Mary Theotokos and the 3rd Ecumenical Council
Without doubt the month of August, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Not only do we celebrate the Dormition (or Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos, but there are Supplication Services which are held every day in the first two weeks of this month leading to the great feast as well as the designated period of fasting which the Church has prescribed. Indeed, even though the historical origins of the feast are vague, already before 500 AD, it was being celebrated on the 15 August. (1) Not only does this betray the great devotion attributed to the blessed mother personally by the faithful of the Church throughout the ages, but also the extent to which her person has infused Orthodox spirituality. To be sure, the mother of Jesus is held in such high esteem in the Orthodox Church that there are many titles which have been attributed to her, some of which are: the ‘all-holy Mother’, ‘the ever-Virgin Mary’, and of course the title ‘Theotokos’. Furthermore, in the Orthodox Tradition, there are many icons of the blessed mother of Jesus where she is given titles such as: ‘Mother, Praised by All’, ‘Mother who is Swift to Hear’, ‘Mother, Queen of All’, ‘Mother of Consolation’, ‘Mother of Tender Feeling’, ‘Life-Giving Fountain’, ‘Mother of Unexpected Joy’, ‘Surety of Sinners’ and many more.
The reason for all these appellations to the Virgin Mary must not be misunderstood as worship towards this person, but rather is a testimony that, with her ‘falling-asleep’, Christ’s mother already began to enjoy, as an accomplished fact, the final blessedness of the victorious Christ, something which all human persons anticipate in the final Parousia. That is, everything that is said and sung about the Virgin Mary is a sign of all that God has ultimately promised to all persons in the life of the Church. It is precisely for this reason that Archbishop Stylianos stated that each Christian is called to ‘bring forth’ the Word of God in their lives in a moral sense so as to become a kind of bearer of God. (2)
Consequently, the profound extent of God’s love made manifest already in the Virgin Mary at her assumption is a promise of the eternal blessedness awaiting all the faithful. For this reason, one could dare say that a faith in Jesus Christ which would exclude a love and veneration for His blessed mother would not only seem cold and incomplete but also devoid of an affective and an innately intuitive element since her example, utter humility, obedience and love are a source of inspiration and encouragement for all. Accordingly, it becomes clear that the Church’s devotion to the Virgin Mary and its use of various titles to her, are not theologically unfounded or merely emotional and sentimental.
In spite of the above, however, which all point to the truth that she can rightly be considered a human icon of perfection because of her profound humility, what is of utmost importance is her role as Birth-giver – that is, her divine maternity. Indeed of all the titles attributed to the Virgin Mary, it is only the name ‘Theotokos’ which is a doctrinal definition for the Eastern Orthodox Church. Yet beyond its significance for an understanding of the person of Mary, it is also central for the faithful of the Church. Beyond the fact that she was the Mother of Christ our God (Theotokos) she is also the universal mother – the mother of all humankind. Consequently, this article will examine the events, which led the Church to apply formally the title, ‘Theotokos’ to the Virgin Mary in 431 AD. As we shall see, more importantly this term had soteriological importance for our understanding of the person of Christ.
Meaning and Importance of the term ‘Theotokos’
Of the many titles attributed to the blessed Virgin, undoubtedly the most important is the title ‘Theotokos’. The early Church in general and the fathers of what came to be called the Third Ecumenical Council understood this appellation as possessing a precise doctrinal significance for the person of Jesus Christ. Both before and after the council of 431AD, the title ‘Theotokos’ was seen as something central to the confession of the true faith in Jesus Christ. Etymologically speaking, the name, ‘Theotokos’ is a composite Greek word made up of the Greek words ‘Theos’ meaning God and the verb ‘tikto’ meaning ‘to give birth to’. Therefore the title ‘Theotokos’ implies ‘the one who gives birth to God’. And in so far as the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Son of God (the second Person of the Holy Trinity), she could be called God-bearer. The term was already in use for over two hundred years before it was officially sanctioned in 431 AD. It had previously been employed by Origen (3) in the 2nd century. In an even earlier statement, St Ignatius of Antioch had written: “Our God, Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary according to the economy.” (4) In the fourth century, St Gregory the Theologian stated: “if anyone does not confess the Holy Virgin to be Theotokos, that person is estranged from God.” (5) In the eighth century, St John of Damascus would say that the term ‘Theotokos’ expressed the whole mystery of God’s saving dispensation. (6) It is clear that the Patristic tradition understood this appellation as possessing a precise Christological significance, which safeguarded the personal unity in Jesus Christ.
Historical and Theological Insights
The formal sanctioning of the term ‘Theotokos’ in the 3rd Ecumenical Council came about as a result of an extensive and complicated controversy which developed in the fifth century over the person and nature of Christ. This historical detail is important in that it shows that the committed attentiveness of the faithful of the Church to the term ‘Theotokos’ was fundamentally centred around its faith in Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God. It is precisely for this reason that all Orthodox icons of the blessed mother normally always depict her son Jesus in her arms to show that the Church’s affection towards the Virgin Mary is inextricably linked to its faith in Jesus Christ. Notwithstanding this iconographic detail, from a historical point of view, the conflict over the title ‘Theotokos’ arose between Nestorius and St Cyril of Alexandria – it was this which would finally be the cause for the convocation of the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 AD. Nestorius and St Cyril belonged to two differing schools of theology (the schools of Antioch and Alexandria respectively), which, in and of themselves were theologically valid, but when taken to their extreme could lead to heresy – something which Nestorius unfortunately did.
Nestorius belonged to the theological school of Antioch, which emphasised the historical Christ. In its biblical exegesis, the school of Antioch focused on giving literal explanations of Biblical passages and persisted on the fully human reality of Jesus. This, it did because, in the past it had to confront Apollinarius and his followers who had refused to uphold the full humanity of Christ (they had claimed that Christ did not possess a human soul) (7). However, the danger of the school of Antioch was that in its quest to stress the separateness of the divine and human natures of Christ it could invariably be led to undermine the unity of both these natures in the one person of Christ. And so, belonging to this school of thought, when Nestorius was enthroned as Patriarch of the Church in Constantinople in 428AD, he firstly sought to ‘rid’ the city of what he considered to be false teachings. Ironically, in this attempt, however it would be Nestorius, who would be condemned for heresy by the Church. The reason for this was his denunciation of the title ‘Theotokos’ for the mother of Jesus Christ and his support for other titles such as ‘Anthropotokos’ or ‘Christotokos’ at best. Indeed Nestorius openly supported one of his priests called Anastasios who preached a sermon on the Theotokos stating:
Let no one call Mary, Theotokos, for Mary was but a woman and it was impossible that God should be born of a woman. (8)
It was Nestorius’ support of such comments, which caused such unrest in the entire Christian Empire that St Cyril of Alexandria would refer to this tendency as a ‘scandal’ of ecumenical (or universal) magnitude (oijkoumenikovn skavndalon).
Nestorius claimed that the ‘only begotten Son and Word of God’ did not only assume a human nature but also a human prosopon. This led to the suggestion that the divinity and humanity of Christ were to be conceived ultimately as two different persons. (9) That is to say, for Nestorius, Jesus was the man upon whom the Son of God (the Logos) subsequently joined himself. It is clear that he did not wish to identify Jesus Christ with the divine Logos of God. He believed that the Son of God ‘assumed’ and joined with the Son of Mary on an exterior level. And so, Nestorius falsely claimed that it was more correct to say that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a mere man called Christ and so His mother could be called ‘Anthropotokos’ (bearer of a human being) or at best ‘Christotokos’ (Christ bearer). Reflecting back on this, one could say that Nestorius’ Christology was one-sided since, in so far as it emphasized the distinction between the divine and human elements to such an extent it failed to account for the unity of Christ. Like other Antiochenes, in underscoring the humanity of Jesus Christ, Nestorius found it difficult to explain the unity in the person of the Son of God. And so the Church had to respond so as to safeguard not only the natural distinction in Christ but also to uphold the personal unity.
When speaking of the connection between the Word of God and the man, Jesus, Nestorius preferred the term conjunction (sunavfeia) rather than union to avoid any suspicion of confusion or mixing the two natures. By this he meant, that the drawing together of the two natures, was not a physical necessity but was effected by the kenosis of the Godhead and the love and obedience of the man. Effectively, he would claim that Jesus Christ was a mere man who only progressively became god-like by a gradual process of intensification. Therefore, for Nestorius it was enough to speak of a moral ‘unity’ between Christ and the Logos which transpired as a result of Christ’s obedience to the Son of God. Effectively Nestorius believed that Jesus Christ could not be identified with the eternal Son and Word of God but was, rather another person alongside the Logos. And so, in his Christology, he suggested that these two prosopa were merely externally and voluntarily conjoined.
Nestorius went on to say that the two distinct natures, each with its own prosopon came together to form one prosopon of unity. For him, however, the term ‘one person of unity’ simply indicated the outward appearance of Jesus Christ who still had two natures and two prosopa – i.e. the Son of God and the Son of David were two distinct personal subjects. Thus Nestorius would say:
Son of God, eternal; Son of Man died. Christ, though eternal, died. One should therefore not say that God was born of the Virgin Mary, because this is to attribute a human activity to the divinity. One should say more properly, that Christ, the prosopon of unity was born of the Virgin (Christotokos).(10)
Nestorius’ belief was contrary to the faith of the Church since, by ‘prosopon’ the divine Son and Word of God who had become incarnate was not meant, but the unified activity of an alleged two persons (the divine Word and the person of the human nature) in Christ. (11) As we shall see, in the next issue, St Cyril of Alexandria and the fathers of the 3rd Ecumenical Council, as a whole, had to respond to emphasise that the Virgin Mary could rightfully be called ‘Theotokos’ since the One that she had given birth to was none other than the divine Son of God in human flesh, the second Person of the Holy Trinity.
1. Didache, 1: 321.
2. Eusebius, History of the Church 5, 24, 18
3. Triodion, 30, taken from Archimandrite Akakios, Fasting in the Orthodox Church, pp.9-10.
4. Archimandrite Tickon, The Land of the Living, 63
5. St Abba Dorotheus, Directions on Spiritual Training, cited in T. Hopko, The Orthodox Faith: Spirituality, vol. 4, 148.
