Resurrection: The Saints

hosios_loukas_28south_west_chapel2c_south_side29_-_ignatiosIn 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

Conclusion

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.

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The Resurrection: Orthodox Teaching

1848-543395In our previous post on this topic, we first explored the Seventh-day Adventist (and similar annihilationist denominations), and second we explored the ancient Hebrew understanding of the state of the dead. While its easy to see how the SDAs could arrive at their view by reading Ecclesiastes with a modern worldview, the ancient Jewish view does not seem to follow the same path. In fact, it seems to be in line with the Orthodox view that, “Death is the common lot of men. But for man it is not an annihilation, but only the separation of the soul from the body. The truth of the immortality of the human soul is one of the fundamental truths of Christianity.”1

In the icon of the resurrection above, the entire narrative of human life and death up until this point is depicted, as discussed previously. Hades is depicted at the bottom of the image as a place of subterranean darkness filled with broken chains, manacles, and various forms of torture, along with death and/or the devil, who has been bound hand and foot and who no longer has any power over humankind.

This icon depicts Christ’s descent into Hades on Holy Saturday after His burial (cf. 1 Peter 3:19–20). The troparion of the feast represented by this icon explains in more depth what is happening in this image:

When You did descend to death, O Life Immortal, You did slay hell with the splendor of Your Godhead, and when from the depths You did raise the dead, all the Powers of Heaven cried out, O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to You!

In the image, we also see a number of other interesting features that help to illuminate the reality depicted herein. Christ is standing on the doors of Hades, which are broken. Just to the left of Christ, we see the Forerunner and Baptist John stretching forth his hand to point to Christ. This represents the fact that Saint John descended into Hades before Christ in order to act as His forerunner there as well as in the world of the living. From the two tombs on both the right and left, Christ raises the first-fallen, Adam and Eve. The fundamental meaning behind this depiction of Adam and Even is confirmed by The Holy Evangelist Matthew’s Gospel:

…and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many (Matthew 27:52–53).

This story is explained in a unique way by Saint Gregory of Nyssa. His explanation is not necessarily the consensus opinion of the fathers, but serves to illustrate the fundamental change in the state of the dead initiated by the resurrection. Having sold himself into bondage to the devil, mankind was imprisoned by the devil in hades. In order to break mankind out of the prison, the Son of God descended, through death, into hades. The devil, failing to perceive the danger, admitted the Deity into hell, securing his own downfall:

As the ruler of darkness could not approach the presence of the Light unimpeded, had he not seen in Him something of flesh, then, as soon as he saw the God-bearing flesh and saw the miracle performed through it by the Deity, he hoped that if he came to take hold of the flesh through death, then he would take hold of all the power contained in it. Therefore, having swallowed the bait of the flesh, he was pierced by the hook of the Deity and thus the dragon was transfixed by the hook.2

(On this topic see also my recent posts: Purity of Heart and Descent into Hell)

Up until this point, interaction with the dead has been condemned because it required interaction with hades. Now that the dead are no longer imprisoned in hades, this situation has changed. For as Christ told Martha, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). Saint Athanasius the Great, in one of my favorite passages of all time, stunningly reveals the radical change in both the power of death over humanity, and the mind boggling transformation in Christian attitude toward death.

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?3

In my next post I will explore how the Orthodox and Catholic veneration of the saints testifies to the power of the resurrection.


1 Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, ch. 10.

2 Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Homily on the Three-Day Period, quoted from “Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev on the Descent of Christ into Hades.”

3 Saint Athanasius the Great, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, 5:27.

How the Resurrection Changes Everything

For the living know they will die, but the dead know nothing; and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, hatred, and envy have now perished; And they have no portion forever in all that is done under the sun (Eccl 9:5–6 OSB).

image1Growing up Seventh-day Adventist (SDA), I knew this passage well as a proof text demonstrating the “state of the dead.” I believed that when I died, even if I died “in Christ,” I would in essence cease to exist until the general resurrection of the dead on the “last” day. Only my “breath” would return to God. For an extreme biblicist, it is challenging to read the above passage from Ecclesiastes and come to any other conclusion but that the dead are in stasis, lacking all sensibility. In essence they are no more than the molecules remaining from the decomposition of their bodies; cosmic dust. What Seventh-day Adventists and a handful of other protestant denominations fail to understand is the magnitude and immediacy of the resurrection. The resurrection for them and for many other protestants is some distant event that will happen in the future. Yet even many people from denominations that believe that the spirits of the just take up their abode in heaven after death, believe that they have “no portion forever in all that is done under the sun.” I have listened to at least one sermon by a Southern Baptist preacher who assured us that those who have passed from this life cannot see what goes on upon the earth, because, of course, “it’s not in the Bible.”

