Today is the day in which we celebrate the Sunday of All Saints of North America, just as we celebrated All Saints of Russia last Sunday, and the Sunday of All the Saints the week before. On these days, we celebrate all those who have struggled and gone before us, who have heard the words of Christ, whose hearts and minds have been set aflame by the Holy Spirit, and who have proclaimed to the whole world through their very lives Christ’s Resurrection.
It is not a coincidence that the these Sundays of All the Saints fall after the Sunday of Pentecost, after the Day of the Holy Spirit, and after the whole Lenten and Paschal church cycle, because it is on these days that the meaning of the Church in this world comes to fruition. These All Saints Sundays are the result of all that has gone before them in the history of salvation. The purpose of all the events in the life of Christ – from his Conception and Nativity to the Resurrection and His Ascension and in the pouring down of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – are to reconcile man’s fallen nature with God and to make us Saints. This is the purpose of the Church – to make people holy and to lead us to salvation.
And we are all called to be saints! We are all called to be holy. Be ye perfect as my father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48). When we look at the icons in our churches and in our icon corners in our homes and we see all of the saints who have gone before us and who intercede before the throne of the Lord for us – it is important to know that in their lives here on earth, they were real people, and people who had struggles just as we do. The only difference between ourselves and the Saints which you see in the icons is that Saints are people who continually pick themselves up after having fallen. They struggle and strive and continually repent for their sins in a spirit of humility and love for God until they attain holiness. Can we say, if we are honest, that we really share in their resolve? How often do we truly remember God? How often to we truly pray as we ought to? How often is it that we drag our feet in the spiritual life and prefer the empty delights and distractions of the world, rather than devote our heart to God alone? St. Seraphim of Sarov was once asked why there were no saints in our modern times like there were in the old days. He was asked if our modern life somehow prohibits us from attaining the spiritual heights that the men and women of old once did. St. Seraphim replied that it was absolutely possible for saints to be made in our day. The only thing we have lacking, he said, is our resolve to do so!
We look to the saints both to emulate their life, and to pray to them to ask for their intercession. As the saints are the perfect embodiment of a life lived in Christ, we look to emulate the saints in their virtues, in their bravery in the face of affliction and temptation, in their faith, their prayer, their Christ-like love and their self-sacrifice. The saints are a witness to the truth of the Resurrection. They are a living witness to the fact that, through Christ, sin is overcome. Through Christ, death is defeated. Through Christ, we are freed from our bondage to our fallen nature, to the world, and to the devil. The saints show us what it is to be truly alive and just what it is to be a human being made in the image and likeness of God. St. Athanasius said: “The glory of God is the man fully alive”, and the saints are the only people who have ever lived on this earth who were truly and fully alive.
We do not struggle in this world alone, because the saints are our great allies in the spiritual battle. Not only do we turn to the saints as our example as Christians, but we turn to them to ask them to help us and to intercede for us at the throne of God. These saints of God who embrace the whole of Creation in their love, in their intercession, in their prayer, in their real, continuous presence. For when we look around the church today at all of the saints surrounding us in their relics and their icons, we must realize that these are not pictures of people who lived long ago or mementos of the past or abstract ideas. These saints are here with us right now, at this very moment, in this very church, praying for and with us.
Even here in West Virginia, in St. George Antiochian Cathedral in Charleston, there is a small shrine and a relic to the great saint of God who abundantly blessed our continent, St. Raphael of Brooklyn. St. Raphael was the first Orthodox bishop consecrated on American soil, and though he was not a wonderworker or a performer of outward miracles in his life, he labored tirelessly for the building up of the Church in America and for spreading the light of Christ into the new world. He founded 33 parishes in North America, including the oldest parish in West Virginia, St. George Cathedral, and he baptized, married and catechized countless people – most assuredly in the thousands. He was a firm and outspoken defender of the truths of the Orthodox faith, and he was consumed with zeal for the Church of God, ever glorifying the Name of the Lord in his words and in his actions. He is a light and a great example for us, for it was by his great love, his enduring sacrifice, his sheer determination and tireless dedication that he made great strides in bringing his flock to Christ and building up the Orthodox Church in America. St. Raphael comforted his people in sorrow and also shared their joys – he sacrificed his life so that others might live unto God. He was truly, as St. Paul said, “all things to all people”. St. Raphael said of himself: “I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.” St. Raphael was truly a lover of Holy Rus, and he was intimately connected with the Russian Church, as was much of the early history of Orthodoxy in our land. As inheritors of St. Raphael’s legacy, and of all the saints of North America, known and unknown, we must, like them, be a light of faith to those around us, bringing hope, love and the light of Christ to a world which has largely forgotten God, and for this reason seems to grow darker, colder, and sicker every day. And let us also pray to St. Raphael and all the saints who shone forth in this land, in Holy Rus, and in every place, so that they may help us to have the strength and the courage to be such a witness. Let us pray to all the great saints of North America who have preserved the faith, and have shown forth the light of Christ in our land: Sts. Herman and Innocent of Alaska, St. Tikhon, St. Alexis Toth, St. Peter the Aleut, St. John of San Francisco, St. Nikolai Velimirovich, St. Sebastian Dabovich and many others – many of who’s names God may only know.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, today in the Gospel we hear Christ’s clear commission to us:
Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)
St. Paul speaks of all of the saints who had given up everything to follow Christ – their health, their homes, their families, and even their very lives, wandering through deserts and mountains, enduring trials, mockings, scourgings, imprisonment and all manner of hardships for Christ. Yet through their weaknesses, they became strong in the Lord. They worked righteousness, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched fires, escaped the edge of the sword and became valiant in battle, turning to fight, on our behalf, the armies of the devil.
Let us emulate the saints of God, and with firm conviction of their love for us, let us never fail to call upon Christ’s Saints who shone forth in this land and in every land, and to ask them to help us in our spiritual battle. With courage and hope in the Lord, let us hear St. Paul’s great battle cry as he says: Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnare us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrew 12:1,2).
Let us today make a good beginning to seek first the Kingdom of God, and with all our heart say: All ye saints of North America and of every land, pray to God for us! Amen.