throwing ourselves into His arms, His true love can start to flow through us. To our spouses, and children and parents, our brothers and sisters, and even to those who are so lost and wounded that they despise and use us – our enemies – as the scripture calls them. Of course, our real enemies are really only the demons, who truly despise all of us pathetic, frail, human creatures, because God has placed the very spark of His divinity within us and enabled us to become sons of God. They feel He made a ridiculously poor decision in doing this and have rebelled ever since. They are constantly trying to show God what a mistake He made, by attempting to influence us to behave quite contrary to the potential for divinity that God has given each one of us. Rather than trying to fight and struggle and argue with these enemies when they attempt to try to influence us, we are far better off to simply turn and run to Christ. Don’t engage the attacking thoughts, don’t mentally debate with them, just turn your back to them and flee to Christ. As soon as we realize we have once again allowed ourselves to get sucked in to listening and considering their suggestions, run to Christ, come to confession, and start again fresh.
This is the easy road. This is the training, and the measure of our performance in the race we are running – this is what enables us to join with the saints – learning in all things to quickly turn to Christ. Are you in danger? Run to Christ. Have you been wounded in body or soul or spirit? Run to Christ. Are you being attacked or ignored, criticized or cheated, suffering loss or humiliation? Run to Christ. It is not humility to think we are not able to aspire to be joined with the saints – this is delusion, and a lie of the evil one. The very purpose of our life is to be enrolled with the company of the saints. It is humility to realize we can never be deserving of this great and awesome privilege, and yet through the grace of God, this is His gift and will for us. Through the prayers of all the saints Lord Jesus Christ have mercy and save us. With the feast!