Sermon by Protopriest Victor Ilyenko (+1989) on the 2nd Sunday of Pentecost, the feast of All Russian Saints
On the Saints of God
The Orthodox Church lovingly beholds the saints of God, who shone forth in faith in and love for God, patterning their lives on the Gospel. It is rare for a week to go by when divine service is not held in our church in honor of some saint. In those churches where services are celebrated daily, there are saints that are commemorated every day. Songs of praise for them are lifted year round. We do not hear the entire life histories of each saint in church, but in the troparia and kontakia that are sung, we learn in brief outlines of the image of the saint, his or her works and spiritual beauty. The soul of a saint, invisibly present wherever he is remembered with love, arouses in our hearts feelings of faith and love.
The saints are no strangers to us. For we are all of one Christian family! Of course, they do not live in our homes, we do not see them directly: but let us be bound with them in love! Love overcomes time and space.
Parents—especially mothers—know that a child does not need to be within one’s range of sight at all times in order for us to love them. In fact, whoever may not be at home with us, is more desired and missed. That is the nature of our love for the saints. We love them, even though they lived long ago, and we know them only through words. Our common love for Christ is shared with them, it relates us, unites us within one family.
There are Christians—Protestants, specifically—who deny any relationship with the saints. For them, as long as a person is alive, he can be revered and loved, but once he dies, he is removed from our hearts, as though he has disappeared for eternity. But God is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for God, all of us are living. We have communion of love with the saints in our spirits, and we hope to meet with them face to face in the new, future life. Our love for them, our reverence for their memory, our feast days and our hymns to them will be special when that time comes.
The saints are our older siblings in the grand Christian family. They have already traveled the Christian life on earth which we are only now upon. In their lives, they showed vivid examples of how a Christian is to live and behave in the course of earthly life. They are our spiritual guides, but they are also our friends, friends who can lend a helping hand. That is why since the times of the Apostles, Christians never ceased appealing to the reposed saints with pleas for help. Here is a brief prayer addressed to Holy Apostles Peter and Paul carved into a brick in one of the catacombs: “Peter and Paul, remember us!” Only a few words, but they contain faith that the Holy Apostles, remembering their plaintiffs, will help.
As we travel our earthly path, we are in need of assistance from our heavenly friends and patrons. And when we conclude this path and depart to the Lord to eternal bliss, will we be alone there? Will we not meet them there? Yes, we hope to be received into the hearth of a large family of all those who pleased God. If by His mercy, the Lord does not deprive us of the heavenly abode, then we will meet those holy people whom we venerated and loved here on earth. And the greater our love for them now, the more joyous and desirous will be our meeting with them there.
When relatives reunite after a long absence, their meeting often brings them joy, they have things to discuss, they will rejoice in simply seeing each other, beholding the dear, kind faces. Just so will be our meeting with the saints, if we deem them to be our friends here.
Today, as we celebrate our Russian saints, what are we to say? What will we ask of them? Yesterday many of us spoke words of praise for them, today we make bold to pray to them, whom we had carried in our hearts as open wounds for a quarter century.
O holy saints! If we cold and selfish people empathize with our people in their bitter fate, then let us pray to God for at least some scrap of freedom for them, some bit of mercy, some glimmer of joy, some tiny hint of hope for better days, a heel of bread and scrap of clothing, a little better health!
We do not think that the Lord must be begged as an avenging judge; we do not think that our prayers are needed by Him. But when we pray for our nation with all our hearts, then this prayer opens within us empathy, Christian love then rises within us, and through this we become worthy of the mercies of God. And then this mercy will be poured out upon us and those whom we embrace with our love. Amen.
Brussels, Belgium, 1947.