Bishop Ioan Casian of Canada: The saints’ life and the prerequisites for the Kingdom of God

“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12, 1-2).

The Epistle to the Hebrews of St. Paul, read on All Saints’ Sunday, tells us about the path of faith in the Church to the encounter with Christ and presents the saints as living testimonies of this way. Christians, in order to fulfill the calling and vocation they have received, must follow the path of the One who begins and fulfills all that of faith, that is, Christ. The saints are the full proof and cloud of testimony that shows us God’s faithfulness and work through His Son to man’s plan of salvation. But this path can only be made by assuming and passing through the experience of the cross of Christ the One who opened and opens the way of every man. In this way the saints become role models for the Christian community.

The model they followed and the means by which the saints helped to reach the fulfillment of the path of faith and therefore of salvation was Christ because He is the founder of the faith.

“As in all arts and games, – St. John Chrysostom says –  we impress the art upon our mind by looking to our masters, receiving certain rules through our sight, so here also, if we wish to run and to learn to run well, let us look to Christ, even to Jesus, ‘the author and finisher of our faith.’ What is this? He has put the faith within us. For He said to His disciples, ‘You did not choose Me, but I chose You;’ and Paul too says, ‘But shall I understand, even as I have been fully understood.’ He put the beginning into us; He will also put on the end.”[1]

St. John Chrysostom shows that in the Christian life, as in all other fields, the one who wants to fulfill an ideal must choose his models well. Just as in the field of sports are chosen models who are dear to us, embody the desired ideal and are also the best connoisseurs and teachers in the chosen field, so in the spiritual life the quintessential model of the Christian is Christ.

He best embodies the model of the Christian in the Church. Christ is not only a model to follow, but He Himself is the fulfiller of this journey through the energy of the grace He bestows. If the other teachers are only role models and counselors in the steps to be taken, in the case of the Christian life Christ is the model and counselor (who inspires the path to follow) but it is also the One who, through the granting of His grace, makes possible the walking of this path. In the case of the Christian life, Christ is the model of the perfect man.

The initial foundation is laid by Christ through Baptism, Anointing and Communion and continued throughout the entire life. The other Holy Sacraments and blessings in the Church contribute to the growth and the maturing of one’s spiritual life in conformity with the strength of his faith. He is also the One who accompanies us on this path of spiritual growth and who make happening everything by fulfilling them.

The saints are that ‘cloud of testimony’ that gives us courage and confidence in God’s work. They are the tangible evidence of this spiritual path.

There are three requirements that Christ sets before us as conditions to fulfill in the earthly life in order to give a good answer to Christ at His second coming and judgement and to make possible the entry into the kingdom of heaven: (1) confession; (2) love; (3) carrying the cross.

(1) In order to enter the kingdom of God we need confession“Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10, 32-33). Confession is a central element of the Christian life. Christ is the One who came to witness in the flesh about the Kingdom of heaven, about the work of God the Father and the Holy Spirit. He came to make visible and sensitive the saving work of God among us.

“If one does not acknowledge Him before others it does one no good to believe in Christ in one’s heart. For it is impossible that one who denies with one’s lips can believe in one’s heart. For the root of confession is the heart’s faith. Confession is thus the fruit of faith. As long as root is living, it must produce either branches or leaves, and if the plant does not produce these, we know beyond a doubt that its root is withered in the ground. In the same way, as long as the faith of the heart is healthy, it always sows the seeds of confession with the lips. But if there is no acknowledgement with the lips, you should know beyond a doubt that the faith of the heart has already withered away. For the apostle says, ‘For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Romans 10,10).[2]

The anonymous author sees very well the relationship between heart or mind and confession. No one can confess what he does not believe or has in his heart. The image of the plant is the clearest expression of the human mechanism of confession. If you believe, then you are talking about what you believe. If you don’t believe, you have nothing to talk about. Confession comes from conviction. In the case of the Holy Apostles, they witnessed the resurrection of Christ, and this conviction was passed on to this day through the cloud of those who have believed.

The saints are those who believed in Christ and confessed Him. For each saint through their words and lives directed the gaze of contemporaries to God the source of everything.

(2) A second requirement that is asked to enter the kingdom of God is love: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10, 37). Addressing the scribe who had come to ask him about the most important commandment, Jesus answered: “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12, 29-31).  In the version of St. Luke, the scribe’s question to Christ is, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25).

And St. Matthew gives the Savior’s conclusion: “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22, 40). We see from this example that the centrality of everything that happens from God’s point of view is given by love. It is the element that bounds and manifests man’s relationship with God and with his fellow men. The two directions of love are different: one is vertical, directed toward God and the other is horizontal oriented toward neighbor.