6. St Gregory of Sinai, Instruction to the Hesychasts, cited in T. Hopko, Spirituality, 149.
7. For more on this, see my article entitled ”Nestorianism: Challenges to the Faith in Jesus Christ”, Vema Sept (2005): 8/26-9/27.
8. Cited in Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, vol. 8 (Belmont: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 216.
9. Even though it has to be admitted that Nestorius could also speak of one person, the fact that he also spoke of two persons clearly made him guilty of the theory of two Sons. Besides by the formula ”two natures, one person” Nestorius did not mean the Logos of God.
10. Cited in Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (Collegeville, Minnesota: A Michael Glazier Book, The Liturgical Press, 1983), 147.
11. For Nestorius, the term ”Christ” did not imply the divine Word of God but the person to which the Son of God joined himself.
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
Mary Theotokos and the 3rd Ecumenical Council
The Christology of St Cyril of Alexandria
One of the most prolific writers of the early Church, whose works contributed not only to Christology, in his dispute with Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, but also to biblical exegesis, Trinitarian theology, was St Cyril of Alexandria (b. 375AD) whose theology was to remain normative in the Eastern Christian Churches throughout the ages. It is precisely for this reason that he is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest father of the fifth century. St Cyril produced many works against the false teachings of Nestorius – indeed one of his dogmatic writings included specifically a treatise entitled, ‘Against those who do not acknowledge Mary to be Theotokos’. He belonged to the Alexandrian school of theology, which emphasized not only the divinity of Jesus Christ but also His personal unity. St Cyril and the fathers of the 3rd Ecumenical Council in general were most concerned to defend that the man Jesus, born from the Virgin Mary, was none other than the Word of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. That is, it was not that the Logos had indwelt into a man born of Mary, but that it was the Logos, Himself, who was born in time from the blessed mother.
Accordingly, it was these truths that St Cyril believed were affirmed with the title ‘Theotokos’ since this term stated most clearly that Mary had given birth to the divine Son and Word of God. Accordingly, he fought hard to have this term formally ratified by the whole Church at the Council of Ephesus in 431AD, since the term carried with it a saving significance. Without the title ‘Theotokos’, St Cyril would argue, there was danger of thinking that Christ was a mere man and not the divine Son of God. But if Christ were a man then He could not be in a position to offer the fullness of life to the world – i.e. to save it from death and destruction by being victorious over death. And so, it becomes clear why this term was rightly considered, not only by St Cyril but the Church at large, to be of salvific importance since it proclaimed that the One born of the Virgin Mary was the divine ‘Son and Word of God’.
The term ‘Theotokos’
Moreover, the term ‘Theotokos’ was able to emphasize the unity of the humanity of Jesus with the divine Word of God allowing no room for misunderstanding that the Virgin Mary had given birth to a mere man who was only later conjoined to the divine Logos of God. On the contrary, St Cyril declared that Mary had given birth to the divine Son of God and therefore Jesus Christ was divine with exactly the same divinity as God His Father. It is understandable that St Cyril’s theology, shaped by the Arian controversy, which had taken place only fifty years before, would want to affirm the absolute divine character of Jesus since Arius had falsely believed that Christ was a mere creature. Therefore, upon formally refusing the title ‘Theotokos’ for the Virgin Mary in 428AD, Nestorius found himself on the opposing end of St Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. As we shall see, the situation between the two men became so tense, that in 431, it was deemed necessary to convene, what came to be called the Third Ecumenical Council to settle this matter.
St Cyril’s justification of the term ‘Theotokos’ was clearly indicated in his second epistle to Nestorius:
When the fathers dared to call the Holy Virgin Theotokos, they did not mean by this that the nature of the Word or His Godhead originated from the holy Virgin. But because His holy body, endowed with life and reason, was born from her, and because the Word, was hypostatically [personally] united to that body, He is said to have been from her according to the flesh.
The first point to be noticed from the above quote is that St Cyril correctly considered the phenomenon of motherhood as a relationship between ‘persons’ and not with ‘nature’. Obviously any claim that Mary gave birth to the Godhead or that the Godhead as such could undergo birth is erroneous. Rather, for St Cyril, just as a mother in general gives birth, not to a faceless nature but to a person, so too the person that the Virgin gave birth to was none other than the divine second person of the Holy Trinity and in this sense she could be called ‘God-bearer’. That is, he understood the mystery of the incarnation not from within the dimension of abstract ideas but as a mystery between a mother and a child, since what a mother gives birth to is not a nature (as Nestorius thought) but a person. On this matter Florovsky wrote:
Christian thought moves always in the dimension of personalities not in the realm of general ideas. It apprehends the mystery of the Incarnation as a mystery of the Mother and Child.
Therefore Jesus Christ was the Logos of God, God incarnate and not a mere man to which the Logos subsequently conjoined.
In the case of Christ, for St Cyril there was no other personal subject except for God the Word (i.e. the second person of the Holy Trinity). The Scriptures, according to St Cyril were clear in stating that the man Jesus was the very Logos of God who, having come down from heaven was incarnate not only of the Holy Spirit but also the Virgin Mary thereby being perfectly united, in time, to His blessed mother. In his treatise entitled Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Theotokos is Theotokos, he wrote:
We know Christ not as a man united to God, but as God assuming the human realities, i.e. the body and the soul and the mind, and as God perfectly united in the holy Virgin without sin.
It was precisely for this reason that Mary could be called ‘Theotokos’ since she had given birth to the divine Word of God. For Cyril, if the term Theotokos were not accepted, there would be a danger of dividing the incarnate Christ into two personal subjects [i.e. the divine Logos and the man Jesus], loosely coexisting in a single body. The title ‘Theotokos’ was therefore not an optional title of worship but a theological presupposition of true doctrine in the incarnation. And so, to quote Florovsky again, the title ‘Theotokos’ was “a doctrinal definition in one word.”
The teaching of St Cyril regarding the person of Christ as both God and man (i.e. as Theanthropos) was witnessed in all the writings of the New Testament. Firstly the opening of the Gospel of St John makes it very clear that it was the divine Logos who was made flesh – it does not speak about the Word of God subsequently descending upon a man who had already been born from a woman:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:1;1:14).
Clearly the above passage underscores the fact that Jesus Christ was not a mere man like the saints, as Nestorius had falsely believed, but the same divine Word of God who became a true human being. Furthermore, the reason for Christ’s incarnation [i.e. that He became a true human being] is made clear, for St Cyril in St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews:
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil (Heb 2:14).
Indeed, if Jesus were a mere man, as Nestorius had declared and not the Son of God who became alike to human beings in all respects except for sin, then He could not save humanity since only what Christ assumed could He also save.
Stressing the divinity of Christ, the Scriptures even attribute to Christ actions and works that took place before his incarnation which show beyond doubt that Christ could not have been a mere man as Nestorius had asserted:
Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord [i.e. Jesus Christ], who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. (Jude 1:5).
The above passage affirms in a simple yet profoundly explicit manner that Jesus Christ was the eternal Logos of God who had worked mighty deeds throughout the history of the people of Israel. It was for this reason that the Church, and the 3rd Ecumenical Council would convene to proclaim, against Nestorius and his followers, that Christ was eternally God who had become man in time and came forth from the Virgin Mary. As a brilliant Scriptural exegete, St Cyril was able to show beyond any doubt that Christ was a single person, a single hypostasis and thus Mary had given birth to the same Person as the divine Word of God. In the next issue we will turn our attention to the historical events of the 3rd Ecumenical Council, which came to proclaim triumphantly this saving Christological truth.
1. Letter 4.7. This letter came to be known as St Cyril”s Dogmatic Letter because it was accepted as the criterion of Orthodoxy at the 3rd Ecumenical Council.
2. Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption, Collected Works, vol. 3 (Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Company), 179.
3. Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Theotokos is Theotokos, 1.9.
4. Georges Florovsky, ”The Ever-Virgin Mother of God”, Collected Works III, 171.
5. This verse is quoted by St Cyril in his treatise entitled Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Theotokos is Theotokos, 1.3.
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
Mary Theotokos and the 3rd Ecumenical Council
The Third Ecumenical Council
Beyond the theological reasons which were determinative for the convocation of the 3rd Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431, one of the main socio-political factors was the imperial disunity which was becoming all the more apparent within the empire. Indeed from the perspective of the Emperor, disunity within the state meant great unrest, which could easily break out in violence. And for this reason, leaders always wanted to deal with issues, even theological ones, which could disrupt the good order of the state. The clash between St Cyril of Alexandria and Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople had spread to the Churches of Rome and Antioch, thereby becoming, in the words of St Cyril a ‘universal scandal’ since it had reached the ‘ends’ of the then known empire. The disruptive events, which were to follow, would compel the Emperor to deal with this matter since the unity of the empire was at stake.
Before the Council of 431, St Cyril had written several letters to Nestorius exposing his heretical teachings. Clearly, for St Cyril there was a real union, and not just a mere ‘contact’ between the divine and human natures in the one person of Christ. For this reason, it was not incorrect to assert that Mary had given birth to the same Person as God the Word. For example in 429, in his Paschal Homily, St Cyril wrote:
For it should be understood that… the Begotten is by nature God, and, therefore, the Virgin who gave birth to him should be mother not simply of flesh and blood… but rather Mother of the Lord and God who put on our own likeness… Therefore Emmanuel is God; and Mother of God should be the one who gave birth according to the flesh to the God who appeared in the flesh.
