At the end of the Paschal season following the Lord’s ascension into heaven, and immediately following the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Sunday of All Saints. It’s worth noting that the Church chose to celebrate the feast of All Saints immediately after the ascension of Christ and the feast of Pentecost. This is because the Sunday of All Saints is a declaration of the very purpose of the redemption of Christ and the giving of the Spirit: to make men into saints. The economy of Christ is the very foundation of our salvation and the fulfillment of our salvation is nothing other than the complete conformity of ourselves into the likeness of Christ. When Christ ascended into heaven He rose in His glorified humanity and as the glorified and ascended God-Man He was enthroned at the right hand of the Father. By ascending and being enthroned in His incarnate body, woven within the womb of the Blessed Theotokos, not only did Christ return to His heavenly abode but, by virtue of His human nature, He also raised up all of humanity in Himself and we too are enthroned in Him. The image of the glorified and enthroned Christ is the very telos, the perfection, of human destiny. When God created the first Adam He created him in a state of innocence who, nonetheless, needed to reach a glorified perfection; Christ, as the Last Adam, brings mankind to our created perfection by glorifying us and raising us up to be enthroned at the right hand of the Father. The objective salvation accomplished in Christ is given to us personally in the Holy Spirit. The indwelling Spirit incorporates us into the glorified humanity of Christ and personally works within us to bring us to our perfected end of the likeness of Christ. The Spirit unites us to Christ, and since Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, to descent of the Spirit constitutes our ascent into the Kingdom. Through the Spirit we become sons of God; in the terminology of the Old Testament to be a “son of God” is to be the anointed king of Israel. Just as King David was anointed to reign and immediately received the Holy Spirit so we too are given the royal Spirit Who makes us sons of God by uniting us to the Eternal Son of God. Just as the Spirit was given to David to consecrate him, and empower him, to reign so likewise the Spirit enthrones us by uniting us to the enthroned One in heaven. Christ deified our human nature by uniting it to Himself in the incarnation, cleansed it of sin by His crucifixion, delivered it from death in His resurrection, and glorified it by ascending in it into the Kingdom. The Spirit, then, is our personal deifier, being the Spirit of the Son, Who transforms us from glory to glory into the likeness of the Son.
The work of the Son and the Spirit in uniting humanity to God, raising us up into the Kingdom, enthroning us, and deifying us is the foundation of sainthood. All of this has been done for the sake of turning men into saints by making us like Christ through the indwelling work of the Spirit. This sanctifying work was anticipated and typified by the ascension of Elijah. In 2 Kings 2 the day comes when the Lord will assume Elijah into heaven and Elijah is traveling with his disciple Elisha towards the place where God will lift him up. As they near the spot they approach the river Jordan. Elijah takes off his mantle and strikes the water causing a path to open up in the river, allowing the prophets to carry on with their journey. Before Elijah is taken up he asks Elisha if there’s anything that he can do for him, which prompts Elisha to ask for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. As Elijah is taken up to heaven in the fiery chariot he tears his mantle in two and it falls to the ground. Elisha picks up the fallen mantle and, just like Elijah, strikes the river Jordan opening a passage back through the river. As he emerges on the other side some nearby prophets declare that the Spirit of Elijah now rests on Elisha. The rest of the continuing narrative of Elisha enumerates the multitude of miracles performed by the prophet. In this narrative we see how when Elisha was clothed in the spirit of the ascended Elijah he became just like Elijah; just as Elijah had performed a multitude of miracles and parted the Jordan river so too we see Elisha doing the same by the power of the Spirit. This was a type of the perfected work of the ascended Christ, Who clothes us in His Spirit so that we might become exactly like Him through the work of the Spirit.
