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ASK AN ORTHODOX PRIEST
Just wanted to ask something that has always puzzled me. In our bible god states clearly that we should not pray to anyone but him neither worship idols. Then why do we pray to the saints and kiss the eikones? Isn't that worshipping and putting our faith in someone other than god ?
Answer to Question 115
The Church beseeches the saints in prayer and encourages her members to seek their assistance. This has been misunderstood by non-Orthodox people especially Protestants who would even go as far as to call it blasphemous. So why do we pray to the saints?
When we are in need it is natural to ask our friends and family to pray for us. We do not see this as something offensive or blasphemous. We hope that through the prayer of many God will speedily hear our request and come to our aid. Praying for one another is an act of love and it is our duty as Christians to pray for each other. The Church is a family of brothers and sister all with the same Father in heaven. When someone passes over to the other side he does not stop being a member of this great family. All our faith and hope is that there is life beyond the grave. As Orthodox Christians we believe that with his death on the Cross Christ overcame death. There is only the temporary death of the body but the person still lives on in the world of spirits. “God is the God of the living, and not the dead”. How then more natural can it be for us to seek the prayers of our fellow brothers and sisters who not only have passed over to the spirit world but have through their way of life found favour with God and find themselves bathed in his glory. Is it not more natural and logical to put our trust in their prayers than our fellow Christians who are still living in this world?
Asking for their intercessions does not mean that we worship them. Yes, we give them honour and respect because of their oneness with God and because they have made themselves God’s friends. When we pray to a saint, we do not ask him to save us directly as though he was God, but we beseech him as our fellow man and as our brother and fellow member of Christ’s Church to intercede to God on our behalf. Of course our prayer to the saints is always accompanied by a great reverence because they have been shown by God as great men who have overcome the passions of this world and for this he has rewarded them with glorification. We are struck with awe and admiration of their exploits and clearly recognize the grace of God in their struggles and martyrdom. But this is nothing unusual for we do something similar to honour great men in other fields. Men have always honoured others who have performed great deeds, such as a brave General, a soldier who is singled out for his heroic deeds, or a wise statesman. If we honour such people who are still in this life with medals and ceremonies, how much more should we honour the saints who have battled with demons and whose deeds far surpass the deeds of ordinary men. By honouring the saints we are recognizing that we see in them the light of Christ and rejoice because we are reassured of the resurrection. We know that prayer to the Saints is pleasing to God, because of the witness of the Scriptures and the abundant experience of the Church. God has revealed to the world that he himself has honoured them through the many miracles they perform when they are beseeched to act as mediators. Through these miracles we are assured that such prayers to the saints are pleasing to God, and because we recognize the great grace that God has bestowed upon His Saints, we have great confidence when we ask their intercessions.
St. Nectarius of Aegina, the renowned saint of the 20th century wrote: “In invoking the intercession of the saints, the Church believes that the saints, who interceded with the Lord for the peace of the world and for the stability of the holy churches of Christ while living, do not cease doing this in Christ's heavenly, triumphant Church, and listen to our entreaties in which we invoke them, and pray to the Lord, and become bearers of the grace and mercy of the Lord.” (Modern Orthodox Saints, Vol. 7. Constantine Cavarnos)
The word Prayer means to ask, but it is also a form of communication. When we pray to God we are at the same time communicating with him. As a form of communication we are obliged to have a active spiritual union with the heavenly inhabitants, with all the saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, prelates, venerable and righteous men, as they are all members of one single body, the Church of Christ, to which we sinners also belong, and the living Head of which is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is why we call upon them in prayer, converse with them, thank and praise them. It is urgently necessary for all Christians to be in union with them, if they desire to make Christian progress; for the saints are our friends, our guides to salvation, who pray and intercede for us. (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ)
There are many (like the Protestants churches) who call themselves Christians but have almost no knowledge of the intercession of the Saints, and even consider this heavenly intercourse as blasphemy. There are several reasons for this, including prejudice, a lack of grounding in Christian Tradition, misunderstanding of Scripture, and the abuses of Rome which I will mention as we progress, but the primary reason is that they do not fully understand the relationship between God and man, neither what the Resurrection means for mankind or the Ascension and the Sitting on the right hand of God.
Scripture is full of quotations that honour the saints. Sadly because they read from the Old Testament translation made from the Masoretic text like the KJV they are deprived of many truths. The Prophet King David in the Psalms of the Septuagint version says “How honoured also are Thy friends unto me, O Lord! their rule is greatly strengthened. I will number them, and they shall be multiplied in number more than the sand.” (Psalm 138: 17-18)
St. Paul in the Apostle reading for the Sunday of All Saints says: “how they stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. how they raised the dead to life again: but also how they suffered: they were tortured, they were mocked and scourged, they were in bonds and imprisonment, they were stoned, they were sawn asunder and were slain by the sword, how being destitute, afflicted, tormented they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Heb 11 33-38) Having set forth their memorial as an example that we might turn away from earthly things and from sin, and emulate their patience and courage in the struggles for virtue, he says, “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every burden, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).
