THE INTERCESSION OF SAINTS IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
Why does the Church hold up certain men and women as examples, and encourage that special honor and respect be given to them?
When particularly dedicated Christians consistently demonstrate throughout their lives a great love for Christ and their fellow-man, and when they live and die in unusually vibrant hope and joy in Him, they are remembered with special fervor by their fellow Christians left behind on earth. Accounts of their good deeds, their wise words, and very often, miraculous events associated with their lives, are spread by word of mouth. Miracles often occur at the graves of such individuals. An excellent biblical account of such an occurrence can be found in 2 Kings 13:20, 21. Here, a man was raised to life merely by coming into contact with the bones of Elisha. In addition, miracles often occur in respect to the earthly possessions of the saints. We are told in the New Testament that even Saint Paul's handkerchiefs became instruments of God's healing (Acts 19:11,12). An example of such an event in recent times occurred at the death of Saint Nektarios. Just after Nektarios died, the nurses changing his clothing threw his woolen undershirt onto the bed of a paralyzed man in the same room; the invalid was healed, immediately standing up and walking for the first time in many years.7 Knowledge of such events is further spread when accounts of them are recorded and circulated. This encourages more people to ask the person for his or her heavenly intercessions. Thus the devotion to the person spreads in a very organic, spontaneous way. Such developments usually lead the Church to formally honor such particularly holy persons through the process of canonization (often called "glorification" by the Orthodox). Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has a very detailed, step-by-step procedure for canonization, the Orthodox Church simply recognizes officially the popular devotion which has spontaneously surrounded the memory of the holy man, woman, or child.8 Usually this is done at a regional or national level, where awareness of the saint's life tends to be greatest, but the other Orthodox Churches may announce their recognition of the canonization as well. All this is done so that the popular piety surrounding the saint is channeled and safeguarded under the protective mantle of the Church, and so that those living beyond the local area where the saint lived can become aware of him or her.
What basis is there for asking the saints to pray for us?
As we have seen, the Church holds in high esteem the memory of exceptionally holy Christians, who during their earthly lives helped many of their fellow believers both physically and spiritually. Therefore, it should be no surprise that she encourages the faithful to seek the continued intercession of such individuals after their passage into the next world. An example of such an appeal is in a hymn to Saint Sergius of Radonezh, a very beloved monk and spiritual father to many in fourteenth-century Russia: "The Holy Spirit took up His abode in thee and operating there adorned thee with beauty. O thou who hast boldness to approach the Holy Trinity, remember thy flock gathered by thy wisdom and never forget it, visiting thy children, according to thy promise, O holy father Sergius".9 A similar appeal is made to Saint Herman, Orthodox evangelizer of Alaska in the early 1800's: "Having one desire, to bring unbelieving people to the One God, thou wert all things to all men: teaching the Holy Scripture and a life in accordance with it, instructing in handicrafts, and being an intercessor before the authorities, nursing men in everything like children, that thus thou mightest bring them to God; and do not leave us who sing to thee".10 Since death has been conquered by Christ, why should not such persons continue their ministry to us after they have joined Christ in heaven? A Russian Orthodox priest in the early twentieth century once chided those who do not believe in a true fellowship of prayer with the departed: "A handful of soil, a tombstone, have become [for you] unconquerable obstacles for communion with those who have departed from the world".11 Countless Christians of all lands and ages have given testimony about receiving help from God through the prayers and ministrations of saints. This is a strong indication that God is well pleased with their prayers for us and ours to them. Scripture attests to the sanctity of such prayers in the Book of Revelation: "The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" (Revelation 5:8).
But doesn't the Bible say, "For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5)? Why do we need to ask the saints to pray for us?
Yes, Christ Jesus, both Man and God, is the only One who has reconciled fallen humanity to God the Father by His reconciling and redeeming life, death, and resurrection. But this does not mean that we never ask others to pray for us! We ask the departed saints for their prayers in the same way we ask our fellow Christians on earth to intercede for us. Since the departed remain alive in Christ, why should they cease to express their love and concern for us through prayer? Freed from the concerns of day-to-day survival on earth, unencumbered with the sinful tendencies of the flesh, and far more intimately knit together with Christ than we are, the departed are able to intercede for us much more frequently and powerfully than our friends on earth can pray for us. Those in heaven are able to do continuously what we on earth long to do, but usually only manage to do weakly and sporadically. No wonder, then, that Christians from the earliest days have asked the departed for their prayers. This in no way means that we can only reach Christ by going through the saints, as if they are absolutely necessary intermediaries between us and God. Such an idea is completely foreign to Orthodoxy. Saint Paul clearly states, "Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God . . . let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:14-16). But just because we pray, on our own, directly to God, does not mean that we never ask other people for their prayers! Indeed, we are commanded many times in the Scriptures to pray for one another. Saint Paul says to Timothy, "Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men" (1 Timothy 2:1; see also Colossians 4:2-4, Ephesians 6:18, etc.). And we are taught by our Lord Jesus that the power of prayer is greater when more people are praying together: "Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven" (Matthew 18:19). So, just as we feel comforted and strengthened when we ask friends, family, and Church members here on earth to intercede for us in a time of need, how much more can we feel comforted and strengthened when we also ask the Church in heaven for her prayers! (And we should not neglect to ask the angels for their prayers as well, since they are expressly sent to us as "ministering spirits" [Hebrews 1:14; also Psalm 91:11 and Isaiah 63:9]). Asking the saints, both those on earth and those in heaven,12 for their prayers, and asking the angels, too, can all be understood simply as gathering the greatest amount of prayer support possible in a time of need!
Can the saints answer our prayers directly? Is it within their power to grant our requests?
The prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ here on earth are only effective insofar as God answers them. It is the same with the intercessions of the saints in heaven for us. They can never answer prayers of their own accord or in their own power; they can only beseech Christ on our behalf. To imagine that prayer to the saints means that they can grant our requests apart from Christ is a totally unacceptable idea according to Orthodox theology and practice. So when we pray to the saints, the understanding is always clear that we are asking them to help us by praying to God, and not by their own power or actions apart from Him. For example, a hymn to Saint Nina (who as a young woman in the early fourth century brought the Christian Faith to Georgia, in southern Eurasia) concludes, "with the angels thou hast praised in song the Redeemer, praying constantly for us that Christ may grant us His grace and mercy".13 But as to their ability to hear our requests for their prayers, we ought not to limit the powers of spiritual perception of those who are now so intimately linked with God. If we on earth experience the help of the Holy Spirit praying in us and through us (Romans 8:26, 27), how much more must the Spirit's help be present in the saints in heaven? And we should remember that in heaven, in the spiritual realm, there are none of the limitations of time, space, or physical mortality which so restrict us as we live on earth.
What does it mean to venerate a saint, and how does this differ from worshipping the creature rather than the Creator-which the Bible strictly forbids?
Once someone is officially canonized, the Church in her worship services no longer prays for the wellbeing of his or her soul, but publicly asks for the saint's prayers. Icons are made of the saint, hymns are written honoring and remembering good deeds done, and at least one day of the year is designated as a feast-day for that saint, when his or her icons are displayed, and hymns written to the saint are sung. An example of such a hymn is the following, honoring Saint Nina of Georgia (called in ancient times Iberia): "O come all and let us chant to Nina, equal of the Apostles, the godly-wise enlightener of Iberia, for she has banished the seduction of the idols by leading us from darkness to light, and has taught us to praise the Trinity, One in essence. Therefore, all the faithful celebrate her revered memory and praise our Savior".14 The hymns, the icons, the feast-days are all important aspects of the veneration of the saint, indicating profound respect and love for the person, but in no way do these things mean that the person is being worshipped. Worship, of course, is due only to God. And indeed, all the veneration expressed to a saint is entirely based upon that person's closeness to Christ. Every saint has become holy only through the mercy and grace of God; it is He who is glorified when we honor His holy ones. As Christ Himself prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them . . . and the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one" (John 17:10 and 22; my emphasis). Other scriptural indications of God's overflowing love for His saints, in which His Church seeks to participate through her veneration of them and prayers to them, are given in Psalm 97:10 ("He preserves the souls of His saints"), Psalm 116:15 ("Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints"), Psalm 149:5, 9 ("Let the saints be joyful in glory . . . this honor have all His saints"), Proverbs 2:8 ("He guards the paths of justice, and preserves the way of His saints"), and Daniel 7:22 (". . . until the Ancient of Days came, and a judgment was made in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came for the saints to possess the kingdom"). Saint Nicholas of Zicha in Serbia, who died in Pennsylvania in 1956, and who compiled short lives of saints for every day of the year, describes this precious relationship between Christ and His saints in this way: "The saints are a burnished mirror in which are reflected the beauty and strength and majesty of Christ. They are the fruit on that Tree of Life which is Christ . . . . As the sun among the stars and a king among his nobles, so is Christ among His saints. This works in both directions-from Christ to the saints and from them to Christ: the saints are given meaning by Christ, and Christ is revealed through the saints".15 While we could say that the Church is most entirely assured of the salvation of those souls whom she officially canonizes and venerates, this certainly does not mean that salvation and saintliness are limited only to them! Thus, it is perfectly acceptable to ask others besides the canonized saints for their intercessions. However, this is not done publicly in the Church's worship services, but in one's private prayers. Bishop Kallistos (Ware) gives an example: "It would be perfectly normal for an Orthodox child, if orphaned, to end his evening prayers by asking for the intercessions not only of the Mother of God and the saints, but of his own mother and father".16
The Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church (the regular Sunday morning and holy day worship service, always centered in Holy Communion) is always offered in some way for all the dead in Christ. Although the Orthodox never offer worship services in behalf of particular persons or causes, there are the following words in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (the service done on most Sundays in the Orthodox Church): "And again we offer unto Thee this reasonable service for all those who in faith have gone before us to their rest: patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith, especially our all holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary". These words affirm the ineffable unity which bonds together the Church on earth with the Church in heaven. The heavenly Church is most assuredly included when the Church on earth gathers to worship, as we saw earlier when we quoted Hebrews 12:22-24 (a passage to which this quotation from the Liturgy obviously refers). We are all truly one in Christ, through whom and in whom death has been totally transcended. Thus, when Christ offers His Body and Blood to us in the Holy Eucharist, He does so not only for the benefit of those members of His Church on earth, but also for those members of His Church in heaven. Since our Lord loves us with much more love than we can ever imagine, surely our brothers and sisters in Christ, who are being ever more greatly filled with His love as they abide with Him in heaven, also love us more than we realize. Certainly they rejoice in our continuing expressions of love for them-our various remembrances of them, and our prayers for them and to them. Undoubtedly, however, they continue to love us and pray for us even when we do not remember them. I have not personally had a vision of a saint or an angel (though I know of people who have), but I am certain from ongoing experience that they are always nearby. And I know that the more time we spend in prayerful fellowship with the saints, the more we can sense their presence and feel their comforting love. To ignore the continuing presence, the fervent love, and the greatly effective prayers of our Christian brothers and sisters who have departed from us is a tragic loss. Not only do we then miss all the benefits of fellowship-of communion-in the Spirit with them, but we diminish rather than increase the degree of unity which should bind all those in Christ on both sides of physical death. My earnest prayer is that all of us who believe in Christ will seek to know the saints better. And may a growing richness of communion with His holy ones help to bring us all ever closer to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dr. David C. Ford, Professor of Church History at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary