Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical Body of your Son: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
-Preface of All Saints
August 15th marked the feast of St. Mary the Virgin. This day is rather unique to the Calendar in that it is a truly ecumenical celebration. For the Roman Church it marks the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and for the Eastern Church it is the Dormition of the Theotokos. So paramount is the Christian love for the Mother of Our Lord that it transcends even the most grievous of historical divisions. Again, this is quite unique. In a time when Christians are known more for what divides them than what unites them, on occasions such as these we ought to thoughtfully ponder why. Why this day? Why this Lady? It can just as easily be asked if any Saint should be given specific honors at all. And supposing such honors are proper, one may be prompted to ask what benefit is to be found in cherishing the Saints in general? Answering these latter two inquiries will leave little work in answering the first.
The simplest explanation is that the Christian ought to care about such things because God cares. The Psalmist tells us that the deaths of the saints are precious in the sight of the Lord (Psalms 116:15). And not only this, but the Holy Scriptures have informed us that they are efficacious. The Lord told Cain that the blood of his brother cried out to Him from the earth (Genesis 4:10). But this testimony in blood did not end with the demise of Abel or his wicked brother. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says concerning righteous Abel:
“By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” (Hebrews 11:4)
It would seem that the slain faithful still have some part to play in the work of the “Church Militant,” that is to say, those of us who have not yet gone to be with the Lord and are still awaiting His return. They are His ordinary instruments for some kind of work. Their blood still speaks. Christ Himself tells the Scribes and Pharisees that they will be held accountable for the blood of Abel (Matthew 23:35). The blood of this one man, the first to be slain for righteousness sake, generations later condemned these men. That’s quite a profound consideration: the blood of the Saints long past condemns the present wicked. There is no reason to think that such warnings from Our Lord do not apply just as equally to our own generation. Likewise, Holy Scripture teaches that God acts on account of men like His “servant Jacob” (Isaiah 45:4), or Abraham His “friend” (Isaiah 41:8), long after they have fallen asleep, and yet are spoken of as presently living. Given this, one should consider these Saints as contemporaries and fellow-laborers. St. Paul says himself that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” and whether we are in the body or with the Lord we “aspire to please Him” (2 Corinthians 5:8-9). Those who have passed retain this same aspiration: That Christ might be pleased in them. This is exactly what Christ says, that those who we are tempted to consider dead are rather alive. He teaches:
“‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” (Mark 12:26-27, Luke 20:37-38)
St. John’s Revelation gives the reader a picture of this by teaching that those who dwell in Paradise with their Creator worship and offer intercessions to Him there (Revelation 5:8, 6:9-11, 8:4), just as we do so here. This is what the Nicene Creed calls the “Communion of Saints.” We acknowledge that the Church is inseparably knit together in one Body (Romans 12:5), Beloved of God (1 Thessalonians 1:4, Ephesians 5:25), and that not even our ancient enemy Death is capable of separating the Christian from the Love of God that is in Christ our Lord (Romans 8:38). Therefore, when we speak of the Saints we are speaking of Living Christians, who are loved by God, and who participate still within the life of the Church. This is far from being an abstract concept. The Anglican Church in North America’s Catechism teaches that we worship together with our brothers and sisters in heaven. Citing Hebrews 12:22-24, it reminds us:
All the worship of the Church on earth is a participation in the eternal worship of the Church in heaven. (To be a Christian, Q.101)
And as living, praying, members of Christ’s Church, we may speculate that those Saints who have gone before us are even aware of our labors here. That just as Rachel wept for her slain children during the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Jeremiah 31: 15, Matthew 2:18), those in Paradise form a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). This, however, is neither here nor there and does little to contribute to the question at hand. The point is that they do pray for us, and they are ours. So then, to answer our first inquiry, why ought we to honor the Saints? For the sake of Love. We ought to love Christ’s Church (1 Peter 2:17, Colossians 2:2, John 13:34), remembering that they are our Fathers, Mothers, Teachers, Brothers, and Sisters. But, above all this, they are our very Body, and after all, “no one ever hated his own flesh” (Ephesians 5:29). At the Second Council of Nicaea it was said of by the humble Theodosius regarding his devotions to the Saints: “for in this I am but showing forth more clearly the affection and love of my soul which I have borne them from the first” (Session 1). This then being the chief point, as love must always be the chief point, we now may explore what benefits may be derived from such honors.
