In my previous post on the resurrection, I began talking about the Orthodox view of the resurrection. In this post I want continue that discussion by exploring how the Orthodox and Catholic veneration of the saints testifies to the power of the resurrection.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the first century or very early second century, on his journey to his martyrdom in Rome, wrote to the Church of Rome, pleading with them to allow his martyrdom to take place without interference. He viewed his martyrdom not as his death, but as his heavenly birth. He writes to the Roman Church:
It is good for me to die for Jesus Christ rather than to reign over the farthest bounds of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; Him I desire, who rose again [for our sake]. The pangs of a new birth are upon me. Bear with me, brethren. Do not hinder me from living; do not desire my death. Bestow not on the world one who desireth to be God’s, neither allure him with material things. Suffer me to receive the pure light. When I am come thither, then shall I be a man.1
Echos of Saint Ignatius’ sentiments are heard only decades later. A letter from the Church of Smyrna in AD 155 demonstrates very early veneration of Christian martyrs. It is indicated that the day of a martyr’s death was considered to be his or her heavenly birthday, which was celebrated annually just as the Orthodox Church continues to celebrate these birthdays today, with the celebration of the Eucharist. Furthermore, speaking as if in the present tense, the letter says that, “the martyrs we love as they deserve for their surpassing love to their king and master.”2 This indicates a very early veneration of martyrs.
The earliest recorded veneration of the relics of a saint occurred in the second century for the Holy Hieromartyr Polycarp, who is also the first recorded martyr outside the New Testament.
After his death, the Christians gathered up the remnant of the relics of Saint Polycarp because, as they said, “we afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place.”3 Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was a disciple of the Holy Evangelist John, and readily fills Saint John’s description of the martyrs in heaven in Revelation 6:9-11:
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.
This description by Saint John portrays an image of martyred saints standing before God himself in heaven. A striking type of this reality and an exemplification of our veneration is found in the fact that all Orthodox altars have the relics of saints built into them. Father Georges Florovsky provides a succinct explanation of this new reality:
The saints are alive and with daring they stand before the Lord; they are not dead … the death of saints is more like falling asleep than death,” for they “abide in the hand of God”; that is, in life and in light… and after He Who is Life itself and the source of life was ranked among the dead, we consider no more as dead those who depart with a hope of resurrection and with faith in Him.”4
From a reading of the Old Testament only, one might conclude that those who die are, like the SDA believe, completely unconscious of any earthly reality. This would be true if it were not for the power of the resurrection. The resurrection, however, changes everything. Before the resurrection, the dead were in hades and it was forbidden to communicate with them as King Saul did by enlisting the services of the witch of Endor to communicate with the prophet Samuel. However, when Christ, through death, descended into hades, he destroyed the gates of hell and released the captives, defeating the power of Satan and of death. At this moment, there was a fundamental shift in the “state of the dead.” The dead are no longer imprisoned. The saints of God are now able to stand with boldness before the Lord himself and offer supplications on our behalf, for “whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” This is why we offer prayers to the saints, asking them to offer supplications before the Lord on our behalf, just as we ask our friends and relatives to pray for us. The fact that we can speak directly to the saints and that they can hear and respond is a glorious confession of the power of the resurrection.
1 Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Church of Rome, ch. 6.
2 Philip Schaff, History of the Church, v. 2, ch. 2.
3 The Smyrnaen Church, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. J.B. Lightfoot, ch. 18.
4 Fr. Georges Florovsky, On the Veneration of the Saints.