Today is the Feast of All Saints for Orthodox Christians. (Some of my funny Orthodox friends like to joke that last night was Orthodox Halloween.) One of the primary hymns for this feast (the kontakion, sung repeatedly in services this morning) starts out with these lines: “The universe offers the God-bearing martyrs as the first fruits of creation to You, O Lord and Creator.”
What does it mean for the universe to offer something to God? And what does it mean for the first fruits of creation to be the God-bearing martyrs?
This hymn preserves an understanding of the universe that we see in one of the first Christian martyrs, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote a famous series of letters on his journey to Rome to die. Along the way to his final destination, Saint Ignatius wrote a letter to the church in Rome saying, “When I shall have arrived there, I shall be a human being [ekei paragenomenos anthrōpos esomai]. Suffer me to follow the example of the passion of my God” (Letter to the Romans 6). This translation is as cited by Fr. John Behr in “From Adam to Christ: From Male and Female to Being Human” in The Wheel, 2018. In this same article, Fr. John Behr says of this passage that, as Ignatius approaches Rome, he clearly thinks of himself as “not yet born, not yet living, not yet human; only by his martyrdom, in imitation of Christ, will he be born into life as a human being.” Where I lived last in York, PA, I once got to hear Fr. John Behr speak in person about St. Ignatius and his martyrdom. It was powerful to hear him speak of how Christ created the world from the cross, speaking the final words of God in the creation of the world and finishing chapter one of Genesis when He said from the cross, “It is finished.” Jesus Christ was the first human being, the first one to show us the perfect image of God given to Adam but immediately obscured by the human fall. St. Ignatius understood this and was eager to be created by his Savior, Jesus Christ, as a full and mature human being. To be fully shaped by Jesus Christ as a fellow image-bearer of God, St. Ignatius carried his own cross to the point of death in Rome where he was fully united to Christ in his own death.
To understand this hymn about the martyrs as the first fruits of creation, we must turn to another letter to the church in Rome, this one by the Apostle Paul (8.19-22): “For the earnest expectation of creation anxiously awaits the revelation of the sons of God. For creation was made subordinate to pointlessness, not willingly but because of the one who subordinated it, in the hope that creation itself will also be liberated from decay into the freedom of the glory of God’s children. For we know that all creation groans together and labors together in birth pangs, up to this moment.” (Translation by David Bentley Hart.) Here we have all of creation waiting for the children of God to be revealed in glory. All of creation is described as still in the process of being born into the true life of God that Jesus Christ enters into when He conquers death, the life that each martyr enters into as they join Christ. This is indeed a picture where “the universe offers” up to God “the martyrs as the first fruits of creation.” We are used to thinking of creation as happening in the past. However, in this hymn, as well as in the letters from Paul and Ignatius, creation his happening right now, happening as we join Christ in his creative work on the cross, declaring, “It is finished.”
Of course, this language comes from all over the holy scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 15:22-26, Paul writes: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life and each in the proper order: the Anointed as the firstfruits, thereafter those who are in the Anointed at his arrival, then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual. For he must reign till he puts all enemies under his feet. The last enemy rendered ineffectual is death.” (Translation by David Bentley Hart.) All of cosmic history, as we know it, is given over to death and the entire universe suffers with one voice; it “groans together and labors together in birth pangs” until it has given birth to the first human beings: Jesus Christ and his martyrs. These are “the first fruits of creation” as we sang this morning.