St Cyril continued to expose the teaching of Nestorius with letters, such as his well-known Dogmatic Epistle. In 430 St Cyril sent his Third Letter to Nestorius, which contained the Twelve Anathemas against Nestorius. In response, Nestorius wrote twelve anathemas to counter those of St Cyril’s in which he clearly stated that in Christ, there were two natures and two persons who were united ‘morally’. Nestorius believed that it was due to the virtuous life of the man Jesus, that this purely human Christ was subsequently conjoined to the Word of God. Furthermore Nestorius clearly believed that the humanity of Christ gradually came to be deified since the man Christ was obedient to divinity. By this Nestorius meant that the man Jesus gradually overcame his purely human aspect through obedience, moral asceticism and divine grace, thus gradually acquiring a divine aspect as well. Yet for the Church, Christ’s Lordship did not take place by grace but by nature since Christ was God’s divine Son and Word.
Nestorius attempted to put a stop to St Cyril by gaining the support of Emperor Theodosius II. However, perceiving the danger, St Cyril turned to Pope Celestine in Rome and John Cassian so as to counter Nestorius’ political machinations. Upon perceiving the extent of division in his empire, the Emperor, in 430 decided to summon a council in the city of Ephesus in order to restore imperial unity. From a historical perspective the events of the 3rd Ecumenical Council were complex. At first, Nestorius seemed to have secured the upper hand in that it was he who enjoyed the support of Emperor Theodosius II and Candidian, the captain of the imperial guard. In an equally clever manner, St Cyril, on the other hand made sure he could secure the support of Memnon, bishop of Ephesus, who closed all churches to Nestorius when the Emperor had finally decided to summon a synod in the cathedral of St Mary in Ephesus so as to have the matter settled. Working against Nestorius, however was the late arrival of his supporters, such as Patriarch John of Antioch who had been summoned to attend the council. It was for this reason that on several occasions Nestorius asked that the council be postponed until his party arrived.
Commencement of Council
Yet, despite the strident opposition by Nestorius, and for that matter Candidian, the council commenced on Monday, 22 June, 431 and was in session. In protest however Nestorius refused to attend the assembly even though he had been summoned on several occasions. After proclaiming their adherence to the faith of Nicaea, there followed a reading of St Cyril’s second letter. This letter, together with Cyril’s third letter, which contained the twelve anathemas formed the essential dogmatic statement of the council. After declaring the orthodoxy of these letters, the delegates proceeded to pass their sentence on Nestorius:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, upon whom he [Nestorius] has blasphemed, decrees, through the Holy Synod here present, that Nestorius be excluded from the Episcopal dignity and every priestly assembly.
The historical records show that in the end, 197 bishops signed this document. Whilst the actual content of the sentence is not surprising, what is striking, on the other hand, was the council’s absolutely certain conviction that its verdict was that of Jesus Christ.4 Even though the council bishops proceeded to send a copy of the verdict to the Emperor matters had not as yet been resolved since Nestorius’ party had not yet arrived to offer their counter argument.
Four days later, on 26 June, John of Antioch finally arrived and immediately convened another council – which St Cyril called ‘a little council of apostasy’ – with forty-three other bishops to condemn St Cyril and bishop Memnon of Ephesus since they did not find the theology of St Cyril acceptable. And on 29 June, an imperial rescript arrived not only annulling the action of St Cyril’s council but also forbidding any bishop to leave. And so events were not looking favourable towards St Cyril and the Church. Matters however took a turn for the better, in July when the papal legates arrived from Rome and the council of St Cyril was able to assemble for its second session. The Emperor could see that neither party would give way and that unrest, and therefore, political instability would continue. In the end, the Emperor intervened and decided to convene a conference made up of eight delegates from each faction so that he could form his own opinion. Here the supporters of St Cyril proved victorious and Nestorius was removed from Ephesus and from his position as bishop of Constantinople, and was replaced by Maximianus as Patriarch.
Victory over Nestorius
After the council, St Cyril immediately departed back to Alexandria since the victory over Nestorius had been achieved. Yet matters had not ended since, next came the task of reconciliation between St Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch. This would finally be achieved in 433 in the following manner. Paul of Emesa had been sent to Alexandria from Antioch with the theology of John of Antioch. Upon reading this, and seeing its ‘orthodoxy’, St Cyril responded with a Letter of Reconciliation:
Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad for the wall of division is broken down.
The two Patriarchs had finally agreed that Christ was one person, the second Person of the Trinity. For this reason it was not incorrect to say that the virgin mother was ‘Theotokos’ since she had truly given birth to the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Furthermore, they both concurred that, in Christ, there were two natures, one divine and the other human, which were hypostatically united [i.e. united in the Person of divine Son and Word of God].
The Church had triumphed, the storm had died and peace would reign for as long as St Cyril was alive. Upon his death, however in June 444, trouble would begin to stir yet again on the person and nature of Christ and would ultimately be dealt within, what would come to be known as the Fourth Ecumenical Synod in Chalcedon which would take place in 451. Yet at this Council and the Ecumenical Councils, which followed, it was St Cyril’s theology on the person of Christ, which would remain the normative criterion of Orthodoxy. Indeed history has shown that all parties laid claim on being faithful followers of St Cyril of Alexandria. It would be precisely for this reason that the Church would have to fight long and hard to show that St Cyril’s theology did in fact affirm not only the one person of Christ but also distinguished between both a ‘divine’ and ‘human’ nature. Whilst the expression ‘Theotokos’ underscored the unity of the person of Jesus Christ, it would be the council of Chalcedon, which would find adequate terms to signify both these aspects in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
1. The theological reasons have already been discussed in the 2005 August and September issues of The Voice of Orthodoxy.
2. Paschal Homily, PG 77. 776C and 777C.
3. Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, 155.
4. Cf the Council of the Apostles described in Acts where the apostles, upon reaching their decision declared: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28).
5. St Cyril of Alexandria, Letter 39 (PG 77:173-182).
Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
The Feast day of Saints Peter and Paul
Sts Peter and Paul
On the 29th June of every year our Orthodox Church celebrates the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul. So important is this celebration in the Orthodox Church that it is marked by a preparatory fasting period – called the fast of the apostles – beginning from the Monday after Pentecost and lasting until the eve of the feast day of Sts Peter and Paul. Following the practise of the early Church, where the first Christians would commemorate departed saints by celebrating the Divine Eucharist on top of their tombs, we too, nearly two thousand years later follow that same tradition. We too continue to this day to celebrate the feast days of saints by celebrating the Divine Liturgy over the altar of the Church of the particular saint to which the Church is dedicated. The reason for this is that the altar of every Church is said to be symbolic of saints’ tombs in that every consecrated Church has relics of saints within the altar.
One may quite justifiably ask why these two apostles in particular are celebrated on the same day. Peter was one of the twelve whereas Paul was not. From the Biblical evidence that we have we know that Peter’s ministerial outlook was very different from Paul’s. At the council of Jerusalem (48AD), great problems had arisen in the Church from a large influx of Gentile converts and these saints had different opinions as to how they should be received. Yet we find that not only are they celebrated on the same day, but even icons of Sts Peter and Paul portray these two major apostles embracing each other.
Historically the reason why the Church combined the feast day of the two apostles into one was that they were both martyred in Rome and on the same day. There is a very ancient tradition which claims that they were both executed during Nero’s persecution approximately in the year 68AD. For this reason, probably from the fourth century onwards the Church in Rome came to celebrate the feast day of these two apostles on the 29th June where they were martyred. By contrast, Constantinople celebrated this feast day several days after Christmas on the 28th December. However we see that it was the Roman custom that has prevailed in the Church today, but the evidence does not reveal to us precisely when this came to be.
Theologically speaking, the reason why the feast day of these two apostles was combined into one was to show that even though their ministerial vision was not the same yet both were necessary and even complemented each other. Even though the apostle Paul was not one of the twelve, he would claim, nevertheless that his ministry was considered equal if not superior to those ministers who had been appointed by Christ during His earthly ministry since he had suffered so much for Christ. During their lifetime, these two great apostles of our Church disagreed greatly as to how to receive new members into the newly established Christian faith. St Paul is said to have rebuked St Peter for duplicity in this matter. In Galatians 2.11, St Paul tells us of a disagreement he had with St Peter:
“when Peter came to Antioch, I withstood him in the face because he was to be blamed.”
Peter believed that new members firstly had to fulfil the requirements of the Jewish law by being circumcised before they could become Christians whereas Paul was totally opposed to this. What we can learn from this is that when the Church is ruled by the Holy Spirit tensions of this kind can be overcome.
Their life and time
Having examined briefly both the historical and theological reasons why these two apostles are celebrated on the same day we now turn to describe certain facts about their life and time. St Peter originally called Simon (Acts 15.14) was born in the strongly gentile town of Bethsaida (Jn 1.44) but had a home in Capernaum (Mk 1.21ff). Both were lakeside towns and this gave Peter the possibility to work as a fisherman. Unlike Paul who was highly trained in the Jewish law, Peter was not; he was married (Mk 1.30) and was accompanied by his wife on his missionary journeys (1 Cor. 9.5). After Pentecost, it was Peter who became the chief spokesman (Acts 4.8ff), principal preacher (2.14ff) and administrator of discipline (5.3) in the newly established Christian faith.
St Peter is portrayed as the courageous apostle, full of life, spontaneity and dynamism. He rejected Christ three times and cried bitterly for this but also confessed him as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. He is the one whom Christ asked if he loved Him yet also called satan. However, the greatest characteristic of the apostle Peter, so sensitively noticed by Archbishop Stylianos, was St Peter’s sincerity to proclaim publicly and without shame that he was so unworthy to have Christ perform miracles for him. In the gospel of St Luke we read that as St Peter saw Christ coming towards him after Christ had miraculously filled his nets with an abundance of fish, he said to Christ: “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5.8). Who else would have dared to make a confession of this kind? Who else would have thought that he is the least of all, and unworthy even of such an abundance of fish when so many other fishermen would have encountered similar hardships. All too often if we know influential people we try to see what favours they can do for us without thinking that there may be others around us who have more need. And it is this image of St Peter, so full of humility, that must be recaptured again in the Church.
