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December 14, 2018On the occasion of the Canonization of Saint Herman of Alaska
“Seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12,1).
This passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is from the reading for All Saints Sunday, is appropriate for our consideration on this occasion, because it covers the main points of the Church’s attitude and teaching concerning her saints.
The Church on earth lives in a loving fellowship with the saints who have already run their race, who have fought the good fight, and have received their crowns (11 Timothy 4,7) (James 1,12). This is what the Apostle means when he says that we are compassed about or surrounded by the witness-martyrs or saints. We are assured both of their presence and their interest in us. In fact, they are concerned about the whole world and its salvation, for “there is joy in heaven over the repentance of one sinner”, (Luke 15,7).
It is striking, too, that the writer refers to the multitude of the saints as a cloud, for a cloud covers, as do the prayers and good deeds of the saints, the sins of many, just as “the good example and deeds of men like Father Herman cancelled out the evil deeds of the rest” of the colonists, traders, and settlers. “The prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” (James 5, 16) even that which is offered for the unrighteous.
Further, and this is the most important point, it is because we have this great cloud of witnesses that we have any hope of running the race that is set before us. We have their example to imitate, and we have their guidance, intercession, protection and loving fellowship.
In spite of the profound truth of all that was said above about the example and intercession of the saints, there is no doubt that a general neglect of the saints and their place in the Church is fast becoming characteristic of our contemporary Church life. This development may be due to a number of different influences, but, whatever the causes may be, it is of vital importance that we realize that Orthodoxy’s traditional approach to saints and sainthood is an integral part of her understanding of Christ’s way.
Our Lord Jesus Christ came into this world to reconcile man to God, and to show, by taking on human nature and by living the life of a man, what man’s response to God was supposed to be. We are convinced that if there were no saints the way of Christ would be an abstraction, an ideal impossible and unattainable for man.
Christ promised to send and did send the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, “to endow His Apostles with power from on high” (Acts 1, 7) (Luke 24, 49), to sanctify the Church and to guide her in all truth (John 16, 13). Holiness is the real proof that Christ did send the Spirit and that the Spirit fills and permeates the Church. The reality of the saints demonstrates that the holiness to which Christ calls us all is a definite possibility, that in all generations since the time of Christ, holiness has been attained in spite of all the world’s evil and all the temptations and obstacles that would keep Christians from reaching their goal. Holiness is our primary vocation as Christians in this 20th century, in the face of all the greed, power, madness, collapse of morality, cruel exploitation, and the loss of practically every spiritual value in life. Although we are concerned here with a saint who fell asleep over a hundred years ago, we see, on reading the history of St. Herman, that the human failings, the sinfulness with which he was confronted are the same basic sicknesses of mankind today.
The canonization of a saint in our time is of great significance. First, it shows that Christ’s Church is just as convinced now as it has always been of the possibility of sainthood. Further, it is evidence that the Holy Spirit still works in the Church, for it is the Spirit that has brought us to the realization, the recognition, and finally the canonization of St. Herman.
The Church in America in the first year of her official “autocephaly” faces many serious problems. As a matter of fact, for many different reasons, she is in a very weakened and ineffectual position. For one thing, society’s attitudes easily become the attitudes of the members of the Church, because they are tempted by the desire to be just like everyone else. But the generation in which we live is a faithless and perverse generation, like the one that Jesus Himself rebuked; ours is a cynical generation, and, sad as it may be, that cynicism has found its way into the Church. Particularly, the world’s cynical judgment of the idea of holiness is sometimes reflected in Church life. In general, I think it is no exaggeration to say that saints have come to mean very little to the average Orthodox Christian in our country.
There is no better medicine, however, for a cynical generation such as ours than the glorification of a saint. What we are doing here may seem like utter foolishness to a world that prides itself on its scientific attitude, but notice how society has taken an interest in this canonization and respects us for our seriousness. The world, without knowing it perhaps, needs and wants holiness, for holiness means wholeness, integrity, meaning, real humanity, because humanity is real only when it knows and loves God. Therefore, this must be far more than a series of impressive ceremonies; it must be the very source of inspiration that will set the direction of our Orthodox Church in America for her future.
St. Herman came to America as a missionary. He had not only the task of preaching the Gospel to the natives of this land, but he also had to protect them from people who already had the Christian faith. He truly followed Christ. He took up his cross and followed Him faithfully. Those whom he taught and served were convinced of his sanctity even during his lifetime.
This canonization can do much for our Orthodox Church in America. We are assured that one more witness has joined that great cloud of witnesses. We have another intercessor before the throne of God, and, in this case, a special intercessor; because he was truly interested in America and its evangelization, obeying the commission of Christ to “go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28,10). Thus, we have also a special example, not only in his personal holiness, but in the very purpose for which he came to America.
Very simply, his purpose must become our purpose, and his goals our goals. God has guided us to a new position of responsibility in two things. We have taken the name of America and consequently the responsibility before Christ for America’s salvation. And then, He has given us a saint, as both example and protector. It is now left to us to respond. God grant that we may no longer misunderstand our purpose here.
Through the prayers of our Venerable Father Herman, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.
Bishop of Berkeley