Firstly, the peculiar promise of the Christian faith is that God dwells among His people (Matthew 28:20, Revelation 21:3). Even stranger still is the promise of Scripture to not only dwell with God but also to be partakers in His glory. St. Paul says:
“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4)
The saints are promised a share in the glory of Christ through His self-giving, that those things, which are His by nature, become ours by Grace (to paraphrase St. Athanasius). It is Christ in us, “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). That which the Son has received from the Father, He has liberally given to the Church (John 17:22). The glory and exaltation of the Saints is none other than Christ Himself and the participation within His divine life. The Song of Simeon, or Nunc dimittis, found within St. Luke’s Gospel (and prayed nightly by the faithful churchman) teaches that Christ is the “glory” of God’s people (Luke 2:29-32). Likewise, God told the Prophet Isaiah that he displays His “splendor” in His people Israel (Isaiah 49:3). The familiar words of the Rev. William Williams’ famous Hymn come to mind: “Thou alone shalt be my glory.” There is a reward in store for the Faithfully Departed. St. Paul calls it a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) and St. John’s Revelation gives the reader another glimpse as the Martyrs are clothed in splendid white robes (Revelation 6:11). This blessedness is often called the Beatific Vision by Western Theologians (the East prefer to use the language of Theosis, but it isn’t difficult to resolve the two). The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck says concerning the Beatific Vision:
All the saints together will then fully comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:18-19). They will together be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19, Col. 2:2, 10), inasmuch as Christ, filled with all the fullness of God (Col. 1:19), will in turn fill the believing community with himself and make it his fullness (Eph. 1:23; 4:10). And sitting down at one table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt. 8:11), they will unitedly lift up a song of praise to the glory of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 4:11; 5:12; etc.).
-Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 4
The Christian should not then fear the glory of the Saints as if it robs God of anything, for that glory is derived from God alone. A rightly ordered affection for the Saints isn’t the least bit worrisome as Christ Himself is their glory and He Himself their reward. Again, as Bavinck said, God will “fill the believing community with himself.” Protestant Monergism only enforces this. Its emphasis should lead to the conclusion that the celebration of virtuous Christians, even those numbered among the Church Triumphant, is in fact the celebration of God. Their virtue is His Grace. This is especially true of those who now reside with Him personally as they graciously share in His glory to a greater degree and display a greater virtue. Their elevation is the fulfilling of His promise. To elevate them in honor should be natural to the Christian as it is something that was accomplished by God first within His heavenly kingdom in the sight of myriads of angels. The point then is this: To receive them is to receive Christ (Matthew 10:40, Luke 10:16, John 13:20), and whosoever honors them honors whom Christ has already honored.
