By New Martyr Archpriest John Vostorgov
For this is the will of God even your sanctification
(I Thess. 4:3)
An ancient narrative has handed down to us the following story from the lives of pious Christians.
There came to a certain holy elder living in the desert, people from near and far, seeking answers to their perplexities and difficulties. To each and every one of them the holy elder gave grace-filled counsels, instructions and exhortations; he taught them all willingly and unstintingly. There was one youth, however, who behaved differently. He came almost every day to see the elder; he would sit at his feet and listen attentively to everything that was being said, but he himself never asked the elder about anything. Finally the holy elder asked his young visitor:
“Tell me, why are you always silent? Is there nothing you would like to ask me?”
“Father,” replied the youth,” it is enough for me always to be able to look at you!”
Brethren! The holy Church places us in the position of this youth, when it commemorates one or another of the saints; when it sets his life before us, his spiritual image; when it depicts him on an icon or picture; when it glorifies him with divine hymns; when it gives us the name of a saint.
Today the holy Church presents us with all the saints, in whose honor the first Sunday after Pentecost is dedicated. Look at this majestic gathering of saints. Look at the ancient patriarchs, prophets, kings and righteous; look at the Apostles, the ascetics, martyrs, and God pleasers, the countless, brilliant host in the New Testament; from all lands and peoples, from all ages, sexes, callings and ranks. What an extraordinary multitude, what a school of piety!
Man is so created that in all aspects of life he needs examples and images. As a rule, the principal means of learning and acquiring skills is imitation. And here, in this great assembly of saints, each of us, according to our particular circumstances, will find ourselves a model to imitate. We know that even the great ancient ascetic, St. Anthony the Great, assiduously studied the lives of the saints: from one he learned meekness, from another–prayer, from another–love of labor, from another silence and patience, and so forth.
Someone will say: are all of us expected to become saints? Can we? Beloved brethren, it is just so: not only can we become saints; we must. To think otherwise, if sanctity is not necessary for us, then our faith is vain and our hopes are futile. For what and for whom, then, did Christ the Saviour come to earth, did He teach the will of God and left us in Himself an example of a holy life that we might walk in His steps. For what reason did He redeem sinners with His Blood? For whom and for what, then, did the Lord establish His Church? He created it holy, and so it continues to be; it is in the Church that sinners receive enlightenment, i.e., sanctity; through the Church they are saved and enter into the eternal glory of God, where nothing unclean can enter.. Or was it in vain that our Saviour prayed in the most grievous hour of His life, before the torments of Gethsemane and Golgotha, the prayer to the Father about the faithful:
Sanctify them through Thy truth…For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth (John 17:17-19)
Was it in vain that the Apostle wrote:
Be ye followers (i.e., imitators) of me, even as I also am of Christ (I Cor. 11:1).
Have we no need of his exhortation:
Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called (Eph. 4:1)?
Was it in vain that he said to all Christians:
For this is the will of God, even your sanctification (I Thess. 4:3)?
Read the Acts of the Apostles, read the apostolic epistles; you will find there that believers are called not Christians but saints (cf. Acts 9:32; 1Cor. 16:1).
And we must be saints. It is not only must: we can. Christ is our surety: He, the All-merciful, would not lay upon us a burden that we cannot carry. His Church is our surety: it continues His work on earth, it gives believers the grace of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the redemption of Jesus Christ
But membership in Christ’s Church is not only a matter of faith, or of confession with our mouth; we must offer the confession of a holy and God pleasing life. Otherwise we are hypocrites.
Show me thy faith without thy works, says the Apostle, and adds:
Faith without works is dead, as the body without the Spirit is dead (James 2).
The saints are our judges, as the Word of God says:
Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world (I Cor. 6:2).
Why are they our judges? This is obvious. After all, they were like us, they lived in the world, they had flesh and blood, they had needs and cares, they had enemies and friends, they experienced temptations, trials, falls, misfortunes. In these ways they were no different from us. One should say here that many of them were tempted far beyond anything any of us shall ever experience. Who of us has suffered as the martyrs? Who has been crucified, like the Apostles Peter and Andrew? Who has been cast into fire? Who has been tortured on the wheel, who has had their flesh stripped, who has been thrown to wild beasts?
But the saints did not achieve salvation on their own strength alone; they were saved by that power which is given to each of us—the power of God, the power of the grace of Christ.
I can do all things through Christ Which strengtheneth me (Phil. 4:13).
Every believer can apply to himself these words of the Apostle provided he is truly a believer and not merely in name. History has brilliantly testified to this.
Until Christ came, how few saints there were! Among the pagans there were no virtuous people, in the full sense of the word. And among the chosen people, if there were some who were righteous it was because they believed in the same Christ, Who was to come. And then Christ the Messiah, long awaited by so many nations, came into the world. And what do we see? What happened?
You know how, after a severe and dismal winter, spring begins? Often the weather is still inclement, ‘but the sun already begins to be warmer, while the earth is still a wasteland’, lifeless, the trees bare and the fields uninviting. Then there is a spring rain, the storm passes, the sun comes out—and suddenly the face of the earth is renewed! A week goes by, a second, a third–and everything is green, everything is in bloom, nature brims over with life. This wondrous picture of nature is especially striking in southern lands where, after the first spring thaw and rain, the naked, desolate desert-steppe is extraordinarily rapidly transformed into a fragrant, flowering paradise.
This is an image of the great change which takes place in the spiritual life of man under the influence of the Holy Spirit, under the influence of Christ’s Church. Until the advent of Christianity, life was dark, empty and joyless; sin alone reigned in the world, wickedness triumphed in people’s lives.. But then Christ the Saviour came and founded His Christian and Holy Church, and this desert flowered like a wondrous garden; with the coming of the Lord the formerly fruitless pagan Church blossomed; it blossomed with a great multitude of saints on all steps of life; like bright, guiding stars, they adorn our spiritual heaven.
Brethren! Looking at these stars, let us borrow from their light; let us remember our sole calling here on earth: this is the will of God concerning you, even your sanctification.