On the other hand we are told that St Paul was born in the city of Tarsus (Acts 9.11), a thoroughly Greek city in Asia Minor and was a Roman citizen (22.29). In his early life, not only was St Paul a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, and a Pharisee (Phil.3.5), but also a staunch persecutor of the early Christian Church. In fact he had been given the official authority to direct a campaign against Christians. From his letters and the book of Acts, we learn that a dramatic revelation experience, on his way to Damascus, called Paul to follow Christ as an apostle. After spending his initial three years as a follower of Christ in Arabia, Paul went to Jerusalem to visit the apostolic community where he spoke to Sts Peter and James. It would be fourteen years later that he would return for the second time to Jerusalem for the apostolic council of 48AD.
About 46AD, he was commissioned by the Church in Antioch to undertake a missionary journey to Cyprus and Galatia. St Paul has come to be known as the prodigious traveller, having undertaken four extensive missionary journeys to Asia Minor, Greece (including Macedonia, Thessalonika, Athens, Corinth), Rome and possibly as far as Spain with a circle of missionary co-workers. It was during this time that he wrote his famous letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Falsely accused of violating temple rituals, he was arrested, imprisoned for two years by the governor Felix (Acts 24.27). After being set free by virtue of his status as a Roman citizens, since citizen of Rome could not be punished for cases not involving the breach of statute law, he went to Rome and was sentenced to death under the Emperor Nero.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of St Paul is that there are so many dimensions to his personality. He himself wrote that: “I have become all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 22f). It is St Paul’s polytropic nature which certainly promoted the rapid spread of the Christian gospel. We could conclude by stating that the true greatness of St St Paul lies not only in his polytropic nature but also the writings that he has left us, having influenced Christianity as no other man with the exception of Jesus Himself.
In celebrating their feast day, let us glorify Him who glorified them and rejoice together with Sts Peter and Paul and sing:
“Rejoice o Peter the apostle, for you are the great friend of the Master, Christ our God. Rejoice well beloved Paul, preacher of the faith and doctor of the universe. Because of this, may you both intercede with Christ our God for the salvation of our souls.”
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
The English countryside is serenely beautiful most of the year; especially at Easter time. Even that moody English weather, for all its temperamentality, manages to cause a symphony of luscious foliage and gentle green meadows which blend with a tranquil array of colour and natural splendour. I know, because I was there in 1971, visiting a friend in Oxford who was completing his doctorate at the time. Dimitri Conomos, formerly a member of this very Parish, (and for us, still a cherished member) has long since become a Professor and is a world authority on Orthodox musicology.
During my short stay in Oxford, as so many do in that part of the world, we took a care-free bike-ride through the scenic surrounds. We stopped at a quaint thatch-roofed pub by the banks of the Cherwell River for a taste of traditionally un-refrigerated beer, then proceeded on our excursion till we came upon a small but welcoming church dedicated to St Frideswide.
Dimitri pointed out to me that St Frideswide was martyred in the 8th century and was recognized as a saint by the Church of England. However, I was slightly taken aback when he suggested to me that we should regard St Frideswide as an Orthodox saint since she died for Christ during the first millenium when the Church was not yet divided; a period when East and West, Rome and Constantinople, shared the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith, despite the prevailing cultural and linguistic differences.
Since then, I must admit, whenever the subject of Saints has arisen, I have always felt a degree of nostalgia for this particular saint who has come to symbolize, for me, at least, the heartache caused by the departure of former sister-Churches from the True expression of the Christian Faith.
Nonetheless, in researching this evening’s talk, I have found that St Frideswide was martyred in 735 A.D. and is actually considered the patron saint of the city of Oxford. According to accounts of her life, she was the daughter of Didanus, a Mercian prince, and after taking a vow of virginity, fled to Oxford to avoid marriage with a neighbouring royal, King Algar. There, after taking refuge for three years in a village named Benton (perhaps Binsey), she founded a nunnery over which she became abbess.
A Monastery bearing her name is known to have existed in Oxford before the Conquest. Her shrine became a place of pilgrimage until its later spoliation. Twice a year her shrine was solemnly visited by the university and in 1434 Archbishop Henry Chichele of Canterbury ordered her feast (October 19th) to be observed as that of the patroness of the university.
Her festival was abolished by the Church of England in 1549, but it continues to appear in the Oxford University Calendar.
Could it be, however, that St Frideswide still remains within the love of Orthodoxy? Could it be that the commemoration of her martyrdom is not beyond the spiritual bounds of Orthodox contemplation on sainthood? Hopefully, her memory as a faithful servant of Christ will not be lost entirely as we commence the challenging examination of tonight’s subject.
Derivation of the term
To have a clearer understanding of what is to follow let us look at the derivation of the word “saint”. The English word comes from the Latin sanctus meaning “holy”. The word “saint” in Greek, «άγιος», is derived from the verb άζω or άζομαι which literally means one who is overcome with awe, fear, respect or one who has a disposition of reverence towards someone else.
The “divine”. From amongst the tragic writers, Thespis, who staged the first known dramatic performance in Athens during the first part of the 6th century, speaks of «βωμούς αγίων» (sanctuaries of the holy). From the 5th century B.C., the adjective «άγιον» is steadily used in the worshipping language of the Ionian and Attican dialects.
Herodotus, for whom the word signifies a sacred place, speaks of «αγίου ιρός», a holy one’s altar, and «αγίου άλσος», a holy one’s grove. Similarly, Plato speaks of «άγιος τόπος», a sacred place, Aristophanes speaks of «άγιαι τελεταί», sacred rituals, Demosthenes speaks of «αγιώταται τελεταί», most holy rituals and «αγιώτατοι βωμοί», most holy sanctuaries, «άγια και σεμνά ιερά», holy and solemn sanctuaries, Isocrates refers to «τα αγιώτατα των ιερών», the holiest of sanctuaries, whilst Pausanias refers to «ιερόν άγιον» the holy altar.
The word occurs more frequently during the Hellenistic period, after the death of Alexander the Great, in the 3rd century B.C., when the oriental notion regarding holiness begins to influence its usage. Consequently, during this period, gods are characterized as holy, especially Egyptian and Syrian gods such as Isis, Serapis and Baal.
The same influence was exerted upon the Roman usage of the word “sanctus” in referring to gods as “holy”. It appears that these foreign contexts eventually led the ancient Greeks to refer to their own gods as “holy”, especially in their ritualistic worship.
Yet, although the Greeks used the word «άγιος» to describe sacred places, religious ceremonies and gods, the word was never used to denote a person who engaged in, studied or philosophized these issues. For such a person the Hellenes reserved the appellation «σεμνός» which means modest, grave, solemn or stately.
Later, in translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew to Greek, the 72 translators, chose the word «άγιος» to best reflect the Hebrew adjective kadosh or the noun kodesh meaning “holy” or “sacred” or “a holy person”. The Greek translators adhered strictly to the Hebrew context of holiness as well as to its Semitic adaptation. Possibly, even the words “kadosh” and “kodesh” are of Canaanean origin, which means that its usage in the Hebrew was also probably influenced by an external religious environment.
In the Old Testament, nonetheless, these words are used to refer to God, His creations, sacred objects and places of worship. Specifically,
1. Yahweh (God) is holy. “For I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy [άγιος] ” (Leviticus 11:44). Even more strikingly, according to the prophet Isaiah who places holiness at the epicentre of his theology, God is not merely holy, but thrice holy – “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). In effect, he is Holy, multiplied by Holy, multiplied by Holy, thus signifying, by this triple repetition, the infinite holiness of God.
2. The Angels are also characterized by the same adjective. “Then I heard a holy one [άγιος] speaking; and another holy one said to that certain one who was speaking, ‘How long will the vision be’….” (Daniel 8:13).
3. The Priests called to the service of God are also called holy – “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say’….they shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God, for they offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire, and the bread of their God; therefore they shall be holy [άγιοι] ” (Leviticus 21:6).
4. Those who worship God are called saints in the Psalms of David – “As for the saints [άγιοι] who are on the earth, ‘they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight’….” (Psalm 16:3). Generally, the Israelites, in contrast to the gentiles (the non-Hebrews) are called holy – “But the saints [άγιοι] of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever” (Daniel 7:18). The divine command “be holy [άγιοι] , for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) applies to all Israelites. Thus, the entire people of Israel are holy – “For I am the Lord who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. You shall therefore be holy [άγιοι] for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45). Even further, Israel is referred to as a holy nation – “And the Lord said [to Moses]…Thus you shall tell the children of Israel …. you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy [άγιον] nation” (Exodus 19:6). The consequences of being such a nation, however, also obliges it to obey strictly the requirements of God, as is found in Leviticus 19:3-18.
5. The places and objects dedicated to God are also called holy. The part of the portable Temple reserved for the altar table with the seven lamps was called holy, whilst the place where the Ark of the Testimony was kept is referred to as the “Holy of Holies” [άγια των αγίων] (Exodus 26:34-35). Also Mount Horeb, “the mountain of God”, where the first theophany or epiphany occurred, is called holy. When God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush which was not consumed by the fire, He spoke to him saying “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy [άγιον] ground” (Exodus 3:5).
From these examples taken from the Old Testament, before Jesus came into the world, we can see that the terms «άγιος», «άγιον», «άγια», in their translation to English are interchangeable for ‘holy’, ‘holiness’, ‘sacred’ and ‘saint’.
Moving now to the New Testament, the word «άγιος», is rendered first and foremost to:
1. The Tri-hypostatic God (the Holy Trinity) Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8).
God the Father, to whom His only-begotten Son prays, before his crucifixion, for the unity of the believers, is called holy – “Now I am no longer in the world but these [faithful] are in the world and I come to you. Holy Father [Πάτερ άγιε] , keep, through your name, those whom you have given me, that they may be one as We are one” (John 17:11). God the Son is referred to as “the Holy One [άγιος] of God” (Mark 1:24), and as “holy and just” (Acts 3:14). Jesus is the Son whom the Father has anointed as his “holy Servant” (Acts 4:27) and who reveals signs (miracles) among His people.
Finally, holy is God the Holy Spirit, also, (Matthew 1:18, 3:11) who “teaches [the persecuted] in that very hour what you ought to say (Luke 12:12), who strengthens the Apostles (John 5:8) and who spiritually anoints the believers (1 John 2:20).