Secondly, the Champions of the Faith are ample guides for those of us who have yet to enter into glory. The Christian in all humility should join his voice with the Ethiopian Eunuch who said to St. Philip “how am I to understand if nobody teaches me?” (Acts 8:31). The righteous man (and all Christians should aim to be righteous) recognizes the need of good company and wise insight. The Book of Proverbs says:
“One who is righteous is a guide to his neighbor, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.” (Proverbs 12:26)
And the Righteous Job commands:
“For inquire, please, of bygone ages, and consider what the fathers have searched out.” (Job 8:8)
Holy Scripture commands the faithful to learn from those that have come before them (Deuteronomy 32:7, Proverbs 3:1, 22:17) and to surround themselves with goodly fellowship. Both of these exhortations are accomplished through remembering and honoring the Saints. The Faithfully Departed serve as role models who have accomplished what we hope to. They are those who have already run the great race and reached the heavenly finish-line. Even Balaam the wicked prophet, through the leading of the Spirit, proved himself wise by saying “Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10, emphasis my own). We too should follow his example and desire to die in the ways of the righteous who have gone before us. In living and dying like them we may find ourselves counted among the elect in Christ’s company. St. Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). The Saints show the promises of God accomplished in the lives of those before us. It was through the glorification of Moses and Elijah along with Christ on the mountain of transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-6) that declared to the disciples that Christ was, in fact, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Similarly, the lives and glories of the Saints teach and confirm the way of Christ. They encourage and strengthen us in virtue and should be followed in every way that they have proved themselves to be upright followers of Christ. Let the Holy Spirit who resides within them lead us through their good example as we work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). On this point the Fathers and Reformers agree. For instance, St. Augustine teaches:
“Christian people celebrate together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers.” (Against Faustus the Manichean Book 20 §21)
Likewise, his Reformed offspring say:
“We confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.” (Second Helvetic Confession Chapter XXIV)
Finally, with this in mind and keeping the example of our beloved Fathers and Doctors of the Faith, let us look to a Saint in particular who is more than worthy of our attention. St. Mary is unique among Christ’s Church due to her special and intimate relationship with our Lord. Her elevation, however, began even before Christ’s birth. The Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mother saying: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:28). He goes on to explain Our Lady’s role in God’s plan of salvation: that she would be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and would conceive the Son of God. He then directs her to her cousin Elizabeth who has similarly conceived. Elizabeth’s words are then recorded for our sake; she says to the Mother of the Lord, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). What is fascinating is not just that St. Mary is once more declared “blessed,” but that St. John the Baptist “leapt within his mother’s womb” upon hearing St. Mary’s voice in celebration. Classical Protestantism has recognized this moment as a particular honor given to Mary. The Lutheran Smalcald Articles (Part III, Article viii) here attributes the prophetic call of St. John to the voice of Our Lady. Just as Moses heard the Word through the Burning Bush, St. John heard it through the Virgin. Finally, Elizabeth herself exclaims that she is not worthy to be visited by the mother of her Lord. These are all honors that Holy Scripture has attributed to St. Mary herself. And finally, St. Mary declares in the words of the Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55):
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
This text teaches that Mary was favored, blessed, and shall be blessed throughout all ages. It seems then that the Scriptures instruct the Christian to honor the Virgin Mother. This, of course, should not be surprising from a strictly human understanding. That is to say, it is typical that when one is loved, (Christ for instance) then those whom they love are also loved. Because Christ has loved His mother, it should be expected by those of us who love Him, to also love her. This can be seen often in the realm of marriage. It is not altogether uncommon for one spouse to refer to the parents of the other as either “mother,” or “father.” These are terms of intimacy and affection. Has anyone forgotten the devotion of Ruth the Moabite to her mother-in-law Naomi? Such love existed between them that Naomi refers to Ruth as her “daughter.” Scripture recounts how they considered themselves of one family and remained inseparable despite all calamity. If human love prevails so, how much more does the Divine? If the love of God is only accomplished by the Spirit, then it is not at all strange to conclude that to love the things loved by God is just as much a work of the Spirit. To love God is to love like God, to have His objects of desire as our own. To love the Saints and the Blessed Virgin is nothing more than the Christian’s conforming to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). It is with this Divine love in mind, and with the weight of Biblical Revelation upon Her shoulders, that the Church has continued steadfastly to honor Her saints, and especially, St. Mary the Virgin and Mother of Our Lord. The principle to bear in mind is found in the words of Mary herself: her righteous soul, together with all the Saints, both then and now, “magnifies the Lord.”
Oh God, you have taken for yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her in the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, on God, now and forever. Amen.
-Preface of Christmas.