There are some that believe that when we die we are inactive and in a deep sleep awaiting the General Resurrection of the dead. Our Lord Himself told us clearly that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mat 22:32) and there is an event in the New Testament that clearly teaches that the saints are not asleep or dead. The event is the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mount Tabor. Moses and Elias appeared very much alive next to Him and talked with him. This clearly shows that the “dead” are even more filled with knowledge and activity than the living, for in comparison the apostles Peter, James and John could not withstand the uncreated light which came forth from Christ, but Moses and Elisa basked in it. Therefore the departed Saints have greater vision and knowledge and their intercessory boldness is greater for them without their bodies, than when they were in the flesh. This important understanding is elementary knowledge for the Church, but has passed from many of those outside of her.
Thus because they do not understand that the Saints are alive, conscious and active, those who shun prayer to the Saints misinterpret the reverence the Orthodox Church show to the saints. Another thing Protestants misunderstand is the word “pray”. They think of it as a word that applies only to God in the same way that worship applies only to God. They are so scandalized by the thought of praying to a saint that they consider it almost blasphemous and if they were in the days of Christ they would rend their clothes like the high-priest Caiaphas.
As already mentioned the word pray simply means “to ask”. We ask the Saints to intercede for us, and any examination of the Church’s canons, the writings of the fathers and our liturgical texts will show clearly that we understand that worship is for God alone.
Another thing that had a detrimental effect on the Protestant understanding of prayer to the Saints was an unorthodox teaching by the Roman Catholic Church. It came up with the doctrine of “Supererogation” or more simple the superabundance of the good works of the saints. The doctrine teaches that a certain amount of “good works” are required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The good works or merits of the Holy Virgin and the saints are more than they need to save themselves and therefore, the rest of them can be used for the forgiveness of the sins of other men. Thus for a price, poor sinners who cannot attain to all these good works, can pay to be granted "indulgences", which would increase their chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven. This sounds so unbelievable and naïve that we would be forgiven if we laughed out loud, but this is essentially the doctrine of Rome till this day. Of course, the Pope himself, who invented many ways to gather money through the administration of this supposed right to forgive sins, has assumed the dispensation of these merits.
Opposition and the abuse of this teaching was the main point of Martin Luther when he began opposing the Roman Catholic Church, and it influenced the thinking of the Protestant Reformation as a whole. The Anglican Church also denied the doctrine of supererogation in the fourteenth of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which state that works of supererogation “cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety.” Many later Protestant movements followed suit, as did Methodism in its Articles of Religion. The doctrine of supererogation was therefore responsible for poisoning the understanding of Protestants regarding the Saints. This lead to their unanimous teaching that a Christian “needs no mediator” save Jesus Christ, believing that the scripture they refer to “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5)) forbids prayer to the Saints.
Overall we see in those that refuse to ask the saints to intercede for them a great lack of understanding of the Christian faith and a form of prejudice against the saints. Its seems that they do not recognize that there is life beyond the grave and it also seems that when someone of their church dies he automatically stops being a member and is cut off from the main body. I say this because while they refuse to pray to the saints they ask of those still among the living, among their family and friends, to pray for them. This latter action is entirely correct, as fellow believers and brothers of a church we should pray for those we love, but if our departed are still considered as members of the same church then they also should be asked for their prayers. If the departed members of the church were righteous then their prayers can do much for the living for as the Scripture tells us: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16)
There is a general perception that praying to the saints is like “second best” so why don’t I go for the best and pray directly to God. Of course God hears our prayers but it is also a little arrogant and self righteous on our part to assume that he will respond to our request. Why should he, want have we done to merit such attention, do we live such holy lives that we are so full of confidence that as soon as we ask for God’s help he will send his angels to our aid? Scripture clearly says that “God heareth not sinners” (John 9:31) and that “God is far from the ungodly: but He hearkens unto the prayers of the righteous. (Prov. 15:29)
Is it not then better to use every means at our disposal in the hope that God will not only hear our prayer but also respond? If he hears the prayers of the righteous then that is a safe and sure route for our petitions. Let us not forget that God has glorified his saints and he wants us to recognize them as people full of his own glory. He has given them to us as protectors and helpers in times of trouble. By honouring the saints we do not forget or abandon God, but rather we honour, thank and glorify God for his great grace that he bestows upon man. We glorify him who glorified the saints.
For us Orthodox, it is important that we understand what Icons are and what they represent and teach especially in our times when many modern churches teach against them saying that it's a form of idolatry. We all therefore need to understand why we venerate and kiss Icons so that we can defend ourselves when faced with these accusations.
The accusation of idolatry is based on the second of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses and the children of Israel. The commandment in the KJV reads: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” [Exodus 20: 4-5].