2. Just as in the Old Testament, so in the New Testament, Angels are characterized as holy [άγιοι] . On the day of the Second Coming, “the Son of man will appear in His glory and all the holy angels with Him (Matthew 25:31). “He [will come] with ten thousands of His saints” (Jude v. 14) and will judge the world “in the presence of the holy angels” (Revelation 14:10).
3. The Prophets likewise are called holy. God speaks “by the mouth of His holy [αγίων] prophets (Luke 1:70) and also speaks “by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21).
4. The Apostles are called holy. The grace of God “has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy [αγίους] apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:5).
5. The Apostle Paul characterizes all Christians as “holy [άγιοι] and without blame” (Ephesians 1:4). Further, he commands them to be “holy and without blame and above reproach” (Colossians 1:22) and exhorts them to live and conduct themselves “as is fitting for saints [τοις αγίοις] ” (Ephesians 5:3). In addition, the Apostle Peter, traveling through Judea, Galillee and Samaria, comes down “to the saints [αγίους] who dwelt in Lydda (Acts 9:32) and proceeds to neighbouring Joppa where he resurrects from the dead a woman apostle named Tabitha in the presence of “the saints [των αγίων] and widows” (Acts 9:41).
6. Only once is the word «άγιος» used to denote a particular person – John the Baptist whom Herod was afraid of, “knowing that he was just and holy” (Mark 6:20).
7. In the New Testament, Mount Tabor, where Christ was Transfigured and surrounded by Divine Light, is called holy [άγιον] (2 Peter 1:18). Heaven, where God dwells and where the throne of his Kingdom abides, is also called holy, for “with His own blood, [Jesus] entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” for those who seek forgiveness of sins.
8. Finally, the Sacred Books are called holy [γραφαίς αγίαις] (Romans 1:2) as well as the Commandments of God (2 Peter 2:21).
So, in the New Testament, the terms «άγιος» and sanctus are equally interchangeable in English with the terms holy, holiness, sanctity, sacred and saint.
God – the only source of Holiness
In Patristic terminology the adjective «άγιος» is rendered primarily to God as the essence and source of all holiness. For God alone is “Lord, holy and true” (Acts 6:10) upon whom every holy and sacred element of the world is dependent, since it can never be holy of its own, but only through “participation” (μέθεξις) in the holiness of God.
Even the terms kadosh, άγιος, and sanctus presuppose a relationship of absolute dependency on God.
From the time of St Irenaeus, however, in the second century, the characterization “saint” is applied to all those men and women who, drawing their holiness from God, the only source of holiness, through their active faith and love accomplished “likeness” with Him and “found favour before God” (Acts 7:46).
Essentially, then, the term “saint” points to the “person of God” (3 Kings 13:24), the “friend of Christ” (in the words of St John of Damascus) who, through perfect love for God and through obedience to the Divine Law, has been sanctified and divinized, both in spirit and in body, and has been glorified by God, receiving from Him the grace of working miracles and the power to intercede for us.
One must strive heroically to live a life in imitation of the divine holiness, but sanctification itself is the work of the Holy Trinity.
What is a Saint?
Through the power and action of the Holy Trinity all Christians are called to be saints. In the early Church, all who were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, who received the Seal of the Spirit in Chrismation and who participated in the Holy Eucharist, were called “saints”. In this same spirit St. Paul, when writing to the Churches he had visited, calls all the faithful “saints”.
Writing to the Ephesians, he addresses his Letter “to the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1); writing to the Corinthians he uses the same expressions “to the church of God which is in Corinth, with all the saints who are in [the province of] Achaia” (2 Cor. 1: 11).
St. Basil, commenting on these Scriptural remarks, explains that St Paul, in referring to the “saints” of the local Churches with whom he is communicating, “means all those who are united with God, who is the Being, the Life and the Truth” (Against Eunomius, II, 19).
Furthermore, St. Paul writes to the Colossians that God has reconciled men by Christ’s death, “so that He may present you before Himself holy, without blemish and innocent in His sight” (1: 22).
However, in the early Church, whilst it was understood that one could not be a member of the Church without being a saint, just as today, the term was used particularly to distinguish the first Christians, especially the members of the community in Jerusalem.
In Antioch, even from the days of the Apostles, the members of the Church, overall, were soon referred to as “Christians”.
The term “saint” was eventually used to especially honour the martyrs who were persecuted and killed for the name of Christ. Later, an ever-increasing line of exemplary Christians, sanctified by the power of God within them, also came to be known as “saints”.
So who are the men and women and children who are called Saints in the Orthodox Church today? Some Orthodox theologians place the Saints in a number of groupings:
1. First amongst all the Saints of the Church is a woman – the Holy Theotokos, the Mother of our Lord, and Ever-Virgin Mary. She belongs to no group, for she stands alone “more honourable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim”. The Theotokos is the “chosen vessel” through whom the perfect union of divine and human in Christ was effected. She is not a god. She is not a demi-god. She is entirely human. However, Her degree of holiness far surpasses that attained by any other human being.
2. The Apostles, who were called by Christ to His service and who received the great command to evangelize the world, thus establishing the Church. They were the first to spread the message of the Incarnation of the Word of God and of salvation through Christ.
3. The Prophets, who were chosen by God as His spokespeople through the ages. They led the people of God to the path of salvation and prophesied, in different eras, the coming of the Messiah.
4. The Martyrs, men and women, who sacrificed their lives whilst fearlessly confessing Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Saviour of humanity.
5. The Fathers and Bishops who excelled in defining and defending the Christian faith, by word and deed, through Ecumenical Councils, through their writings and through their boldness before rulers and heretics.
6. The Monastics, men and women, who lived in the desert and dedicated themselves to spiritual exercise (άσκησις), reaching, as far as possible, perfection in Christ.
7. The Just, men and women, who lived in the world, leading exemplary lives as clergy or laity with their families, becoming examples for imitation within the Church and society.
All these saints had their own calling and characteristics: they all fought the “good fight for the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12 and 2 Tim. 4: 7) and all applied in their lives the scriptural virtues of “justice, piety, fidelity, love, fortitude, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6: 11).
How do we know who these Saints are?
From the earliest days of the Church, each local Church, under the supervision of the Bishop, compiled catalogues or lists indicating each known case where a Christian was martyred (killed) for the Faith.
These lists were called Martyria and were accompanied by a brief account of the martyr’s life and the circumstances of his or her martyrdom. Further they made mention of the manner in which each particular martyr was arrested, tried and executed.
There were two types of Martyria: a) the official transcripts which record the court proceedings under a proconsul or a number of judges (acta proconsularia), either in their original form, or with elaborations added by a Christian hand, and b) accounts of the trial and death of the martyr recorded in the form of letters written either by eye-witnesses or by auricular (ear-witnesses).
These had a liturgical character and were often used in the Services of the early Church for the inspiration of the faithful.
In time, the Martyria were succeeded by the Martyrologia which are distinguished into general and local records compiled from the existing Martyria.
Originally, under the term Martyrologia were recorded all accounts which related to the life and the martyrdom of a particular member of the Church. East and West, when speaking of Martyrologia meant precisely those accounts which could also take the form of a eulogy, a panygeric sermon, or a lengthy exposition on the life of the martyrs. These detailed accounts were duly summarized and recorded in chronological order thus forming the Martyrologia which were the most representative type of ecclesiastical calendar in the Ancient Church.
Of the many Martyrologia, perhaps the most important was the Eastern Martyrologion, compiled in Greek in the 4th century and distinguished by its order and precision. This was later translated into Syriac then, eventually, other languages as well.
Parallel to these were the Calendaria which were ancient accounts not restricted merely to the dates and places where martyrdoms occurred but which also included a record of other significant social or secular events of that period.
Additional records were catalogued in the Diptychs of the Martyrs – the word ‘diptych’ comes from the Greek «δίπτυχα», literally meaning two panels joined by by hinges thus enabling them to be folded as two thick pages of a book. Upon these diptychs were recorded the names of the martyrs and preserved in each local church. Some diptychs took the form of icons.
Alongside these were the Episcopal Diptychs also. These were the lists of the canonical Bishops of each regional Church who had departed from this world which certified the Apostolic Succession of their Ordination – a practice that continues till today thus making it possible to trace the status of a given Bishop and to verify whether he, and his immediate successors are canonical or not, i.e. authentic or false.
With the Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine the Great in 313, granting freedom of worship to all religions, including Christianity, it was inevitable that a chart of Feast Days called the Eortologion would be compiled. This important book records the lives of the martyrs, the commemoration of Saints, the celebration of Despotikes and Theomitorikes Eortes (Feast Days focusing on Jesus and the Mother of the Lord), as well as various events directly related to the life of the Church or the experiences of the faithful, such as the consecration of church buildings, miracles, earthquakes etc.
With the passage of time other liturgical and hagiological books were published. These include the Synaxaria (from the Greek word ‘synaxis’, meaning a gathering, and in this case a ‘gathering’, a compilation of detailed accounts of the lives of the Saints).
Although they still remain as historical records of the Church’s Saints, the Eortologia were replaced by the Menaia or Menologia which are a set of twelve books, one for each month, containing not only the names of the Saints commemorated each day, but also a summary of each Saint’s life and the hymns to be chanted in honour of each Saint during Vespers, Matins and the Divine Liturgy. These are the books used today in the Orthodox Services.
The Menologia, by no means exhaustive, are a compilation of the Saints from all the regional Churches, who, whilst distinguishing themselves in particular areas, came to be accepted universally by the Orthodox Church.
Undoubtedly, however, the Church is mindful that many Saints are not included in the current Menologia of Eastern Orthodoxy. For this reason, special committees from the various Patriarchates continue to gather information in an attempt to include all the Saints of the Undivided Church of the first millennium and to update the list of Saints after the Schism of 1054 till today.
In this context, then, perhaps St Frideswide might one day also be included in the Menologin of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, when a myriad of Saints from the Christian East and the Christian West, not yet recorded officially, are finally entered into the Menologion.
