Icons of the Saints
How can we approach or understand the crucial role played out by the Holy Saints who were Christ’s Holy Apostles, companions, friends, and devoted followers not just in outward action, or intellectual agreement, but who were made “partakers of the Divine Nature,” (II Peter 1:4) as was spoken in the Holy Scripture. This is more than we usually think about– this partaking of the Divine Nature. So what is it that we as Christians are called to do? Are we to be good citizens? Yes, and more. Are we to follow the Commandments, live according to the Gospel, and love God and our neighbor as ourselves? Yes, and still more. Are we to worship God in an Orthodox manner and in community, give alms to those in need, struggle with our passions and imperfections, and see ourselves as worthless servants when we do something nearly perfect? Yes, and still far more, for the calling and election to Heaven is a life above our normal understanding and earthly comprehension. It is a profound life so immersed in God, that we become like Him, as far as humanly possible.
The Lord Himself prays for His Disciples and those who follow them thus, “And the glory which Thou gavest Me I have given them: that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be made perfect in one…that the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:21, 26) This is a great mystery– the Deification of Man, or Theosis– and it is the purpose of the Incarnation for, according to St. Athanasios the Great, “God became man, so man could become God…,” not by nature, but by adoption. Salvation is more than being saved from sins; it is the very act of God transfiguring human nature in a person to receive the Holy Spirit and the rest of the Holy Trinity, not unwillingly, but as an active recipient and cooperator with this enlivening Grace.
So we look to the Saints not as some exotic or unapproachable people who led an incomprehensible life and are above our daily concerns, but as truly our older brothers and sisters in Christ who have been remade into the New Creation and “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34) They are revelations of the pattern that became Heavenly, that was made blessed and holy (sanctus in Latin, the root of the word saint), that breathes life into us as we relate to them, for they are living icons in the flesh, as was their master, Jesus Christ. They are indeed living icons of Christ, Who, according to St. Basil the Great, is a living icon of God the Father “Whom no man has anywhere seen.”
As there are icons of Christ, the first of which He Himself gave to us in the Holy Napkin or Mandylion, so there are icons of Christ which He made by resurrecting our fallen nature and making it holy– for the most important icons are those living in flesh and blood, and who share that Flesh and Blood to the degree that they too “do the works that I do and greater.” To learn more about these living icons (for there is no death to those who “have put on Christ, Alleluia”), we must learn of their lives and their actions and their struggles, and begin to relate to them in this special and spiritual way– as living icons of Christ. Now we may approach them directly through their holy icons, for here they are shown in the Glory of the World to Come.
When we pray before the Holy Icons with faith and love, then they in some mysterious way become somehow translucent and transparent, opening through these windows into Heaven a way to relate to Heaven Itself. This is not just imaginary, for many icons have been known to work miracles of healing, of producing and flowing holy myrrh and fragrant oil out of nothing, and of renewing themselves without human help as is attested even in these modern times.
There are many different patterns for Saints, even though each saint is unique and unrepeatable. There are the Holy Bodiless Powers and Holy Archangels, who are the messengers of God and His companions of the Heavenly Realms. There are the Holy Apostles, the Holy Evangelists and then those who were Equal to the Apostles in their life and work. There are the Holy Martyrs who shed their blood in witness to the Truth that God is worth every sacrifice and pain, for He loves us with a fierce love that is not conditional, but all-encompassing and complete, whatever we may do. There are the great and holy Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs, Theologians and Confessors, Virgins and Monastics, Priests and Deacons, Soldiers, Generals, and Recruits, Fools-for-Christ’s Sake, Emperors and Kings, Empresses and Queens, Holy Unmercenary Physicians who served others and healed without monetary compensation, the Holy Passion-Bearers who did not resist the evil and were slain, Preachers of Repentance, Hymnographers, Great Martyrs whose martyrdom converted thousands, Guardian Angels, Wonder-workers, Prophets and Forerunners, Hermits, Anchorites, reformed harlots, Missionaries, Tree-dwellers, Stylites (or those who stood always on pillars), Metropolitans and Patriarchs, and clairvoyant Elders, all of whom attained the Kingdom.
The Faithful are given a name in baptism that is connected with a Feast or a Saint, and then this becomes our day of great celebration, our Name’s Day, for the Feasts and Saints all have their days of celebration and commemoration. When a person with a unique name first enters the list of the saints, then that name becomes baptized by his or her struggles and life in Christ, and enters the roll of Christian names. There are masculine and feminine forms for most of the names of the Holy Saints, and so we can look here most often to find icons that show someone with our own baptismal name that we can ask for help in our ascetic life as a Christian.
Let us look at their holy faces and pray that we may someday be in their company so we can enter fully into the Communion of the Saints, and learn from them who learned from Him, for He is “meek and humble of heart.” And most of all, let us not be timid and think that we must not really struggle with our fallen nature, as they did so well, and not yearn to live a Heavenly life right here on earth, for “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” (I Cor 2:9)