By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.
There is no greater glory than unity with the body of Christ. In the Eastern Church, their Sunday service purposes to create a space wherein believers gain a foresight of our home together in heaven—the churches are adorned with intricate artwork, and the air is filled with sacred singing and fragrant incense. One who looks about will find themselves not only surrounded by the fellowship of churchgoers but, raising their eyes, surrounded by the images of Christian men and women who together depict the saints in heaven. This Divine Liturgy is, in the teachings of the Orthodox Church in America, the “Communion of the entire Church in heaven and on earth.” In it, each Christian living on Earth is joined by the Christians (and Angels) who worship God in heaven. Foundational to this idea is the understanding that those who’ve preceded us in the Faith are not truly dead, but while they are gone from the body, they are alive and present with the Lord. And though they died, they still speak today.
But for us in the West, those whom the higher churches call ‘saints’ are scarcely a thought. Certainly, we have our favorites (Augustine, Mother Teresa, and Francis of Assisi on a good day), but there are two thousand years of Christian history that we still neglect. Whether relegated to the ‘dead’ past or avoided for suspicions of popish influence, this deficient hagiology has us robbing ourselves of the full benefits of our heritage, in the name of shunning tradition. As though tradition were a thing to shun! Our certainty that revering our faith heritage is one step away from apostasy has hidden from us a treasury of wisdom which, if we sought it, would prove to be most useful for us today.
Why not seek it? These men and women who showed faith until the end, through whom God revealed magisterial power. The saints were architects, they were artists, they were songwriters, scholars and statesmen who held immense power. By the word of their teaching, kings and nations turned to Christ. Francis of Assisi is said to have traveled amidst the horrors of the Crusades to evangelize the very sultan of Egypt himself and plead for peace. Many were geniuses; amidst her studies in the fields of science and language, Saint Hildegard is considered among the greatest composers of the medieval age. Others came from great humility, like Saint Spyridon of Cyprus who made his living simultaneously as a bishop and a shepherd. After authoritatively defending truth during the Arian controversy at the first Council of Nicaea, he returned home to his sheep.
And of the comforts afforded to us by the memory of these saints, one we should hold to tightly is the persistence by which God seeks to turn the banal into the extraordinary, the weak into the mighty. For the student seeking a life devoted to Christ, reading the stories of the saints provides us a glimpse of how God gathers his people from the whole world. If death is dead, and the Kingdom of God is at hand, then those who stand in heaven remain my brothers and sisters, and they remain my teachers. The faith of the ancients, handed down from generation to generation, is a faith of the living—why would we not learn from Athanasius, the man against the world, and John Chrysostom, the preacher with a mouth of gold?
Regaining the historical memory of our faith equips us with what is to come and unites us with the eternal Church. Christ has one bride, and she is not divided by space, nor time, nor the gap between earth and heaven. The saints who went before us are alive in Christ—the cloud of witnesses does not cease to worship before the Throne—for they are witnesses so that we may strive forward in the faith. We are not separated from them.
The legacy they’ve left is one of the great gifts we can enjoy to the glorification of God.