When St Paul was writing to the Christians of Rome or Corinth, reminding them that they are “called to be saints”, he was not writing to people “likely to figure in stained-glass windows” or on iconographic walls but to what one contemporary theologian describes as “a motley collection of shop-keepers, minor civil servants, converted prostitutes, prize fighters and slaves”.
They came from every class and occupation, from every temperament and background. They did not walk the streets with halos glowing. The Saints were just as human as we are. Men, women and children. Married and celibate. Clergy and lay people. They were sinners, just as we are. But, by the grace of God, they were “washed and sanctified” and remained so till their departure from this world.
The Concept of Theosis
One extraordinary experience, common amongst many Saints, is that of Theosis or Deification. What is this and where do we base it in the Scriptures?
In the Old Testament, you will recall, God spoke to His people through Moses saying “For I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy (Leviticus 11:44).
However, in the New Testament, Jesus, following the ultimate Commandment of Love which requires the believers to forgive even their enemies, went not one, but infinite steps further, when he preached the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, and directed all who would follow Him, not just to be holy, but to “be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:38).
Is it not enough to be a good person, “minding one’s own business, not hurting anyone, not wronging anyone”? That might be a reasonable starting point, but certainly not enough, according to Jesus! Is it not enough to be holy? Yes, if one can attain holiness, then most certainly one can be saved and thus enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But who can be perfect? Realistically, is this attainable?
Theosis (in Greek) or Deification (in English) are the ancient theological words used to describe the process by which a Christian becomes more like God. St Peter speaks of this process in the New Testament when he writes, “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things pertaining to life and godliness….that we may be partakers of the divine nature..” (2 Peter 1:2-4).
What does it mean to be partakers of divine nature and how do we experience this? When the Church calls us to pursue godliness, to be more like God, “this does not mean that human beings become divine. We do not become like God in His nature. That would not only be heresy, it would be impossible”, for, as humans, we cannot participate in God’s essence or nature because, in such a case, “the distinction between God and man would be abolished”.
What this does mean is that we can participate in God’s divine energy, described by a number of terms in Scripture, such as glory, life, love virtue and power.
We are to become like God by grace, and truly His adopted children, but we never become God by nature. According to some Church Fathers, this transformation especially occurs through the Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion), “for when Christ’s Body and Blood become one with ours, we become Christ-bearers and partakers of the divine nature”.
Through knowledge and the cultivation of a progression of spiritual qualities, especially humility, obedience, love, moral excellence and self-control, some Saints of the Church, even some who are living today on Mount Athos in Greece, and elsewhere in the world, reached such an advanced stage of purity that they were surrounded by the energy of God and during moments of prayer that could last for days, according to eye-witnesses, were elevated by God off the ground as they knelt in silence, surrounded by Divine Light.
Historically, Theosis has often been likened to a sword in the fire. A steel sword is thrust into a hot fire until the sword takes on a red glow. “The energy of the fire interpenetrates the sword. The sword never becomes fire, but it picks up the properties of the fire”. Likewise, being joined to Christ, our humanity can be interpenetrated with the energies of God.
Christ – the only Mediator
Central to Orthodox faith and practice is the belief that Christ is the One and only mediator for the reconciliation of humanity with God.
The intercessions of the Saints “do not lessen or limit the redemptive work of Christ as the only Mediator between God and man”. Whilst there are many intercessors who pray for us in Heaven, they cannot grant us salvation! They can only intercede for us through the one and only Mediator who can forgive and redeem us – our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
However, just as the living members of the Church pray for one another, which does not offend or violate the truth of Christ as the One and only Mediator, so also, the Saints in heaven pray for the living.
The claim by non-Orthodox that the Saints in Heaven, as human, are not able to know the needs of the members of the Church on earth is not justified, because the angels, who are also created beings, do know the needs of man and serve them (Zechariah 1:12-13, Luke 15:10 and Revelation 8:4).
The Intercession of the Saints
The Orthodox practice of seeking the prayers and intercessions of the Saints is not only a fundamental aspect of Holy Tradition, which is the on-going life of the Church, but is also prefigured in the Scriptures. By Saints we are to understand not just those in heaven but the Saints on earth as well.
In the New Testament, Jesus, while enduring “extreme humiliation” on the Cross, prayed to His Father…., “then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him” (Luke 22:43). Seeing, therefore, that Christ Himself was strengthened in His agony by an angel, how could it be improper, as some non-Orthodox say, for the members of the Church to call upon the assistance of the Saints in their supplication to God?
If the Saints’ prayers to God had such power or influence when they were yet on earth, how much greater must their influence be after their departure from earth? This prompts St Paul to explain, “Truly, now we see things dimly, as through a metallic mirror. Then we shall see God face to face. For now I know only in part, but then I shall know in fullness, just as God has also known me” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
A most tangible example of a saint interceding to God on behalf of the people occurred when Christ was present at the marriage in Cana of Galilee. “When the wine gave out”, we read in the Scriptures, “the Mother of Jesus said to Him, ‘They have no wine’….” And after initially questioning the timing of His mother’s request, observing that she had already instructed the servants to do whatever He was to tell them, Jesus turned the water into wine (John 2:3-9). This sign was the first manifestation of Christ’s glory as perfect God and perfect Man in what is termed a ‘miracle’.
He responded to the request of his Mother who, apart from being truly the Theotokos, was also a saint of the first Christian community.
St Paul, writing to the Greek-speaking Jews in Palestine, exhorts them to “remember your leaders [i.e. the leaders of the Sacraments, the Bishops and Presbyters] who spoke the word of God to you. Observe how their lives ended and follow the example of their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). Elsewhere, St Paul praises the Christian communities “Having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and the love which you have for all the saints (Colossians 1:4).
In the Old Testament we are told that “the memory of the righteous is blessed, but the name of the wicked will rot” (Proverbs 10:7).
This was emphasized remarkably when Judas Maccabeus, a spiritual leader of the Jews, with his people under threat of slaughter by the arrogant Nicanor, prayed to the Lord for help. The Jews could not fight because it was the day of the Sabbath. Unwavering in his faith, Judas Maccabeus strengthened his men by relating the following vision: “Onias, who had been high priest, a noble and good man….was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews….Then likewise there appeared a man….of marvellous authority….And Onias spoke and said, ‘This is Jeremiah, the prophet of God, who loves the brothers and prays fervently for the people of the holy city’. Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas Maccabeus a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: ‘Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries’…” (2 Maccabees 15:12-16).
How marvellous is the power of God’s word! Both Onias the high priest and Jeremiah the prophet, Saints of the Old Testament, departed centuries before the attack on Judas Maccabeus, prayed from the heavens for the people and for the holy city. And, as we have just heard, the Prophet Jeremiah presented a material gift to Judas Maccabeus from God out of the immaterial heavens!
Also, Moses pleading with God to have mercy on His people, prays thus, “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; do not look on the stubbornness of this people, or on the wickedness of their sin” (Deuteronomy 9:27). Of course, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had long preceded Moses to the invisible world where they continued to exist with God.
St Paul asks for “the supplications of the saints” in Ephesus, Thessalonica, and Rome. (Ephesians 6: 19, Thessalonians 5: 25; Colossians 4: 3, and Romans 15: 30-31).
It is, therefore, not surprising that, in every Liturgy, we ask God the Father to accept, on our behalf, “the prayers and the intercessions” of all the Saints who now live in heaven.
The Fathers of the Church accept as a matter of course the prayers and the intercession of all the saints.
For example, St Basil explicitly writes that he accepts the intercessions of the apostles, prophets and martyrs, and he seeks their prayers to God(Letter 360). Then, speaking about the Forty Martyrs, who suffered martyrdom for Christ, he emphasizes that “they are common friends of the human race, strong ambassadors and collaborators in fervent prayers” (Chapter 8).
St Gregory of Nyssa asks St Theodore the Martyr “to fervently pray to our Common King, our God, for the country and the people” (Encomium to Martyr Theodore). The same language is used by St Gregory the Theologian in his encomium to St Cyprian. St John Chrysostom exhorts us to seek the intercessions and the fervent prayers of the saints, because they have special “boldness” (παρρησία), before God. (Gen. 44: 2 and Encomium to Julian, Iuventinus and Maximinus, 3).
This intercession is an ongoing feature of what the Fathers call the “Communion of the Saints”. In simple terms, this means that the saints who belong to the Visible Church on earth pray for the Saints who belong to the Invisible Church in Heaven. At the same time, the Saints in Heaven pray for the saints on earth.
This “communion” through prayer is a constant interaction which demonstrates the unity of the Church. Whether one is in the Visible Church or the Invisible Church, the Church is one. It functions on earth but extends beyond time and matter to eternity.
The Veneration of the Saints
In the Orthodox Church we seek the intercessions of the Saints but do we worship them? The answer is, no! We do not worship the Saints. We venerate them. Uninformed non-Orthodox Christians, seeing us crossing ourselves and kissing the holy icons, presume that we are contravening the Commandments of God.
In the Orthodox Church worship (λατρεία) is given to God alone. Worship is completely different from the honour (τιμή), the love (αγάπη) and veneration (προσκύνησις), “paid to all those endowed with holy dignity” (St John Chrysostom, Hom. III, 40).
The Orthodox honour the saints to express their love and gratitude to God, who has “perfected” the saints. As St Symeon the New Theologian writes, “God is the teacher of the Prophets, the co-traveller with the Apostles, the power of the Martyrs, the inspiration of the Fathers and Teachers, the perfection of all Saints….” (Catechesis, I).
But why do we bow down to the icons of the Saints when we venerate them? Is this justified by the Scriptures? Yes, it is!
The Holy Bible mentions in many places that saints were venerated or that homage was paid to them by the bowing down of the body as a sign of honour and respect, but not as an act of worship.
