Some of us grew up in churches that gave as little attention as possible to the saints out of fear that honoring those who served our Lord so faithfully would somehow distract us from worshiping only Him. Today’s reading from Hebrews makes exactly the opposite point, for the “great cloud of witnesses” inspires us to “lay aside every weight” and to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” as we look to the Lord “Jesus, the pioneer and perfection of our faith.” In other words, the saints are living witnesses of Christ’s healing of the human person in the divine image and likeness. Instead of somehow distracting us, they inspire us to a life of holiness, for they show that it is possible to share so fully in the life of our Lord that we become radiant with His gracious divine energies.
That is true of the saints of the Old Testament, who had not yet received the fullness of God’s promise in the coming of the Messiah, and it is all the more the case for those who have borne witness to Christ across the centuries by refusing to deny Him even to point of death. The root meaning of the word “martyr” is witness, and there is no more powerful way to give testimony to the truth of our Lord’s victory over death than to offer up one’s life out of faithfulness to Him. From the first century to the present day, countless people have endured death rather than deny their Savior. He said, “Many that are first will be last, and the last first.” And who appears lower in the eyes of the world than those who abandon everything—family, reputation, possessions, and even life itself—out of faithfulness to One Who was rejected and condemned?
We surely do not know the names of all those who have made the ultimate witness for Christ to the point of shedding their own blood. Nonetheless, we commemorate them today together with all who have become beautiful living icons illumined with the divine glory like an iron left in a roaring fire. By the power of the Holy Spirit, it is possible for everyone created in God’s image and likeness to become a saint, to participate personally in Christ’s healing and restoration of the human person. Indeed, that is what it means to become truly human, for He breathed life into us from the dust of the earth in order that we might become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.
Such perfection is an infinite goal and we should not think in terms of meeting some objective standard, but of sharing ever more fully in the life of Christ as the distinctive persons He created us to be. He calls us all to acknowledge Him before others. If we do so, He will acknowledge us before His Father. But if we deny Him, He will deny us. We acknowledge our crucified, risen, and ascended Savior when we take up our crosses and follow Him, which means putting faithfulness to Him above all else. Even those we love most in this life, such as our family members, cannot conquer death or heal our souls. If we look to other people for fulfillment in life, we will make them and ourselves miserable. As those created in God’s image and likeness, we will never find fulfillment in anyone or anything other than Him.
In a world that encourages us to make money, pleasure, and power the standards of success, we must recognize that obedience to the Savior’s call to acknowledge Him by taking up our crosses will never make us first in its eyes. He certainly took the place of the last when He ascended the Cross as One condemned as an irreligious blasphemer by the leaders of the Jews and a failed traitor in the eyes of the Romans. Across the centuries, martyrs have endured the worst forms of torture and abuse before literally losing their lives out of fidelity to Him. They became, and in some places today continue to become, the very last in the world as we know it in order to wear the crowns of the heavenly kingdom.
Instead of romanticizing the martyrs after hearing the stories of their lives so many times, we must regain the ability to be shocked by their profound witness. These are people who loved their families and children every bit as much as we do. They enjoyed the normal blessings of life and likely had the same hopes and dreams for contentment in future years as we do. But when the only way that they could continue pursuing conventional life goals was by denying the Savior and worshiping a false god of whatever kind, they steadfastly refused. The Lord was with them, enabling them to remain faithful when it was well beyond normal human strength to bear up under the worst forms of torture and abuse, even to the point of death.
Their witness teaches that it really is possible to be faithful to our Lord, even when it is sorely tempting to turn away from Him for whatever reason. They made the ultimate witness to Christ not simply because they had a lot of will power and a high pain tolerance, but because they opened themselves to Him by the power of the Holy Spirit from the depths of their hearts. That is not a matter of magic or a fit of emotion, but of uniting ourselves to Christ in humble faith and repentance such that His life becomes present in ours. If we are truly in Him, then we will take up our crosses in faithfulness to the One Who ascended the Cross for our salvation.
If we wonder what cross we need to take up in order to acknowledge Him before others, a necessary place to start is with loving our enemies. St. Silouan the Athonite saw the love of enemies as a clear sign of the healing presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. He taught that when the soul “grows humble, the Lord gives her His grace, and then she prays for her enemies as for herself, and sheds scalding tears for the whole world.” We must learn humility in order to pray for our enemies because of the strong temptation to self-righteous judgment. That means we must abandon our prideful illusions of somehow being justified in condemning others and obsessing about their faults, which is simply a distraction from recognizing the truth about the weakness of our own souls. Christ came not to destroy sinners, but to save them. He said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” of those who nailed Him to the Cross as He died on it. If we are truly conforming ourselves to Him by the power of the Holy Spirit, His merciful love will become characteristic of us. There is no better indication of whether we are finding the healing of our souls than in how we respond to those we consider our foes.
Many today think that it is a sign of weakness to love and forgive as Christ did because they value their own power, reputation, or interests in this world before running “the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.” If we are truly in Him, then we must risk being last in the eyes of the world in order to enter into the joy of His Kingdom. Instead of holding grudges, plotting for revenge, and figuring out how to gain victory over them, we must pray for the Lord’s merciful blessing on those who have wronged us. We must ask God to forgive our sins by their prayers, for we know our own spiritual brokenness with much greater clarity than we could possibly know anyone else’s. Regular use of the Jesus Prayer is a powerful tool for turning our hearts to God in true humility and away from the self-righteous judgment of others.
As we commemorate all the saints who have borne witness to Christ, let us gain the strength to follow their righteous example by embracing the path of humble forgiveness. Let us acknowledge Him by how we treat those who have wronged us, for nothing else so clearly reveals the true state of our souls.