In the past, the Saints have enjoyed a tremendous popularity: the churches were full of their statues and recourse to them was perhaps more than to God. There was a saint for truck drivers, for students, for lost items, for eye diseases and even for a sore throat. They were considered a kind of intermediaries that had the function to “soften” the impact of a God considered too big and too far away, a little unapproachable and somewhat foreign to our problems.
Today the tendency to resort to the saint to ask him/her to present to God a request is fading. We turn to the Lord more and more, directly, with the confidence of children. The saints—Mary too—are rightly regarded as sisters and brothers who, with their lives indicate a path to follow Christ and invite us to pray all the time, along with them, to the one Father.
The word saint indicates the presence in certain people of a divine and beneficial force that allows one to stand out, to distance oneself from what is imperfect, weak, ephemeral. Among the people who appeared in this world, only Christ has possessed the fullness of this force of goodness and only he can be declared saint, as we sing in the Gloria: “You alone are holy.”
But we, too, can rise up to him and become partakers of his holiness. He came into the world to accompany us towards the holiness of God, towards the unattainable goal that he has shown us: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
His first disciples were identified by various names. They were called “Galileans,” “Nazarenes,” and in Antioch, “Christians.” It was about some derogatory designations: “Galileans” was synonymous with “insurgents;” “Nazarenes” referred to the despised village from where their Master came; “Christian” means “anointed,” that is, followers of a self-styled “Lord’s anointed” who ended up on the gallows.
These were not the titles that they employed between them. They qualified themselves as “brothers,” “believers,” “the disciples of the Lord,” “the perfect ones,” “people of the way,” and … “saints.”
Paul wrote his letters “to all the saints who live in the city of Philippi …” (Phil 1:1); “to the saints who are at Ephesus…” (Eph 1:1); “to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Colossae…” (Col 1:2); “to all the saints in the whole of Achaia” (2 Cor 1:1); “to all of God’s favorite in Rome and that you are called to be saints…” (Rom 1:7). He did not write to the saints in heaven, but to real people who lived in Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, Colossae, and Rome. They were the saints.
A saint is every disciple, whether he or she is already in heaven with Christ or who still lives as a pilgrim on this earth.
In the Orthodox temples, the saints who are in heaven are painted along the walls at eye level, standing, as the resurrected ones mentioned by the seer of the Revelation (Rev 7:9). It is the way in which one wants to remind all participants in the celebration that the saints in heaven, although they may be contemplated only with the eyes of faith, they continue to live alongside the saints of the earth. They are part of the community called to give thanks to the Lord.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Holy is your family, O Lord, in heaven and on earth.”
We leave the maternal womb and enter into this world; after childhood, we enter adolescence; we leave adolescence for youth; youth to mature age and old age. Finally, the time comes to leave this world to which we have grown fond of perhaps to the point of deeming it to be the final abode and not wanting anymore to leave it. Yet on this earth, our aspiration to the fullness of joy and life is continually frustrated.
When, with disenchantment, we consider the reality, we check everywhere for signs of death: diseases, ignorance, loneliness, frailty, fatigue, pain, betrayals—and our conclusion is: no, this cannot be the definitive world; it is too narrow, too marked by evil. Then the desire to roam beyond the narrow horizon wherein we move emerges in us; we even dream of being abducted to other planets where maybe we are freed from any form of death.
In the universe, we know the world to which we long for does not exist. To satisfy the need for the infinite that God has put in our heart, it is necessary to leave this land and embark on a new exodus. We are asked for a new exit, the last—death—and this frightens us.
Even the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, they heard Jesus who spoke of his exodus from this world to the Father (Lk 9:31). They were seized by fear. “They fell with their faces to the ground and were so afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, and said, arise and be not afraid” (Mt 17:6-7).
From the third century, there appears, in the catacombs, the figure of the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulder. It is Christ, who takes by hand and cradles in his arms the person who is afraid to cross alone the dark valley of the death. With him, the Risen One, the disciples serenely abandon this life, confident that the shepherd to whom they have entrusted their life will lead them towards lush meadows and quiet streams (Ps 23:2) where they will find refreshment after a long tiring journey in the desert of this dry and dusty earth.
If death is the moment of encounter with Christ and an entry into the wedding banquet hall, it cannot be a dreaded event. It is something we expect. The exclamation of Paul: “For me, dying is a gain. I desire greatly to leave this life and to be with Christ” (Phil 1:21,23)—should be uttered by every believer.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Teach us, O Lord, to count our days.”
Solitude, silence, and asceticism are needed to create a climate conducive to contemplation, “inner life” and encounter with God. However, they will be signs of disease if they distance us from people, if they lead to the neglect of those we live among. The contrast between love for people and the worship of God is founded on pagan myths and not derived from the Gospel.
A friend of humankind, Prometheus, had taught them numbers, letters, the art of domesticating animals, agriculture, navigation, and metalwork. He ascended to Olympus to steal fire from the gods and bring it to the people below. For this, Zeus had him chained to a rock in the Caucasus and ordered a vulture to eternally rend his flesh. This is how the lord of the gods poured out his grudge against the man who, having benefited people, had antagonized the gods.
Nothing is more contrary to the biblical message. Any promotion, any growth of man realizes God’s plan. “So let us love one another since he loved us first. If you say, ‘I love God’, while you hate your brother or sister, you are a liar. How can you love God whom you do not see if you do not love your brother or sister who you see? We have received from him this commandment: let those who love God also love their brothers and sisters” (1 Jn 4:19-21). With reason, from a biblical perspective, Prometheus has been called “a man after God’s own heart.” In fact, the Lord has taught his people “that a righteous person must love his human fellows” (Wis 12:19).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Who does not love his brother whom he sees cannot love God whom he does not see?”
Man does not live alone. He is part of a civilized society and should establish collaborative relationships with others. From the need to organize the coexistence comes the need to determine the rights and duties, to give institutions, to set ways and forms to contribute to the common good. It is not easy to determine what is right: Diverse interests come into play; various objectives to achieve are envisaged. There are those who claim favors, demand privileges, and inevitable tensions arise.
To further complicate the problem, there are relations between the state system and religious institutions with their principles, norms, customs, traditions, indispensable claims. Many, feeling subjects of two competing powers—which often intrude each other, exchanging mutual accusations of pitch invasions—have a torn conscience. To resolve the conflict, there are those who choose fanatical and fundamentalist positions and attempt to impose their convictions. Those who renounce a confrontation from which they fear coming out defeated place themselves on the margins.
In the famous Letter to Diognetus, composed around the middle of the second century A.D., wise and timeless principles are suggested: “Christians neither by country, nor language, nor customs are distinguished from other people. Living in Greece and other barbarian cities, as it happened, each one must adapt himself to the customs of the place, in clothing, food, and rest. They witness to a way of wonderful and undoubtedly paradoxical social life. They live in their homeland, but as strangers; they participate in everything as citizens and detached from all things as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else and have children, but do not throw newborn babies. They share their meals, but not the bed. They dwell in the land, but they have their citizenship in heaven. They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws. To put it short, as the soul is in the body, so are Christians in the world” (Letter to Diognetus, The Manners of the Christians V, VI, 1).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Christians shine as lights in the world: exemplary citizens, consistent with their beliefs, respecting those of others.”