For instance: As Elijah and Elisha walked by the banks of the River Jordan, the Lord took Elijah into heaven by “the chariot of Israel and its horsemen”. Then Elisha took the mantle of Elijah which had fallen from him and struck the water [of the Jordan] and said ‘where is the Lord God of Elijah?’ And when he had struck the water, the water was divided to the one side and to the other; and Elisha crossed over. Now when the sons of Jericho saw him they said, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests with Elisha’. And they came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him” (2 Kings 2:12-15). So, here is a case of men bowing down to a saint in their midst.
Elsewhere we read, “And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold a man stood opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said, ‘Are you for us or for our adversaries?’ So he said, ‘No, but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come’. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and paid homage to him….” (Joshua 5:13-14). Here is a case of a man bowing down to an Angel, an Archangel.
Paying veneration to the Saints does not preclude paying worship to God, just as love for our fellow human does not detract from our love for God. If God commands us to show respect to our parents in the flesh, clearly we ought, all more, do the same as regards our spiritual fathers and mothers. This is clearly shown in the New Testament where we read, “As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet and paid homage to him” (Acts 10.25).
Most strikingly of all, though, in the Book of Revelation, John the Apostle and Evangelist and Theologian, having been addressed by an angel of God, writes “And I fell down at his feet to pay homage to him. And he said to me, ‘See that you do not do that! I am your fellow-servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus’….” (19.10).
Remarkably, however, despite this injunction by the angel not to venerate him, John the Evangelist again fell down and paid homage to him (Revelation 22:8). Surely he would not have done this had it been unlawful.
In the Orthodox Church, then, we worship God alone. When we venerate or kiss an icon of a Saint, a member of our family which extends to Heaven, the honour passes over to the prototype, the original in Whose image all the Saints are created.
Holy Relics – God’s power through the Saints
Throughout early Christianity, Christians customarily met in the places where the martyrs had died, to build churches in their honour, venerate their relics and memory, and present their example for imitation by others.
The early Christians commemorated not the birth day of the saint but the day on which the saint departed from this world. On that day the synaxis of believers gathered around the tomb of the saint or in the house-church where the holy relics were preserved and guarded. After the era of persecutions finally closed, the holy relics were placed in churches with great historical and theological significance. Such a gathering, called a feast-day or festival (πανήγυρις), commemorated the memory of the saint. The faithful participated in these feasts to listen to an encomiastic speech praising the deeds or the martyrdom of the venerated saint and, in general, to derive spiritual profit.
Interesting information on this subject is found in the “Martyrdom of St Polycarp”, an early Christian work, (ch. 17-18), according to which the early Christians reverently collected the remains of the saints and honoured them “more than precious stones”. They also met on the day of their death to commemorate “their new birthday, the day they entered into their new life, in Heaven”. To this day the Orthodox have maintained the liturgical custom of celebrating the Saint’s memory on the day of his/her death, of building churches honouring their names, and of paying special respect to their relics and icons.
The Fathers, and all early Christians in general, paid especially great respect to the relics of the martyrs. In addition to the sources already mentioned, Eusebius of Caesarea, the Church historian, writes that “those who suffered for the glory of Christ always have fellowship with the living God” (Church History, 5: 1). In the Apostolic Constitutions (5: 1) the martyrs are called “brothers of the Lord” and “vessels of the Holy Spirit”.
This helps to explain the special honour and respect which the Church paid to the relics of the martyrs. St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and St. John Chrysostom remind us that the relics of the martyrs “are filled with spiritual grace”, that even their tombs are filled with a special “blessing”.
This Patristic practice still continues today, and people from all over the world visit churches that possess the relics of martyrs and saints. Also, according to the ancient tradition, the consecration of new churches takes place with the deposition of holy relics in the Holy Table of the sanctuary.
According to the Orthodox belief, the body remains a Temple of the Holy Spirit even after death until the Second Coming of Christ when all human bodies, regardless of their manner of death will be resurrected. It is therefore, “only fitting that Christians show respect for the bodily remains of the Saints. Reverence for relics is not the fruit of ignorance and superstition, but springs from a highly developed theology of the body”.
Great controversies have occurred in the past over the special honour due to the icons of Christ as well as those of the saints of the Church. The Iconoclastic controversies which began in Byzantium in the seventh century shook the entire church. The Fathers of the Church, however, declared quite clearly that the honour belongs to the “prototype” and not to the material image of Christ or the Saints.
How does the Church ‘decide’ who becomes a Saint?
Some would say that “a Saint is a person, now dead, whom the Church allows to be publicly venerated”.
The Church reckons as Saints those virtuous Christians to whom God gives exceptional gifts of charisma (χάρισμα), grace, by which they excel in love for God or by which they endure torture in martyrdom.
These gifts, ordinary or extraordinary, are endowed by God alone. They constitute God’s energies, and uncreated energies at that. In other words, they reflect the inner power of God which was characteristic of His nature before He created the material world and which will continue to characterize Him after the abolition of this world. God’s energy is not dependent on created matter. God is God because He is “He who is” [O ΄Ων] (Exodus 3:14) i.e. He who is at all times; He who is not governed by time but is eternal.
Consequently, the power shown by a persecuted Christian in enduring torture and martyrdom is a gift, a grace from God. The ability of the Great Fathers and Teachers of the Church to delve deeper into the truth than their contemporary theological writers, is due to an increased enlightenment, which they obviously sought, but which was granted to them by God the Holy Spirit. The theoptic experiences of the distinguished athletes of spiritual exercise and prayer are given by God. The charisma of virtuous Christians to comfort their fellow-human by miraculous actions, to heal them and to strengthen their faith, is owed exclusively to God. This individual gift is not theirs. Nor did they receive it from some Synod or Council.
It is clear, therefore, that whatever grace distinguishes a Christian, or reveals that person as a Saint, has its source in God, regardless of any individual effort towards holiness exerted by that person. It is God who “shows forth”, “elevates”, “glorifies” the Saints and He demonstrates this by “paradoxical signs” which are the miracles performed by God, through the Saints.
So, it is neither the Synod nor the people of a local church who “sanctify” or who are able to decide on the “sainthood” of a particular person. It is God who shares the energies of His holiness with His Saints, thus discerning them as “bearers” of his grace.
Primitive Church example
In the Primitive Church, the Apostles, the Angels, the Mother of our Lord and the Forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist, were venerated as Saints, due to the obvious sainthood extended to them by God Himself as indispensable participants in the establishment of the Heavenly Kingdom on earth. No procedure was required by the Church for these Saints. God Himself proclaimed them by His word and by His action.
Nor was any procedure of the Church required for the Martyrs. The faithful had been present at the martyrs’ trial and execution, and could see for themselves that they had stoutly confessed Christ and had been put to death for it. Their bodily remains had been recovered and religiously entombed. The date and the place of burial were entered on the official record of the local church by the Bishop, and the certainty of their glorification by the Lord was lived through the immediacy of this experience.
The Bishop’s approval, for want of a better word, was paramount in order to avoid the veneration of bogus martyrs who were either heretics or schismatics or demagogues who created cult followings for themselves rather than for God. In such cases, the Church was quite clear. Those who did not truly live by God, those who died outside the True Faith of the Church, could not be counted among Her martyrs.
In most cases a Bishop signified his approval simply by associating himself with the spontaneous acceptance of a Saint by his people, for this is the ancient practice of the Church. It was the people in whom the glorification of the Saint became manifest, through signs and miracles, who sealed the commemoration of a Saint with their conscientious approval as immediate witnesses.
But how does the Church know when God has mysteriously judged one to be a Saint?
What of the thousands who, though not martyred, led inspirationally saintly lives, either as Church leaders or as members of the faithful? What of the countless number of Saints whose intense inner purity remained hidden from others on earth and were never “externalized” but always known to God? Generally, this glorification becomes self-evident in the Church by means of special signs from God which certify them as Saints.
Thε Fathers of the Church with their discerning Orthodox spirit simply verify the facts already evident to the ecumenical conscience, and authorizes, through Her Bishops, the veneration of a given Saint. In fact, this glorification, local or general, has always preceded the act of the Church which confirms it.
“Canonization” of Saints practised in the tradition of the West, is a procedure which the Christian East has always considered as overstating the Church’s role of “authority” in a domain which, as we have just heard, is exclusively God’s.
The Western tradition of Sanctioning, Beatification and Canonization have always, therefore, been viewed with more than mere caution by Eastern Orthodoxy where the lives of the Saints “are not examined in minute detail, nor are their virtues and sins, their successes and failures placed on a scale”.
The Orthodox Church maintains that we cannot reject what has been decided by God nor, on the other hand can the Church “create” a saint arbitrarily. This is foreign to the Mind and the Conscience of Orthodoxy. The Church can only “verify” and “acknowledge” what God has already manifested.
From the earliest days, nonetheless, the Church had a responsibility, through Her Bishops, to ensure the “authenticity”, the “genuineness” of those counted as Saints, for it is extremely difficult to discern which miracles, or astonishing events, are caused by the Spirit of God or by the spirit of Satan.
St Paul, for instance, wishing to “cut off the opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are” (2 Corinthians 11: 12), in other words those would seek to usurp the authority of the True Apostles, warned the Church of Corinth to beware of “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into Apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13). So the Bishops, from the outset, had to be alert and discerning.
Up until the 11th century, at least, there was no set procedure for the determination of Saints. The celebration of a Saint’s memory in a local church usually commenced “spontaneously” by few or many faithful, clergy and lay people, then became accepted generally throughout the Church. Indeed, whoever looked down upon this celebration with contempt was to be anathematized, cut off from the Church, according to Canon 20 of the Council of Gangra in Paphlagonia c. 345 A.D.
Later the Patriarchates intervened in many cases, not to approve but to widen the celebration of the memory of the Saint. From the 16th century evidence of sainthood was examined by the local Synod. In the 20th century, the process of entering the names of new Saints into the Menologion is enacted by the Holy Synod of each Patriarchate and of each Independent Church. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, through its Great Committee on the Sciences, established in preparation for a future Pan-Orthodox Synod, is seeking to compile a comprehensive catalogue of the Saints from all the Orthodox jurisdictions.
