No one who has ever been to an Orthodox church could mistake the greatness of our respect and veneration for the saints. Their icons look at us from every corner and from every wall, their faces dispassionate and yet filled with glory. Some say that we pay too much attention to saints and not enough attention to Christ. Some say that we take away from what rightly belongs only to the Lord.
From earliest times the followers of Jesus Christ have venerated saints. They understood quite well what St. Paul meant in writing to the Thessalonians that when the Lord Jesus Christ comes at the end of the world He will be accompanied not only by hosts of angels, but also the saints – those who have won the unending reward of Heaven; and furthermore, at the end of the world, Christ “will be glorified in His saints” (2 Thess. 1:10). In other words, an army of saints will accompany Christ at the judgment of the world, and Christ will be glorified, or praised, in these saints. Therefore, it is pleasing to God that we, here below, awaiting patiently the consummation of the ages, give glory and praise to Him in and through His saints. But the question naturally arises, especially among Protestants: why would Christ wish to be magnified in the saints?
This is a question the Holy Fathers of the Church themselves often addressed, and did so at length, for it involved a subject dear to them – the mystery of salvation.
Commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, that great teacher of converts, had this to say about the phrase “Our Father, Who art in heaven”: “They also are a heaven,” he wrote, “who bear the image of the heavenly, in whom is God, dwelling and walking in them.” This was in reference to St. Paul’s words: “And as we have borne the image of the earthly, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Cor. 15:49), and: “Ye are the temples of the living God; as God has said, ‘I will dwell in them, and I walk in them’” (2 Cor. 6:16).
Developing the same thought, St. Macarius the Great wrote that he who keeps the work of God in his heart actually has paradise in his heart! “For this reason the whole company of holy prophets, apostles, martyrs (that is, all the saints), kept the Word in their hearts, caring for nothing else, but despising earthly things, and abiding in the commandment of the Holy Spirit, and preferring before all things the Spirit’s love of God and the Spirit’s good…”
Because paradise dwells in a saint, his instructions to others are truly inspired and act, as St. Symeon the New Theologian says, “like a two-edged sword in the heart of a carnal man: it causes him (the carnal man) pain…”
The word saint comes from the Latin sanctus, meaning holy, consecrated, set apart from others. The Greek also means “holy,” or “sanctified.” A saint, therefore, is utterly different from the rest of us. In common with us, he holds the Orthodox Faith (St. Symeon says that Orthodoxy is part of the “blessedness” of a saint); but unlike us, he has led a praiseworthy life as “a friend of God,” a life that has clearly demonstrated the presence of God in him. Thus St. Symeon also writes: “He who has no part in God, or, rather, who does not possess Him wholly in himself, how can I consider him to be blessed? It is impossible! Were the sun without light, how could it be called the sun? If a man does not partake of the all-Holy Spirit, how can he be called holy? For the Lord has said: ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy!’ (1 Peter 1:16).” And so, in order to encourage us to imitate Him by our deeds, the Compassionate One (Christ) says: “Leave off from evil deeds and practice all good deeds; pursue every virtue and become holy as far as it is attainable, if you really want to have fellowship with Me. For I am holy…”
From all this we can see that the first Christians glorified Christ in the saints and struggled to imitate them in their separation from sin and the world. The Holy Fathers of the early Church provided us with the theological explanation of how and why this is proper. Themselves being saints, the Church Fathers never tired of urging the rest of us to follow after them. Thus, St. Clement of Rome, the “co-struggler” of St. Paul, encouraged Christians to become saints with these words: “Brethren, let us contend, knowing that the contest is nigh at hand, and that, while many resort to corruptible (worldly) contests, yet not all are crowned, but only they that have toiled hard and contended bravely. Let us then contend that we may be crowned. Therefore, let us run in the straight course, the incorruptible contest… that we may also be crowned. And if we cannot all be crowned, let us at least come near the crown…”
Father Aleksey Young