They are complementary but not equal or symmetrical. They reflect the incomparable position of God as Creator towards His creature but also the perfect relationship contemplated by God and planted in man, that is the love of neighbor similar to that of oneself. St. John Chrysostom explains the reason of the asymmetrical character of these two ways of loving but also the need for both of them in one of his commentaries:

“He said this (see Matthew 10, 37 – bring fathers to greater gentleness and children to greater freedom, just at the point where love might be most tempted to hinder them. He bids parents not to attempt what is impossible by assuming that their love of their children can be rightly compared with their love toward God. He instructs the children not to attempt what is impossible by seeking to make their love of parents greater than their love of God.

(…) So do not compare love of God merely with love of parents, brothers and sisters and wife. If you are serious, compare it with the love of your very life. For nothing is dearer to you than your life.”[3] This perspective reflects the whole biblical teaching and experience based on the creation of human person according to the image and likeness of God.

The importance of the connection with God is given by the fact that man is created in His image and likeness. Love of God flows co-naturally from this very creative act of God. The image and the likeness of God are the foundation of the human person. They are its ‘spiritual and human DNA’. The development of the human person starting from the conformation with their spiritual and human exigencies (of the image and likeness of God – n.t) leads to a harmonious growth and development of the person in accordance with the will of God as Creator and foundation of everything. This will, placed by God in each human person, is a unique and unrepeatable vocation that he has and can develop in time.

The bond of love that man establishes with God from this point of view is irreplaceable.

(3) The third requirement of entering the kingdom of heaven is to follow Christ by carrying the cross: “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10, 38). Christ says elsewhere: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15, 5). He who desires the kingdom of God has only one way, that of following Christ.

For salvation is not in our power as men but is a work of God: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2, 8-10). The one who bears the cross of all is Christ. The cross of each one is the cross of Christ prolonged in the life of each one. The grace of the cross of Christ nourishes our personal cross. For salvation is a gift of God we receive by faith. It is not in our power to do it.

And the deeds that visibly manifest the unseen faith are all the fruits of the grace that irrigates, nourishes, makes growing and enhances the life that produces them.

There is, as St. Paul says, a choice of faith. The desire for salvation, for entering the kingdom of God, is a choice made by the human person who have faith.

“The man who bears his own cross is one who, if necessary, is ready to face any danger for the sake of God, up to and including death, rather than abandon Christ. He is ready to be tortured any day, because of his way of life. Even if he does not suffer anything as great as death, he will still receive mercy. For it is the intention that is rewarded, not the deed. Intentions comes from our free choice, but a deed is accomplished only through the grace of God. ‘He who finds his life will lose it’ (Matthew 10, 39). It is better to die for God’s sake and live eternally than to live for the sake of human interests and suffer eternal death.”[4]  

The cross is the image of the supreme sacrifice that Christ brought for us humans and for our salvation. It is the element that most characterizes the Christian life. It presupposes assuming all the difficulties that one encounters in realizing its way to God. Faith is what guides man’s action. Faith keeps man in the authentic and real parameters of a choice with a saving purpose.

This is not because, as the anonymous author says, the choice would be fruitful or saving in itself, but because it upholds man’s decision in the parameters of the words and deeds of the Savior Jesus Christ. In this way man’s life, words, and deeds become fruitful in the saving sense through the divine grace received. Man, thus becomes a source of spiritual fruitfulness.

The deed bears fruit not because man makes it bear fruit, but because God makes it come true, but it cannot happen well without the proper collaboration and choice that man makes because of faith. Faith is the compass that keeps man in constant contact with God and helps him to think and choose what is right for salvation.

The saints fulfilled all things in the spirit of Christ, to the extent possible for human person, growing according to the image and likeness of God. They fulfilled in faith the model of man whom God has contemplated from eternity. They are our measure and our mirror.

Christ the Savior shows us that nothing is left unrewarded: “Then Peter answered and said to Him, ‘See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore, what shall we have?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.’” (Matthew 19, 27-29).

All the hardships the apostles assumed because of faith in God did not remain unrewarded. Similarly, whatever we do here in earthly life because of faith in God will be rewarded by Him in the kingdom of heaven. Nothing will be forgotten by God.

The plan of God with this world and with man must be fulfilled in all things: “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5, 18-19). The saints are our role models. They show us that God’s work can be accomplished by man through the power and steadfastness of faith and the help of divine grace.