I posit that at the resurrection, there was a very clear and drastic change in how the people of God understood what the SDAs call “the state of the dead.” The pre-resurrection Jewish understanding of the state of the dead is drastically different than the post-resurrection Christian understanding. This is not to say that one is correct and the other is incorrect, but that this change in understanding was brought about by an ontological change in the state of the dead.

In this brief series, I would like to depict a very basic picture of the Jewish understanding of the state of the dead. I would then like to provide a brief sketch of the Christian teaching on the resurrection, and finally to discuss how this drastic change brought about by the resurrection is testified to by Orthodox and Catholic veneration of the saints. In this first post I will address the Old Testament (and SDA) understanding.

Judaic Teaching on the State of the Dead

In a sense, ancestors were attributed with great honor and a form of veneration. For instance, God is often referred to as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” honoring these three patriarchs. But this veneration is very different from The Church’s living veneration of our saints. The patriarchs are remembered, but never directly invoked. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, there are very few references to communication with the dead. Furthermore, communication with the dead is condemned by the Law of Moses:

There shall not be found among you anyone who … conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord your God, and because of these abominations the Lord your God will destroy them before you (Dt 18:10–12).

Near the time of Christ, the common understanding of life after death resembled the views held by the Greeks (notwithstanding SDA teaching). The Old Testament Sheol is analogous to the Greek Hades, and Hades was considered to be a place where the souls of the dead were collected.

The following is an example of how the two concepts are similar. Between the Biblical concept of Sheol and the Greek concept of Hades, there is a similar division of the souls of those who were evil during earthly life from those who were good. In Greek mythology, Hades contains a place called the Elysian Fields, where the souls of those who were heroic and virtuous abode. Likewise, in the Judaic view held near the time of Christ, the righteous dead abode in The Bosom of Abraham (cf. Luke 16:23), which was separate from the place where the unrighteous stayed.1 This view is upheld by Christ’s parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” in which the rich man, who lived a very sinful life, was separated by a vast chasm from the righteous Lazarus, who abode in the bosom of Abraham.

This concept has been understood, and translated in accordance with this understanding, since ancient times. The Septuagint, the primary version of the Bible used by the Orthodox Church, translates the word sheol as hades. The Septuagint has been demonstrated to be the text of the Scriptures that Christ and his Apostles quoted from in the New Testament Scriptures. It predates the New Testament. Likewise, the Vulgate, the primary version of the Bible used by the Catholic Church up until recently, translates sheol into various forms of the word inferno. The Vulgate was compiled only a few hundred years after Christ. It was not until the 1500s and the protestant reformation that Bible translators began replacing the word hades or sheol with grave or death.2

In the next post in this series, we will discuss the post-resurrection Christian view on the state of the dead.


1 F. Gigot, The Bosom of Abraham, In The Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company 1907).

2 Gary Amirault, The Hell Words of the Bible.

Descent into Hell

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40 OSB).

2013_11_15_00_03Jonah’s flight from God brings him to a point in time when he must make a decision. He can choose between continuing to hide, or offering himself to save the seafarers onboard the ship. Just as Christ sought to “let this cup pass from me,” Jonah sought another path. But in the end, he saw that for the sake of others, he had to pass through suffering and, from his perspective, probably death.

Jonah, while reluctant, follows the pattern of Christ’s life. The Christian too, while reluctant, must follow this path. When initially given a command to obey, we disobey and hide from God. All of mankind has sinned and hidden from God as did both Jonah and Adam, but Christ, as the culmination of God’s winnowing action upon mankind, like the fine point of a needle, opens the way of salvation. Jonah’s descent into the depths of the sea for three days typifies Christ’s descent into hell and our descent in his wake through the baptism of water and of tears.

