Having taken leave of Pentecost, today we greet the Feast of All Saints. In the Latin rite, today is kept as the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. But in the Byzantine Church, we celebrate the saints, especially the martyrs who were faithful unto death.
You can understand the logic of the Latin feast of the Holy Trinity’s falling in the midst of the Christian Year – first in Advent, God the Father sends his prophets to announce the coming of God the Son. Then the archangel Gabriel comes before the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saviour becomes incarnate in her womb. After His birth at Christmas, the Latin Church contemplates His early years and then the beginning of his earthly ministry and wonderworking. At length, Lent prepares the Church for the Passion and in Holy Week the People of God follow Jesus through to his Death on the Cross and finally the resurrection of the Light of the World in the night. For eight weeks, the Latin Church lives in the glory of the Resurrection, seeing the transformation of humanity, as Christ changes the Last Supper into the Eucharistic Banquet and ascends his risen life from earth to heaven. At last, He imparts from the Father the Holy Spirit, as He promised from the moment he rose from the dead. You can understand the sequence: the work of God the Father, then God the Son and finally God the Holy Spirit. On the Octave Day of Pentecost, a week later than the feast, you can understand a great Feast of the Holy Trinity to distil the mystery of salvation, and set us fair to live within it for the rest of the Church’s year to the following Advent.
For the Byzantine Church it is different. Our Church year begins in the mystery of Pascha, in the moments as Christ Who has died upon the Cross rises from the dead, working out of us sin and death, and working into us the holiness of the Holy Spirit and His life that can never end. Throughout the time of Easter we are caught up in the resurrection of Christ; and it is the Holy Spirit Who animates our rising sense of hope throughout. Having died with Christ in baptism and risen with Him at his Resurrection, we are caught up in joy; and we too are lifted as Christ mounts to the Father. We too are translated to heaven in this same Spirit, so that whenever we worship it is not in the world that we remain, for in hearts and in temples that have been cleared on earth for heaven to exist among us, we come to be in the very presence of God, Who both comes to us and takes us up to Him. When Pentecost comes, the union of heaven and earth in Christ in the liturgy – the work of God in his people – is sealed. It is shown to be not just a matter of faith or piety, but the way in which the universe is reconstructed in Christ risen from the dead, Who is the Lord in glory of its every aspect, movement and person, by the power of the Spirit until its final consummation in the great end of all things that is to come. You can see therefore that, in the Byzantine Church’s perspective, the whole of Pascha, from the Death and Resurrection to the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, is a feast of the Holy Trinity, deep in His own mystery yet energetic in and upon the world in and through his Church. So it makes sense that today we celebrate the blessedness of heaven by contemplating the saints bathed in its glory. Indeed we are not so far distant in our thinking and worshipping from the Latin Church, because the saints are bathed in no other glory than the glory of the Holy Trinity.
So: here we are in earth, by the Holy Spirit translated in this liturgy to the court of heaven, there beholding the saints. And here we are in heaven, by the power of the resurrection of Christ at work in us, able to look around us and see how our humanity is being fitted into the life of the Trinity even now in the created universe as He recreates it. For in beholding the saints, we see with our own eyes what is to become of us. We are not to be the same. We are to be changed. As St Paul says, “Dying, behold we live.” We see people that we recognise not as we are, but as we will become. The witnesses that surround us in their great cloud are not pointing back to us; they are not helping us to make sense of things with our frame of reference, nor are they staring at us from our holy icons. Instead, they are looking to Jesus, the Perfecter, pointing their gaze past us and getting us to turn and face in a new direction too. St Paul urges us not just to persevere and push on in a race towards to heaven; he is urging us to run away from what we are at the moment.
When Peter asks Jesus what we will get out of following Jesus, he has in mind some kind of consideration for all that has been endured and all that has been given up - from every human attachment at home to the demand for any livelihood to be abandoned but the carrying of the Carpenter’s own Cross – Peter clearly thinks he will get some sort of tangible reward: a better life, a settled home, a happier world. Instead Jesus, hinting at what St John will one day write in his Revelation, tells him that everything he sees around him, sets any store by, or places any value on, will dissolve – not into nothingness but the renewal of all things: “Behold I make all things new – a new heaven and a new earth, and the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, adorned as a bridge for her husband – the dwelling of God with humanity.” This is why Our Lord says those terribly demanding things about loving Him more than parents and children. He has to break our way of seeing things. Instead we have to learn to understand people, even those we love and know the most, not just through our own human closeness but in Christ. Only in loving Christ will we love best. So Peter is brought up short, as he stops thinking of houses, family and a better world for them. He realises that the old order is only the shadow cast by the approach of the new. For, all that Christ offers him is a Cross of his own. This Cross will not be a struggle for things in this world, but the only path there is to eternal life.
This is the Peter, this is the Paul, and likewise the Blessed Virgin whom we contemplate in heaven – those whose hearts have been pierced with sorrow and like the Lord himself acquainted with grief. These are those whose glory in heaven has been transfigured out of their sufferings, their trials and their endurance through this world. For us too, it is not easy to avoid sin; it is not easy to live in the world in a spiritual way; it is difficult to set our hearts on the things that are above, when we are bound to be occupied with the necessities of life and work, of family and concerns of our fellow humans in their trials. But, says the Lord, in all these things, the only way to love them best is to love Christ first. For it is only through the transforming of us, that we can hope for the Lord to transform the world He loves and gave His life for. It is only through making our lives holy and glorious that the kingdoms of this world can be seen to be the living instances of the Kingdom of God. It is only by our longing to be saints, and to live the same glorified life as theirs, their sufferings and endurance transfigured into hope for the joy that lies ahead, that we too can point the world to running a race from itself (and its fetish for destruction and selfish-absorption) toward the heaven that God’s liturgy, His work among and upon His people, constantly opens up to draw us in.
I know this looks to nearly the whole of the population as just religion, just a pious spiritual sentiment, the wording of a belief-system, while the realities of the world are all too practical and intractable to be adequately addressed by abstractions like kingdom, glory, heaven and eternal life. But think about it. It was in just such an instant of a gut reaction from St Peter that clearly he thought more or less the same. Then and now we are not so very different. Nothing has changed. To this worldliness, this instinct to be realistic, Jesus just says this.
What is the universe you live in? Is it the universe where you are the centre, where what matters most is your life, your will, your family, your future, your material and practical concerns? These are important and I understand that you love them. But where do they lead really and what are they truly for? Or is the universe you live in the one which is the Kingdom of God, the God Who says blessed are the peacemakers, the poor, the merciful, the pure in heart, the righteous, the broken-hearted? Is your universe the one where it is God who accepts the blame and blasphemy, even death on a Cross, Whom you have seen in the flesh and followed and made the Master of your life - your only hope and greatest joy, the Lord who has promised you a place in His Kingdom and a share of His own glory, if you will only take part in the renewal of all things that will cost you not less than everything?
If you think that the universe is centred on you, of course it matters nothing whether today is All Saints or the Holy Trinity, or both. But if you believe that Jesus Christ is the master of all things, then he is Master of You, and you will desire nothing more than to be His saints in the Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.