In November every year, the Armenian Church celebrates All Saints Day. As a church we remember the good and holy people—whether known or unknown—who were spirited heroes filled with Christ’s love, endurance, and faith. Often they started out as ordinary people with ordinary lives. But they became extraordinary models of the character of sainthood.
Even so, the saints of the church remain obscure to many of us. We spend countless hours a day reading books, newspapers, the Internet; but seldom do we read about the saints and their lives. Yet if we don’t know them, how could we ever follow their holy examples?
And how will we recognize the “seeds” of saintliness in the people around us—even in ourselves? In St. Paul’s writings to the early Christian communities, he commonly addressed his followers as “saints,” simply because he saw them as good, holy, God-loving people. In Armenian we have specific words—Asdvadzaser, Asdvadzahajoh—to describe those who devotedly follow the Lord throughout life. These are the saints of our daily experience.
But how is a “Capital S” canonized Saint declared?
Surprisingly, in the Armenian Church tradition, no rigidly structured process is involved. It happens by consensus of the laity and clergy: a universal agreement that a particular person’s deeds and intentions—his or her “living in the spirit of God”—pointed to sainthood. Such people are said by the church to “sit at the right hand of Christ,” and to be honored and emulated by the faithful.
Light Shining Through
Remember this, though: No one is born a saint. We are all born sinners, and only by sacrament and faith do we answer God’s call to holiness. For some, making that choice seems the furthest thing from the earlier record of their lives. St. Paul persecuted and killed Christians; the Armenian King Drtad tortured St. Gregory, murdered St. Hripsime, and went mad. Both—and many others like them—eventually saw the Light of God, and saw their lives transformed.
You might say the Light of God shines through them, to illuminate the world. Perhaps that explains why churches often depict the saints in stained glass windows. The light passes through the painted figures to illuminate the sanctuary and shine on the worshippers. But this should also remind us that Christ’s Light can shine through us, too—and bring its warmth and brightness to those around us.
Remember that Heaven is not the only “home” of the saints. Every one of them first lived here on Earth. That is where sainthood begins. Were we to meet the well-known saints during their earthly lives, we might be surprised to find that for some of them, at least, their demeanors were not sweet and angelic, but gruff and sharp around the edges. In that regard, they really were no different from us. But it’s the good they performed, the faith they embodied, that makes them models to imitate—and celebrate.
And we will indeed celebrate them this Saturday, on “The Feast of All Saints: The Old and the New, the Known and the Unknown.” Through prayer we will ask them to inspire us with their spirit, and to intercede on our behalf with God. We will not pray to them—only Christ our God receives prayers. But we will pray with the saints, firm in the conviction that it is not the church that makes a saint holy: it’s the saints who make the church holy.
—Fr. Garabed Kochakian