the cloud of witnesses
The Ranks of Saints
The “proskomedia” is the service of preparing the gifts of bread and wine that takes place right before Liturgy,
In the service, a cubical portion is cut out of the prosfora loaf. This portion is called the Lamb, which becomes the Body of Christ in Liturgy. To the right of the Lamb (from the Lamb’s point of view) is placed a triangular portion that is symbolic of the Theotokos. She stands in her own place, to represent the fact that she is the first to have crossed the threshold of the Last Day, and is now in the Life of the Resurrection. As such, and as she is the Mother of Christ God, she prays as no other creature can. For her, there is no interval between the “now and the not yet.”
But to the left of the Lamb is placed a three by three matrix of nine smaller triangular portions. Each of these portions represents a “rank,” or group, of the “cloud of witnesses” described by St Paul in Hebrews 12 (in the Epistle Reading for All Saints Sunday).
These nine ranks are like the nine ranks of the Bodiless Powers (according to St Dmitri of Rostov: the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones; then the Dominions, Virtues, and Powers; then the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels). The nine ranks of Saints that stand to the left of the Lamb are starting in the top left corner, 1) all the Bodiless Powers and the Angels; then below that 2) the Holy Prophets; 3) the Holy Apostles; then starting at the top to the right of the first, 4) the Holy Bishop Saints; 5) the Holy Martyrs; 6) the Holy Monastics; 7) the Holy Unmercenaries (i.e., miracle-working, pro bono physicians); 8) the Holy Grandparents of the Lord Joachim and Anna; and 9) the Holy Patron of the community and the Saints commemorated on that day, and all the Saints.
All the Saints, in all these groups or categories, are depicted on the discos as we are calling them, too, along with the Theotokos, to pray for us, and to gather with us in Divine Liturgy.
The Cloud of Witnesses
These particles for the Saints are not what we usually think of “memorials.” Memorials, in our culture, are monuments to help us to remember those who have departed from us. Most people in our culture think a memorial “keeps memory alive” of those who are lost and will never be seen again.
In Orthodoxy, we understand the word “memory” in a completely different way. “Memory” for God is “present consciousness” — and God is presently conscious of all Time all at once. For Him, there is no past or future — all is Present. That is why, by the way, we sing “Memory Eternal” for the departed, just because that Divine Memory is exactly the Eternal Present. So while our loved ones may be temporally and temporarily departed from us, they are never departed from God. Thus St Paul says “Absent in body, present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5.8).
This never-ending, never-interrupted “presence with the Lord” becomes even more intimate, more obvious, when a Saint “falls asleep” — which is the Christian term for death (ever since the Lord, before raising the daughter of Jairus, said that she was only “asleep”). When any falls asleep, they enter into the immediate Uncreated Light, the Glory of the Holy Trinity, and the undoubtable, unavoidable Presence of the Lord.
For some, this will begin a long, long duration of accepting this presence.
But for the Saints, since they have opened their hearts to the filling of the Holy Spirit, they already love the Presence of Christ. Their tears are wiped away. And their experience is called, poetically in the Bible, the “Bosom of Abraham” (which was, at the time of Jesus, an idiomatic phrase for the afterlife of the righteousness).
We are now in the period of time that the Revelation to St John (i.e., the “Apocalypse”) calls the “Millennium.” It is not a literal thousand year period: it is a symbolic term for the interval between the Ascension and the Second Coming. And it does not happen “later,” after the Second Coming or some sort of “halfway” approach (as is depicted in the Rapture doctrine of some Protestants).
Jesus is sitting enthroned right now, at the Right Hand of God the Father, and “His Kingdom shall have no end” or interruption.
And “He is wonderful in His Saints.” Right now.
In this time period of the present Millennium, the Saints actually “reign” with Christ, just as He promised in Matthew 19 (today’s Gospel Reading):
“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
The Lord is sitting on His glorious throne at the Right Hand of the Father, and the Apostles, along with all the Saints, indeed to judge, or rule, the “twelve tribes of Israel,” which is, first of all, the Church, and all humanity and the cosmos.
The Rule of the Saints
But what is this “reign,” or “rule,” or “judging” that is done by the Saints?
First of all — and this is obvious — they “witness.” They are not ignorant. They are aware of our life. They are not limited by our fallen awareness — an awareness that is tinged with unbelief, hopelessness, and despair. Thus, they are able to be aware without the harmful suffering of pain.
Our actions — that is, our “living out” the life of the love of Christ — are recognized by them in truth. Neither pretense nor hypocrisy can hide reality from the Saints: and upon this criterion they judge.
They exercise authority in such truthful judgment, which is utterly different from the authority of worldly judgment that is based on lies. Thus, worldly judgment depends on violence, domination, the threat and fear of death, and the infliction of death on humanity and all life. This dependence on domination and violence is inherently satanic. It is the character of Antichrist.
But the Reign of Christ is just like Christ. It bears His character of love, the pouring out of self (i.e., “kenosis”). Jesus made this very clear in His response to the Apostles’ infighting over leadership:
“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Matthew 10.42-44).
The Lord is simply saying that His Body — the Church — must be like Him, the Head. “The Son of Man,” He continued, “also came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 10.45).
This is the only sort of “politics” that Christians really know. If they practice any other politics — like the politics of power and domination (or, God forbid, violence) — than they are practicing politics that are outside the Body of Christ, politics that are in opposition to Him (another word for that is “antichrist”).
This is true in the here and now. It is even truer, more obvious, in the “here and forever” of the Bosom of Abraham, the Present Reign of the Ascended Lord Jesus Christ, and the Saints who reign with Him.
That reign of true divine power is only the rulership of divine kenosis, the rulership of giving self away in love.
That is the “character” of the Reign of the Saints. So how is this Reign “actualized”? How does it work out?
How is it manifested?
The Mother of God and some of the Saints have frequently appeared in the Millennium, this Age of the Church. Their appearance is mysterious. There is no scientific definition, as their appearance eludes all material confinement or laboratory observation. The scientific method cannot be applied to them.
But they appear in their own personal freedom, and according to the Lord’s loving, providential direction. Their personhood is recognizable: and it should be borne in mind, here, that beyond the constraints of the Fall (as the Saints are in the cloud of witnesses), all persons are recognized as there are no longer the limitations of ignorance and the anonymity of individual isolation.
Beyond their appearance, their reign is manifested in their continual prayer to the Lord in praise, and prayer to the Lord in intercession for us.
The Present Rulership of the Saints is the most powerful sort of Reign there can be. It is the Reign of Prayer. It is the Reign of Love.
If it is said that Love is less powerful than violence and domination, then that is said from a mind that believes the lies of antichrist, the enemy.
But belief in Christ as the Risen Son of God, and being filled by the Holy Spirit, enables one to recognize, in mind and heart, that there is nothing more powerful than the Love of Christ.
It is by this Love, and only by this Love, that the Saints do Reign — now and forever.