Intercession of Saints
The Intercession of the saints is a belief held by the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and some Anglican Churches and dates back to the earliest days of Christianity. It is most clearly seen in the early Church and the devotion of first and second century Christians to the saintly relics of martyrs as well as the inscriptions written in early Christian catacombs. The idea, however, that the more righteous intercede on behalf of the less righteous is a deeply Scriptural idea and examples can be found throughout Scripture. In Genesis 18:26, when questioned by Abraham, God says that He will spare the wicked on account of the righteous. In Exodus 32:30-33, Moses is seen interceding on behalf of Israel. In Job 42:8, God tells the wicked that Job will offer their sacrifice on their behalf. Paul strongly encouraged Christians to intercede for each other (1 Tim 2:1-4). Paul also directly asks others to pray for him (Rom. 15:30–32, Eph. 6:18–20, Col. 4:3, 1 Thess. 5:25, 2 Thess. 3:1), and he assured them that he was praying for them as well (2 Thess. 1:11). This practice does not end when we die and enter Heaven. In Tobit 12:12-15, the angel Raphael says that he is the one who brought their prayers to God and the one God sent to cure their daughter in law. In Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4, we even see the Saints offering prayers on our behalf. James 5:16 states that the prayers of a righteous man attain much. Because the Saints in Heaven have been declared righteous and made holy and are fully united to the will of God, their prayers for us are more effective than any Christians here on earth.
In order to understand why the intercession of Saints is necessary, it may be beneficial to understand exactly how our prayers for each other are effective. Christ, as our one mediator, wishes that we pray for each other and ask each other for prayers (Matt. 5:44). Our prayers are effective because, as Christians, we participate as the Body of Christ, and thus participate in His mediatorship. We intercede on others’ behalf by praying for them, witnessing to them, and evangelizing them. Because Christ has only one Body, we are joined in communion with those Saints in heaven. Luke 15:7 says “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” The Saints in heaven must know our hearts in order to know whether we have truly repented and they are actively rooting for us. They offer prayers on our behalf just as seen in Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4. God wants us to pray for each other and intercede for each other because this is an act of love. We are God’s children and are thus God’s family. God wishes for His family to love and care for one another. This does not stop when we reach Heaven, but rather it grows and intensifies. God allows those in Heaven to intercede for those on earth because He loves his children in Heaven and knows that they love their brothers and sisters on earth. It is a pure act of love and generosity for a father to empower His children to help the ones they love. God wants to see His children love each other and help each other. When God answers a prayer, whether directly or through intercession, it is always with the same goal; that we grow in love for one another. The fact that we are able to help each other through our prayers will ultimately lead us to greater gratitude when we fully realize all the aid we had in getting to heaven.
This practice, however, of asking the saints for their intercession has come under scrutiny since the Protestant Reformation. It is often labeled as the condemned act of contacting the dead (necromancy), or as “saint worship.” To suggest that prayer to the Saints is forbidden as “communication with the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:10–11) is a gross misunderstanding of both Scripture and of the practice. When reading the text of Scripture, it is clear that it is referring to pagan acts of superstition, such as sacrificing their children to gain favor or using a wizard, soothsayer, or sorcerer in the act of divination (conjuring dead spirits) in order to gain some hidden knowledge (Ironically King Saul does exactly this in 1 Samuel 28:3-25). What God has forbidden here is the necromantic practice of conjuring up spiritually dead, or evil, spirits for the purpose of gaining knowledge that God Himself may not wish to be revealed. The Saints, however, are in Heaven and are perfectly united to God’s will. Furthermore, the Saints in heaven are not dead in the spiritual sense; Eph 2:5 explains that we are alive in Christ and Mark 12:27 says, “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” Christ Himself takes his disciples with him on the Mount during His Transfiguration where He greets Moses and Elijah, both of whom were dead (Matt. 17:3). Lastly, when praying to Saints, we are not summoning the dead in order to gain some arcane knowledge, rather we are simply asking them to pray for us, the same as we would any Christian. Does the practice of asking saints in Heaven to pray for us constitute worship? A better understanding of what prayer is can help clear up any misunderstandings of it being “saint worship.”
