This past Sunday was the feast of All Saints in the Holy Orthodox Church. On that day, we commemorate all the Saints of God, fruits of the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, commemorated the Sunday prior. On this day we especially seek the intercessions of these holy men and women, and set them before us as examples of those who have ‘finished the race’ of faith (Acts 20:24).
One might ask “given that we have a perfect model of a human life in Jesus Christ, how can Saints be necessary as exemplars? Aren’t they, at best, redundant?”
This question brings to mind the slogan “WWJD?”, sometimes seen on bumper stickers or bracelets. The idea behind the slogan is that if we ask ourselves that one simple question—”What would Jesus do?”—in any circumstance in our life, and strive to emulate Christ’s example, then we have all that we could ever need.
In one sense, this is undeniably true: if we embody Christ’s faithfulness, humility, and love in everything we do, then there is nothing we could possibly add to this. This could only transpire as the fruit of complete union with Him, which constitutes perfection itself.
However, there is one thing that we, as fallen and sinful humans, are commanded to do which Christ himself never did: repent.
Now, we certainly ought to look to Christ’s teaching on repentance, as exemplified by the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Publican and the Pharisee, and strive to emulate those examples. We are also called to embody Christ’s extreme humility, which is the virtue that gives life to repentance. But we aren’t fundamentally answering the question “WWJD?”, as He would never have found himself in the position of having sinned in the first place and therefore in need of repentance.
For concrete examples of what repentance looks like in the lives of faithful Christians, the Saints are indispensable.
When we do, we find glorious Saints like St. Mary of Egypt (fifth–sixth century) who, having wallowed in carnal sin for 17 years as a prostitute, fled to the desert to live a life of asceticism as a result of having been convicted and set aflame with repentance. After another 17 years of battling the passions as an ascetic in the desert, living in solitude on nothing but shrubs and herbs, she was delivered from these temptations.
The transformation wrought in her by repentance and humility was so extreme that when a priest, St. Zosima, stumbled upon her after she had been in the desert for 47 years, she astonished him with her clairvoyance, knowing all about his life despite having been in solitude in for so long. Upon her request, he returned a year later bearing the Holy Mysteries to give her. When he saw her on the opposite side of the Jordan river, she crossed herself and walked across the water to receive communion from him! This is why we sing on her feast day:
The image of God was truly preserved in you, O mother,
For you took up the Cross and followed Christ.
By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away;
But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal.
Therefore your spirit, O holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the Angels.
Because she preserved the image of God in herself, she in turn presents it to us.
It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus Christ—who sent the Holy Spirit and founded His Church, whom He promised would “do even greater works than these” (John 14:12)—would use the Saints of His Church to be radiant examples for those who would follow them. If the truth of Christ’s salvific work did not present itself to us embodied in the transfigured lives of His followers, there would be no reason to believe that it’s true.
Furthermore, while “WWJD?” is a critical question, it raises another question about who Jesus is and how we come to know Him. The biblical answer is that we know Him by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church—the fruits of which are the Saints.
Of course, we don’t reduce the Saints to a mere pedagogical tool, or only limit what they have to teach us to the realm of repentance. They are so much more than that. Not only do they teach us about all aspects of living a Christian life—applying Christian truth in the wide variety of contexts we all face—they are also living members of the undivided Body of Christ, who intercede with God for us before the throne of God and constitute the heavenly Church triumphant. If nothing—not even death—can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ Our Lord (cf. Rom. 8:38–39), neither can death separate us from each other, who are His Body (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 5:29–30).
While it’s absolutely imperative that a Christian strive to follow Christ in all things, following Christ means following his faithful followers (Luke 10:16; Matt. 16:19), especially those who exhibit the reality of knowing Christ in their own glorious lives.