I recently experienced the joy of a friend’s wedding. Father Anthony, the presiding priest, observed in his homily that the act of martyrdom is present in each of the sacraments. Baptism demonstrates the death of self and the renewal into life brought by this sacrifice. Confession too contains the death and suffering of the self. The sacrament of marriage is replete with martyrdom and self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s spouse. And of course the ultimate sacrifice is evident in Christ’s self-offering of the Eucharist.

The prerequisite for redemption is sacrifice. Out of the depths of Christ’s sacrifice, he raises up his apostles unto the Gentiles just as Jonah ascended from the depths to the Ninevites. We must likewise, through our own self-sacrifice, ‘tradition’ the faith to our spiritual descendants. Saint Paul presents himself as a metaphor of Christ, revealing that he carries about in his own body the death of the Lord Jesus, that His life might be made manifest in his children (2 Corinthians 7-12). Like the risen Lord, Paul metaphorically dies so that his children might live. It is this continual cycle of death and rebirth that is the essence of tradition.

Ultimately, Christ’s resurrection and ascension culminate in our deification. Saint Athanasius the Great said that, “The Son of God became man that we might become god.” Christ, in his descent into death and ascent into life, ‘traditions’ unto us the purifying power of martyrdom and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit in the outpouring of Pentecost. The purification experienced through martyrdom prepares us for the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

Material persons are purified, sanctified, and deified. Bread and wine become God. Bones work miracles. The dead live.

The martyrs are those who have truly sacrificed everything for God. They are seeds who have been planted, died, and risen into true life. They have finally become human.

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-25).

Purity of Heart

Because I have been practicing with the choir in preparation for Pascha, I had an opportunity to sing the hymn we sing at midnight:

Thy resurrection oh Christ our savior,
the angels in heaven sing,
enables us on earth
to glorify thee in purity of heart.

For some reason singing that caused me to think about the implications of what it says. It seems obvious and maybe intuitive, but I ended up spending several hours pouring through theology books in an attempt to find a good articulation of the reality.

I ended up with two passages from different theology books that, while perhaps not explicit about purity of heart, lead one on the path to understanding. The first passage relates in detail what happened at the death and resurrection of our Lord. This is taken from Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky:

Christ, after His death on the Cross, descended in His soul and in His Divinity into hell, at the same time that His body remained in the grave. He preached salvation to the captives of hell and brought up from there all the Old Testament righteous ones into the bright mansions of the Kingdom of Heaven. Concerning this raising up of the righteous ones from hell, we read in the Epistle of St. Peter: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit; by which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-19). And in the same place we read further: “For this cause was the Gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6). St. Paul speaks of the same thing: quoting the verse of the Psalm, “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men,” the Apostle continues: “Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Eph. 4:8-10).

To use the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Hell was taken captive by the Lord Who descended into it. It was laid waste, it was mocked, it was put to death, it was overthrown, it was bound” (Homily on Pascha).

I suppose one might wonder how one could have any purity of heart if one was held captive in hell. That’s somewhat crude, but it’s clear that death and hell are a factor that would prevent us from glorifying Christ in purity of heart.

The second passage I found helpful is from The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky:

The way of deification, which was planned for the first man, will be impossible until human nature triumphs over sin and death. The way to union will henceforth be presented to fallen humanity as salvation. This negative term stands for the removal of an obstacle: one is saved from something—from death, and from sin—its root. The divine plan was not fulfilled by Adam; instead of the straight line of ascent towards God, the will of the first man followed a path contrary to nature, and ending in death. God alone can endow men with the possibility of deification, by liberating him at one and the same time from death and from captivity to sin. What man ought to have attained by raising himself up to God, God achieved by descending to man. That is why the triple barrier which separates us from God—death, sin, nature—impassable for men, is broken through by God in the inverse order, beginning with the union of the separated natures, and ending with victory over death. Nicholas Cabasilas, a Byzantine theologian of the fourteenth century, said on this subject: “The Lord allowed men, separated from God by the triple barrier of nature, sin and death, to be fully possessed of Him and to be directly united to Him by the fact he has set aside each barrier in turn: that of nature by His incarnation, of sin by His death, and of death by His resurrection.” This is the reason why St. Paul writes: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (I Cor 15:26).

This makes it clear that the last barrier is death and thus the resurrection is that event which finally unravels or removes the the last barrier to deification, and thus purity of heart.