The Webster Dictionary defines prayer as:
1) To address a Supreme Being, as in worship, or
2) To petition; to plead; or to ask, as for a favor.
With these two definitions, it is clear that, while prayer can be a form of worship when it is directed towards God, it can also simply mean “to ask”. Examples of this can be found in phrases like “pray tell” as used by Shakespeare or “pray proceed” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or in the King James Bible when Bathsheba says, “I pray thee, sir, say me not nay” (1 Kings 2:20, KJV). It is in this sense that Catholics use the term “pray” when speaking of “praying to the Saints.” A similar situation arises with singing, which can be a form of worship during songs of praise to God, but could also simply be an enjoyable pastime when one sings along to a popular song. The word “pray” did not become synonymous with worship until after the Protestant Reformers did away with the sacrifice of the Mass and thus, by default, prayer became the only mode of worship. For more on the Scriptural understanding of prayer and worship, see Worship & Prayer.
The Intercession of Saints throughout History:
”I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.“
2 Maccabees 15:14–17
Church Father Quotes:
The Shepherd of Hermas (Written ca 80 A.D.)
“The Shepherd said: ‘But those who are weak and slothful in prayer, hesitate to ask anything from the Lord; but the Lord is full of compassion, and gives without fail to all who ask him. But you, [Hermas,] having been strengthened by the holy angel [you saw], and having obtained from him such intercession, and not being slothful, why do not you ask of the Lord understanding, and receive it from him?’” (The Shepherd 3:5:4 [A.D. 80]).
St. Clement of Alexandria
“In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer]” (Miscellanies 7:12 [A.D. 208]).
Origen of Alexandria
“But not the high priest [Christ] alone prays for those who pray sincerely, but also the angels . . . as also the souls of the saints who have already fallen asleep” (Prayer 11 [A.D. 233]).
St. Cyprian of Carthage
“Let us remember one another in concord and unanimity. Let us on both sides [of death] always pray for one another. Let us relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love, that if one of us, by the swiftness of divine condescension, shall go hence first, our love may continue in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters not cease in the presence of the Father’s mercy” (Letters 56:5 [A.D. 253]).
Atticus (Written ca 300 A.D.)
“Atticus, sleep in peace, secure in your safety, and pray anxiously for our sins” (funerary inscription near St. Sabina’s in Rome [A.D. 300]).
Funerary Inscription (Written ca 300 A.D.)
“Pray for your parents, Matronata Matrona. She lived one year, fifty-two days” (funerary inscription near St. Sabina’s in Rome [A.D. 300]).
Ryland’s Papyrus (Written ca 350 A.D.)
“Mother of God, listen to my petitions; do not disregard us in adversity, but rescue us from danger” (Rylands Papyrus 3 [A.D. 350]).
St. Methodius of Olympus
“Hail to you for ever, Virgin Mother of God, our unceasing joy, for to you do I turn again. . . . Hail, you treasure of the love of God. Hail, you fount of the Son’s love for man” (Oration on Simeon and Anna 14 [A.D. 305]).
“Therefore, we pray [ask] you, the most excellent among women, who glories in the confidence of your maternal honors, that you would unceasingly keep us in remembrance. O holy Mother of God, remember us, I say, who make our boast in you, and who in august hymns celebrate the memory, which will ever live, and never fade away” (ibid.).
“And you also, O honored and venerable Simeon, you earliest host of our holy religion, and teacher of the resurrection of the faithful, do be our patron and advocate with that Savior God, whom you were deemed worthy to receive into your arms. We, together with you, sing our praises to Christ, who has the power of life and death, saying, ‘You are the true Light, proceeding from the true Light; the true God, begotten of the true God’” (ibid.).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
“Then [during the Eucharistic prayer] we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition” (Catechetical Lectures 23:9 [A.D. 350]).
St. Hilary of Poitiers
“To those who wish to stand [in God’s grace], neither the guardianship of saints nor the defenses of angels are wanting” (Commentary on the Psalms 124:5:6 [A.D. 365]).