Through the presence and participation of the Holy Apostles in the final judgment with Christ, they become a living and concrete proof of the spiritual life to which man is destined by God since his creation. Christ could be answered at the final judgement regarding the wrongdoings of the wicked that He, being the Son of God and without sin, is privileged because of His divine stature, somewhat unequal or asymmetrical with the position of ordinary people in the face of weakness and sin. The Holy Apostles will be the proof of these real possibility of fulfillment of the spiritual path by the ordinary person. The Holy Apostles will be the real evidence against excuses that could or will be invoked for unbelief and sin.

You will reply to them, ‘We too were men just like you, having a similar soul and the same carnal nature, and we lived in one and the same world. We were threatened by the same factions of the worldly spirits, helped by the same safeguards of God. Further, you had this advantage over us: we were simple, unpolished men and sinners, and obscure in crowd, while you were priests and scribes and leaders of the people. We, simple, rustic sinners, could recognize Him. You, though priests and scribes, who had Scriptures before your eyes like beacons and pathways, still could recognize Him. Even before witnessing His miracles, we understood Him. But you, even after witnessing all His powers, could not understand Him? How could it be that almost the whole race was ignorant of Him whom Twelves knew? You did not believe Him. You did not know that He was the Son of God What cause you to kill Him when you did not find any fault in Him? In us the goodwill of our rustic ignorance was like a lantern. But in you, the malice of your knowledge enveloped you like darkness.’”[5]

In an imaginary dialogue between the Holy Apostles and the teachers of the Law and the elders of the temple people, the anonymous commentator on Matthew addresses the issue of the knowledge of Christ and God in general. If the simplicity of the Holy Apostles and their little instruction did not prevent them from knowing God, all the more so should this be true of the capacity and possibilities to know Christ as God for the most educated and trained. The Scriptures contained all the elements necessary and sufficient for the knowledge of Christ as God, the time of His coming, and His mission.

The Scriptures were a plus for an easier, quicker, and more certain knowledge of the incarnate Son of God; and yet this does not happen to the most initiated into this. How is it that against these ‘advantages’ in favor of the knowledge of God that the teachers of the Law and the elders of the temple had, the recognition of Him by them does not happen?

What makes it so that even though they had the helpful elements that can pave the way for the knowledge of God in His Son, this did not happen? The answer is given to us by the anonymous commentator. The goodwill of an unsophisticated mind was after him, like a light of a candle. The wickedness of knowledge enveloped like darkness the minds of those who had sophisticated knowledge. An unsettled knowledge can lead to the blinding of true knowledge of God. There may be a contradiction between one’s knowledge and one’s ability to truly know God.

We could expand this way of understanding from the disciplines to the fields or domains that speak about the knowledge of this world and that according to St. Paul and the whole biblical and patristic thinking manifest the presence and work of God always: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19, 1) and “Because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1, 19-21).

No one could better synthesize and express this presence of God in the creation than St. Paul, who himself had first a perfect rabbinic knowledge of the Scriptures and then of grace springing from the revelatory encounter with Christ.

Returning to the saints and to the knowledge of God, we can say that they, the saints, kept their full capacity for knowledge by faith in the parameters of the words, deeds and works of grace of Christ God that flowed from direct and immediate knowledge and communion with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. By this all the elements of their human knowledge and understanding were harmonized with the rational clarity of an authentic understanding of this world in the light of its Creator God. The saints gave up bodily knowledge in order to receive spiritual knowledge. “He who has given up the carnal for the Savior will receive the spiritual” – St. Jerome says.[6]

The saints are in heaven around God praising Him. They reflect in their lives the eternal glory of God. Likewise, here on earth in the Church, the faithful like the saints look toward God, glorifying Him. The saints remain tangible examples of spiritual life carrying saving values.

† HG Bishop Ioan Casian

[1] St. John Chrysostom. On the Epistle to the Hebrews 28.4 in Thomas C. Oden (ed.) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (New Testament X/Hebrews). Ed. InterVarsity Press Downers Grove, Illinois USA, p 210 col.1

[2] Anonymous. Incomplete work on Matthew, Homily 25 in Thomas C. Oden (ed.) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (New Testament Ia / Matthew 1-13) …, p 209-210 col.2/1

[3] St. John Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 35.2 in Thomas C. Oden (ed.) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (New Testament Ia / Matthew 1-13) …, p 212 col.1

[4] Anonymous. Incomplete work on Matthew, Homily 26 in Thomas C. Oden (ed.) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (New Testament Ia / Matthew 1-13) …, p 212 col.2

[5] Incomplete work on Matthew, Homily 33 in Thomas C. Oden (ed.) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (New Testament Ib / Matthew 14-28) …, p 104 col.2

[6] St. Jerome. Commentary on Matthew 3.19.30 in Thomas C. Oden (ed.) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (New Testament Ib / Matthew 14-28) …, p 105 col.1

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