The Epistle reading for the feast of All Saints exemplifies how the way of sainthood is being conformed to Christ, “promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 11:33-12:2). In this reading from Hebrews St. Paul describes both the sufferings and the glories of the holy and righteous forefathers of Israel. This litany of praise in honor of the saints of the Old Covenant climaxes with the proclamation of the suffering and the glory of Christ. Since Christ has brought perfection to humanity through His own suffering and glorification so too then is our path towards Christlikeness, towards sainthood, a path of suffering. This point is also emphasized in the Gospel reading during the Divine Liturgy on the feast of All Saints, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. (Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38). Our Lord Himself proclaims that unless we take up our cross and follow Him that we are unworthy of Him. Therefore the path towards the fullness and stature of the glorified Christ is the way of the cross. Only by ascending the cross with Christ can we be raised up in glory; the cross is the exaltation and glory of Christ and bridges the divide between heaven and earth.
Elsewhere in the book of Hebrews St. Paul describes the sacrifice of Christ as an offering through the Spirit, “how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:14). Christ ascended the cross in the power of the Spirit to lift up up and exalt us in Himself. Now we are called to follow Christ up the cross, in the Spirit, to be enthroned with Him. Just as Our Lord announced the way of the cross in the Gospel reading for the feast of All Saints so too does He proclaim the promise of exaltation, “Then Peter answered and said to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:27-30). Having left all things behind to embrace the cross the disciples are promised to be co-enthroned with Christ; the qualities of Christ’s kingship, enthronement and judgment, are shared with His disciples. By sharing in the sufferings of Christ we are promised by Him in return a share in His kingship and glory. This is the life of the Church in the Spirit: to bear our crosses in the Spirit and by doing so to be lifted up into the heavenly throne room. Exalted by the cross in the Spirit we are enthroned next to our enthroned Lord; the One Who sits as a Lamb Who had been slain at the right hand of the Father. Here we shall rule alongside our Lord, as one of the Old Testament readings from the Vespers before the feast of All Saints declares, “but the righteous live for ever, and their reward is with the Lord; the Most High takes care of them. Therefore they will receive a glorious crown and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord, because with his right hand he will cover them, and with his right arm he will shield them” (Wisdom of Solomon 5:15-16). To take up our crosses is to receive a throne, a crown, and a diadem from Christ. This is what it means to be a saint. This has been the reward of all the saints throughout history; from St. Stephen the proto-martyr to St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain. When you read the lives of the saints the willingness to accept the cross is a consistent characterization of their lives. Just as Christ suffered for a time and then entered into His glory so too the saints endured sufferings for Christ’s sake and in return have been enthroned and glorified in Him.
So it’s fitting that the feast of All Saints follows immediately after Pentecost because the work of the Spirit is to make us saints. It’s also fitting because the Epistle and the Gospel reading for the feast provide us with the cruciform path towards sainthood.
The life in the Church is the life in the Spirit. The life in the Spirit is the life in Christ. The life in Christ is the way of the cross. The way of the cross is the way to the Kingdom. The way to the Kingdom ends in our conformity to the likeness of Christ in the Spirit and our enthronement next to our Lord. To be seated with Christ in the heavenly places is our future hope until the resurrection of the dead and the consummation of Christ’s rule, and our rule with Him, here on earth during the age to come.
This year it also turns out that the day immediately following the feast of All Saints is the first day of the Apostle’s Fast. Christ explained to the disciples of John the Forerunner that when He would be taken away then His disciples would fast. Having just celebrated the ascension of Christ, and having been given the Spirit, now is the time to fast. In fasting we embrace the cross by voluntarily renouncing earthly things so that we might be reoriented towards Christ, opening our hearts before Him and allowing the Spirit to work in us; changing us into the likeness of Christ. Fasting is also a time of anticipation. We anticipate the end of the fast and the arrival of the feast. So too this time of fasting is an image in miniature of our post-Pentecostal lives, anticipating the return of Christ and the marriage supper of the Lamb. Just as we’re about to begin the Apostle’s Fast, awaiting the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, so too are our lives in the Spirit a time of anticipation, taking up our crosses, awaiting the coming day of the Lord and the feast of His Kingdom.
So as we celebrate the salvation of Christ realized in His saints and move on towards the fast it’s fitting to move forward with the words of St. Paul in our hearts, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).