St. Ephraim the Syrian
“You victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Savior, you who have boldness of speech toward the Lord himself, you saints, intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us so that we may love him” (Commentary on Mark [A.D. 370]).
“Remember me, you heirs of God, you brethren of Christ; supplicate the Savior earnestly for me, that I may be freed through Christ from him that fights against me day by day” (The Fear at the End of Life [A.D. 370]).
The Liturgy of St. Basil
“By the command of your only-begotten Son we communicate with the memory of your saints . . . by whose prayers and supplications have mercy upon us all, and deliver us for the sake of your holy name” (Liturgy of St. Basil [A.D. 373]).
“Aschandius, my father, dearly beloved of my heart, with my sweet mother and my brethren, remember your Pectorius in the peace of the Fish [Christ]” (Epitaph of Pectorius [A.D. 375]).
St. Gregory of Nazianz
“May you [Cyprian] look down from above propitiously upon us, and guide our word and life; and shepherd this sacred flock . . . gladden the Holy Trinity, before which you stand” (Orations 17 [A.D. 380]).
“Yes, I am well assured that [my father’s] intercession is of more avail now than was his instruction in former days, since he is closer to God, now that he has shaken off his bodily fetters, and freed his mind from the clay that obscured it, and holds conversation naked with the nakedness of the prime and purest mind” (ibid., 18:4).
St. Gregory of Nyssa
“[Ephraim], you who are standing at the divine altar [in heaven] . . . bear us all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition of an everlasting kingdom” (Sermon on Ephraim the Syrian [A.D. 380]).
St. John Chrysostom
“He that wears the purple [i.e., a royal man] . . . stands begging of the saints to be his patrons with God, and he that wears a diadem begs the tentmaker [Paul] and the fisherman [Peter] as patrons, even though they be dead” (Homilies on Second Corinthians 26 [A.D. 392]).
“When you perceive that God is chastening you, fly not to his enemies . . . but to his friends, the martyrs, the saints, and those who were pleasing to him, and who have great power [in God]” (Orations 8:6 [A.D. 396]).
St. Ambrose of Milan
“May Peter, who wept so efficaciously for himself, weep for us and turn towards us Christ’s benign countenance” (The Six Days Work 5:25:90 [A.D. 393]).
“You say in your book that while we live we are able to pray for each other, but afterwards when we have died, the prayer of no person for another can be heard. . . . But if the apostles and martyrs while still in the body can pray for others, at a time when they ought still be solicitous about themselves, how much more will they do so after their crowns, victories, and triumphs?” (Against Vigilantius 6 [A.D. 406]).
St. Augustine of Hippo
“A Christian people celebrates together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers” (Against Faustus the Manichean [A.D. 400]).
“At the Lord’s table we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do others who rest in peace so as to pray for them, but rather that they may pray for us that we may follow in their footsteps” (Homilies on John 84 [A.D. 416]).
“Neither are the souls of the pious dead separated from the Church which even now is the kingdom of Christ. Otherwise there would be no remembrance of them at the altar of God in the communication of the Body of Christ” (The City of God 20:9:2 [A.D. 419]).
Martin Luther, Father of the Protestant Reformation
Such is the right interpretation and understanding of John’s expression, “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren.” Here, in clear, decisive words, the conclusion is expressed that no man may boast of life unless he has love. . . . One who knows the wretchedness and misery of death from experience, but has entered upon life with its solace and joy, blessings he seeks to maintain, such a person will desire for others the same blessing.” –Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicholas Lenker, Baker Book House, 1988, vol. 8, 52-54
Roy H. Schoeman, a Jewish convert to Catholicism
“The burial site of the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been venerated continually by Jews since their deaths about four thousand years ago. As Catholics make pilgrimages to the tombs of “dead” saints (sometimes enclosed in churches) to pray, so do Jews, both in biblical times and still today. . . . Other tombs of Old Testament saints to which Jews go to pray include those of Joseph, Rachel, King David, and the prophets Haggai, Malachi, and Samuel, all of which have been venerated for millennia.” –Catholic Devotion to the Saints, in the light of Jewish Scripture and Tradition, available at www.salvationisfromthejews.com