Whilst a considerable number of Saints from previous epochs have been recognized by Holy Synods during this century, the most recent Saints of the Church who actually lived in our century and especially in the immediate past include:
St Nektarios of Aegina
St Filoumenos of Cyprus
St Nicholas “Planas” of Athens
St Chrysostom of Smyrna
St Gregory of Kydonia
St Ambrosios of Moschonisa
St Efthymios of Zilon
St Prokopios of Ikonium
St Savvas of Kalymnos
St John of Kronstandt
St Peter the Aleut
St Juvenaly of Alaska
St John Maximovich of San Francisco, and
St Alexis of Pennsylvania
What are the ‘hall-marks’ of a Saint?
The data of evidence and verifiable proofs required by the Church for the “declaration” of a Saint, are basically the following:
a) The nominee must have been a baptized member of the Church – Baptism of water “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” or baptism of blood, as in the case of martyrs who were killed as catechumens, learners of the Faith, before their scheduled baptism)
b) He/she must have demonstrated unquestionable Orthodox phronema, ethos and lifestyle in accordance with the Teachings of the Church and of the Scriptures
c) He/she must have led a virtuous life witnessed in all certainty by the congregation or must have repented from sins under extraordinary circumstances
d) He/she must have rendered exceptional service to the Church either by way of the position of authority held or by the display of courage in the face of challenges to the doctrines of the Faith or in the face of martyrdom.
e) He/she must have been granted leave by God to comfort the faithful or to convince the unfaithful through Miracles, which could also include the fragrance of their relics.
Participation in the grace of God
However, not all the above conditions, or givens, though correct, effectively solve the fundamental problem: how do we ascertain who is a saint? Baptism, Orthodox phronema, a virtuous life, even exceptional services of the Church, are not qualities attained only by the Saints.
Thanks be to God, millions of Christians have attained these as well. Further, the problem for the Church is not who are good Christians but which of those should be honoured as Saints? The Church needs to determine, who of the myriads of Christians, are without doubt, discernible and outstanding examples of Christ-filled lives, worthy of emulation.
St John of Damscus, from the 7th century, elaborates by explaining that the par excellence Saint is one who has conquered the passions, one who has become enlikened to the image of God or has been enjoined to God, one who has partaken of divine grace, one who has become a dwelling-place for God; not one who has simply attained these marks, but one who has attained them to an exceptional degree. St John elaborates even further saying that the Saint’s participation in divine grace must also be of a degree which is unusual and exceptional.
St John, experienced himself in the spiritual life, and blessed to a high degree by the Holy Spirit, hesitates to go any further, knowing that quite often the characteristics he speaks of comprise hidden circumstances which take place in the soul and are not easily subjectable to human evaluation.
But whilst he admits that he is unable to determine which degree of participation in divine grace qualifies one as a Saint, he prayerfully suggests that the Saints who, whilst committing their lives completely to Christ, were endowed with so many graces, also acquired παρρησία which, in the theological language, apart from the notion of “boldness”, also means an “openness”, an “open line”, an “intimate ease of communication with God”. Because they loved God so much, they were granted the honour of speaking intensely with the Lord, praying for themselves and praying for others.
This “open line” of the true Saints is exposed through the miracles produced by their intercessions for the faithful. So, besides their Orthodox spirituality, the miracles are an absolutely convincing and secure mark of the Saints, according to St John of Damascus who expresses the thinking of the Church with precision.
Very Rev. Father Steven Scoutas
Parish Priest of St Spyridon Kingsford (NSW)
1. Η Καινή Διαθήκη, Βιβλική Εταιρία, Αθήναι, 1985
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3. Τσέτση, Γεωργίου, Η ΄Ενταξις των Αγίων στο Εορτολόγιο, Εκδόσεις «Τέρτιος», Κατερίνη, 1991
4. Βασιλείου, Αρχιμανδρίτου, Το Αρχέτυπο της Ορθοδοξίας στη Πράξη: Ο ΄Αγιος, Εκδόσεις «Δόμος», ΄Αγιον ΄Ορος, 1989
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9. The Orthodox Study Bible, St Athanasius Orthodox Academy, Nashville, 1993
10. The RSV Common Bible, Collins, New York, 1973
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13. The Living God, Volume 2, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York, 1989
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15. Douillet, Jacques, What is a Saint?, Burns and Oates, London, 1958
16. Coniaris, Anthony M., Introducing the Orthodox Church, Light and Life Publishing, Minneapolis, 1982
17. Mastrantonis, Rev George, A New-Style Catechism on the Eastern Orthodox Faith for Adults, The O Logos Mission, St. Louis, 1986
18. Mantzaridis, Georgios I., The Deification of Man, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York, 1984
19. Makrakis, Apostolos, An Orthodox-Protestant Dialogue, The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, Chicago, 1966
20. Mantzarides, Georgios I., Orthodox Spiritual Life, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, 1994
21. Vasileios, Archimandrite, Hymn of Entry, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York, 1984
22. A Companion to the Greek Orthodox Church, The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, New York, 1988
23. Sacrament and Image, The Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, London, 1967
24. Liddel and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, London, 1935
Spiritual Counsels from the Saints
“As a Priest, many times I have conducted services where only a handful of people would attend. Often a few people in a large Church building can be disconcerting to some. When prompted, I remind the people that it is not only they who are present at the service, but all the saints and angels of heaven are with them worshipping the one true God as one Church – in heaven and on earth. The Church is not just a gathering of people for worship; it is a mystical reality that is not limited by space and time. The Holy Church of God is a gathering of those who are living in the Lord and those who have ‘fallen asleep’ in Him. All the members of the Church pray for each other and all are ‘alive’ in Christ Jesus.
It is sad to see many Christian people, and even sadder to see some Orthodox Christians looking elsewhere for spiritual comfort and knowledge. The Christian faith is a unique journey for those who take the time and effort to walk it. The journey is not one walked alone; the Christian is part of something that is much larger, much deeper, and much more complex than just his or her individual stance before God. This journey is one that, hopefully, leads to perfection. We seek to allow God to transform us, more and more into ‘Christ likeness’. God has shown us this walk; he has indicated for us how we should live. Such truth is found in his Church, in its Holy Tradition, in its scriptures, in its teachings and in the lives of its saints.
The Christian faith has many examples of ‘saintliness’; its hymns, its Icons and its writings are filled with stories of those who have gone before us. Some suffered torture and even death for the sake of the Gospel; some lived lives of deprivation and suffering because they believed in the truth of what God has revealed. All these holy men and women are our examples to follow; we mould our lives on their stories, on their faith; we seek to be like them and to place our feet in their footprints. They are more than just ‘memories’ in the Church, they are real and living people in the same Church in which we are, and they pray for us as we struggle in our imitation of their ‘holiness’.
People seek for truth and for a way of life that ‘speaks to them’. Yet, sadly, in their search they pass over the greatest treasure of all – ORTHODOXY. This is so reminiscent of the story from the Gospels of the man who was digging in a field and he came upon a treasure grater than he could ever imagine. The Gospel story tells us that this man sold all he had so that he could buy that field, so that he could truly ‘possess’ that treasure. For many in our modern and, so-called, enlightened age, instead of buying that field, they do not even recognise the value of what they have found. They leave the field behind them and continue looking somewhere else for something that might just give them fulfilment.
When people are isolated and alone; when they face danger and despair and think they are struggling on their own, it is knowing they are part of the mystical reality that is the Church that gives comfort, surety and purpose to their lives. Our Orthodox Christian faith has the answers; it has everything that we need to find our place in this world and to find God who loves us.
Rev. Timothy Evangelinidis
Parish Priest of Holy Trinity Hobart – (TAS)
Modern Day Saints of the Greek Orthodox Church
1. St. Nektarios of Aegina
2. St. Nicholas Planas of Athens
3. St. Savvas of Kalymnos
4. St. George of Ioannina
5. St. Nikodimos of Mount Athos
6. St. Symeon of Trapezoundos
7. St. Kosmas the New Hieromartyr & Equal-to-the Apostles of Aetolia
8. St. Zacharias the New Martyr of Patra
9. St. Dimitrios the New Martyr of Constantinople
10. St. George the New Martyr of Crete
11. St. Nicholas the New Martyr of Corinth
12. St. Theodore the New Martyr of Byzantium
13. St. Kyranna the New Martyr of Thessaloniki
14. St. Eudokia the Martyr of Heliopolis
15. St. George the New Wonderworker of Constantinople
16. St. Manuel the New Martyr of Crete
17. St. Myron the New Martyr of Crete
18. St. Michael the New Martyr of Smyrna
19. St. John the New Martyr of Epiros
20. St. Nektarios the New Martyr of Optina
21. St. Pachomios the New Martyr of Patmos
22. St. Epimachos the New Martyr of Alexandria
23. St. New Martyr Nicholas of Metsovos
24. St. Andrew the New Martyr of Argentes
25. St. Demetrios the New Martyr of Philadelphia
26. St. Constantine the New Martyr of the Hagarenes
27. St. Theophanes the New Martyr of Constantinople
28. St. Nikitas the New Martyr of Nisyros
29. Holy New Martrys Archpriest of Crete Gerasimus, Knossos Neophyte, Xepponessos Ioachim, Lampe Hierotheus, Seteia Zacharius, Kisamos Melchisadek, Piopoleos Kallinicus and Those Martyred with Them.
30. St. Michael the New Martyr of Athens
31. Holy New Martyrs Elizabeth the Grand Duchess and the Novice Barbara
32. St. Kyprianos the New Martyr of Koutloumousiou Monastery
33. St. Theophilos the New Martyr of Zakynthos
34. St. Theodore of Dardanelles
35. Holy New Martyrs Triantaphillus of Zagoras and Anastasios of Thessolonica
36. St. John the New Martyr of Crete
37. St. John the New Martyr of Epiros
38. St. Juvenaly & Peter the Aleut, New Martyrs of Alaska
39. St. Akylina the New Martyr of Thessaloniki
40. St. Chryssi the New Martyr of Greece
41. St. Panteleimon the New Martyr of Asia Minor
42. St. John the New Martyr of Peleponnesos