Dear brothers and sisters, greetings to you, as we celebrate the Sunday of All Saints who have shone forth in the Lands of Rus’: not the modern state, but the ‘four Russias’ – the spiritual patrimony of St Vladimir: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Carpatho-Russia. Beyond these God-preserved lands, we also celebrate the saints of the Russian Orthodox diaspora.
This is not a nationalist or ethnic feast, as can be seen from the diversity of those whom we celebrate today, which is also the feast of the uncovering of the relics of St Maximos the Greek (1996).
In this Athonite Greek monk and native of Corfu, we see an example of how holiness makes a bond between people and place, that has the Holy Spirit as the force which unites, as divine providence takes righteous ones from their native soil to struggle in other places chosen by God.
We need only consider the holy Greek hierarchs of Kiev, St Macarius the Roman and St Anthony the Roman of Novgorod, St Maximos the Greek, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and the martyred Tsarina Alexandra – and of course the Norse origins of St Vladmir and St Olga, the Equals to the Apostles.
Just as God took the great and righteous patriarch, Abraham, from Mesopotamia and set him to live in holiness in a new land, so the Lord took many people to struggle for the sake of the Kingdom in the lands of the former Russian Empire.
Today, we celebrate great elders, such as the startsy who shone forth in the ascetic life in Optina, but also children who shone with the Grace of God and became wonderworkers: St Artemy of Verkola, the child-schemamonk Bogolep, the slain Tsarevich Dimitri, the new-martyrs Tsarevich Alexei and the Grand Duchess Anastasia.
We celebrate noble and royal saints – Vladimir, Olga, Boris and Gleb, Alexander Nevsky, Dimitri Donskoy and Daniel of Moscow – but we also celebrate righteous ones from the peasant strata of society, such as Blessed Matrona of Moscow and St Febronia of Murom.
Amongst this choir of saints, we find not only eastern Slavs, but also holy ones from Greece, the Balkan nations, and of the Finno-Ugrian, Turkic, and Baltic peoples: men, women and children who were glorified by God for their lives of holiness and faithfulness to the Gospel.
The diversity of the saints we remember in this great synaxis should astound us, and in their lives in Christ, they are woven together in holiness which is the adornment of the Church and the vesture of God.
The prokeimenon of Saturday vespers says, “The Lord is King; He is clothed in majesty.” The lives of the saints we celebrate, their continuing intercessions and manifold miracles clothe the Lord in majesty, and show His glory, and His love and care – not only for humanity, but the whole of creation.
To be holy means to be set apart and dedicated to God, in leading lives of ‘otherness’ in which the image of God is restored in us, and through which the glory of God shines in the world.
This weekend, we have also celebrated St John the Wonderworker, one of the great hierarchs of Holy Russia, though he was only a hierarch in exile from his homeland, but an exile in which, like Abraham, he begat a great progeny of children: children of many lands and cultures, far beyond his enslaved homeland.
He showed us a way of holiness, and otherness, in not living according to the ways and conventions of the world, but according to the Law of God and the teachings of the Gospel: the way of ascesis/podvig, prayer, and obedience to which we are all called by the countless saints we celebrate on this feast.
But, it is not enough only to celebrate the feasts of the saints in which St John is one of the most recent God-Pleasers, and it is not even enough to seek their intercession.
First and foremost, our call is to learn from the saints, to imitate them and follow them on the path of holiness, in obedience to the Gospel.
The icon of the sobor of the Saints of Rus’, is one which grows with the passage of time, as more and more people are glorified by God for the righteousness and holiness of their lives.
We should understand the icon as having no borders or boundaries, and a sign of the Kingdom into which we are all called by our baptism, for if we were true to our baptismal calling, we would be living lives of holiness as saints and co-sharers in the Kingdom. We too are called to be part of this, but can only do so by obedience, action and response to Christ’s call.
In today’s Gospel of the day [Matthew 4:18-23], we heard Christ call the fisherman to be His disciples. Of Simon-Peter and Andrew, we hear that “they straightway left their nets, and followed him.” Of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, we hear, “And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.”
Such is the call of holiness: to unquestioningly leave behind the chains and ties of the world, and to live for God in dedicated “otherness” and selflessness. In this quest, Christ’s manifesto in the Gospel of the feast – the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount – informs our every action, word and thought, and take the place of the worldly indicators of well-being that hinge on material gain, financial success, wealth, reputation, promotion, advancement, careers and social reputation.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.
Let us rejoice in the feast and the saints we celebrate, and like them make our lives blessed, by living the Beatitudes and the whole Gospel of Christ, and proclaiming holiness and righteousness to the world, as bearers of the Light of Christ.
In Christ – Hieromonk Mark