When reading Holy Scripture we must be careful not to take a verse and isolate it from the rest of Scripture. With this commandment we should try to understand why God gave such a command and the meaning to the commandment, because it is wrong to apply the commandment to every image.
Graven image is used as a translation of the Greek word είδωλο, meaning an idol, which specifically refers to a carved image in wood or stone that was used in pagan religious worship. The commandment is clear that no idol is to be manufactured having any likeness of anything that is in heaven, or on earth or in the sea. Note that the commandment refers to an idol created to be worshipped as a god and not for every form of images. If it refers to all kinds of images then God contradicts himself because a little later he gives another charge to Moses saying: “Thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat”. The mercy seat was to be placed on top of the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon used this same ordinance when building the temple: “and within the oracle he made two cherubim of olive tree each ten cubits high” [1 Kings 6: 23]. Again, in Numbers 21: 8, the Lord said unto Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent and set it upon a pole”.
Is God then contradicting himself? On the one hand, he tells us not to make any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven, on earth and in the sea and then on the other hand he tells Moses and Solomon to make images of Cherubim and a serpent. It is therefore obvious from these exceptions found in the Old Testament that God only prohibited images that were to be used as idols of gods or even as images that would represent Himself. Images other than idols were permissible because they were not images intended to be worshipped as a god. The commandment therefore had a twofold purpose: a practical and a theological. The practical purpose was to protect the Israelites from polytheism and pagan worship which was the common practice amongst other nations of that time such as the Egyptians and Assyrians. Believing in an invisible God was difficult and there was always the possibility that through encounters with other nations, the Israelites would become influenced by their religious practices and would sooner or later demand to make an image that would act as a visual aid in their worship.
This is where the second and theological purpose of the commandment is revealed. God is uncreated and invisible and therefore indescribable and therefore cannot be represented in any form. To show Him in any form whatsoever would have been a false image, because the invisible and Absolute Being of God, cannot be described by created matter. God was not only invisible and indescribable; He was also uncircumscribable. This means that He was everywhere, in everyplace and without being confined to any boundaries in any given time. Let us imagine that an image of God was made; we would then be able to draw a circle around this image, thus making it possible to say that God is within that circle. This circle would form a boundary and would limit God to that space alone. God cannot be confined to any boundary, He reaches beyond all creation and beyond our understanding.
But this theological understanding belongs to the Old Testament. With the Birth of Christ, the theological understanding of this law is no longer true. If, as we believe Jesus Christ is God incarnate, in other words God in the flesh, then the Old Testament Law forbidding images is replaced by a new law in Christ. Why? Because whereas before God was uncreated, invisible and indescribable, now He has become as one of His creatures: a man visible and describable, and whereas before God was uncircumscribable, now He has made Himself circumscribable. With the Old Law God could not be described by created matter because no one had seen God, but now God is visible for all to see.
The Icon therefore is an image of God in his human form. The word Icon should not be misunderstood. It is only an English transliteration of the Greek word Εικόνα which simply means an image. In this sense man is an icon of God because he was created in the image of God. All pictures are icons but when we refer to images of Christ and the saints we call them Holy Icons, simply meaning Holy Images.
Orthodox understand Holy Icons as inanimate objects which act as a medium by which God works to teach, speak, encourage and heal the faithful. This is not something new or unbiblical: created matter was used by God for this purpose even in the Old Testament. The Bronze Snake for example which God commanded Moses to make was a medium through which God gave his grace and power to heal those bitten by real snakes. God told Moses: "Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived."
Similarly the Ark of the Covenant is described as the ritual object where God was present. God said to Moses: "there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony." (Exodus 25:22) Also the Ten Commandments written on the stone tablets were the Word of God and acted as a medium for God's grace and power.
As already noted, the Old Law on images lost its theological meaning when God became man and, from the very beginning of the Christian Church, the Icon became a statement proclaiming the Incarnation which we will see as we progress and see how the Church defended the need for Icons in liturgical use.
Icons had always had its opponents in the Church especially from those with a puritan outlook who thought of Icons as a form of idolatry, but in general they were accepted as being essential items helpful in narrating the religious stories in pictures. In time they were accepted as representing the person portrayed in his absence, similar to the images of the emperor which under Roman law was a legal substitute used in place of the Emperor being there in person. This of course doesn’t mean that the Icon was used as a substitute for Christ and the saints: it was never worshipped as an idol, but was only a material symbol and the Church clearly taught that it should only be given relative honour and veneration, but never to be worshipped in the same way that God alone is worshipped.
But the Icon was something much more that just a symbol because it had a doctrinal significance and was essential in teaching the true dogma on the incarnation and on man’s salvation.
In defence of the Icon St. John of Damascus wrote: “In former times, God, who was without form or body and was uncircumscribable, could never be depicted, but now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter; I worship the creator of matter, who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” [St. John of Damascus] The legitimacy of the Icon was therefore founded on the Incarnation which abolished the Old Testament law prohibiting images and changed the relation between the Creator and the creatures.
The full dogmatic and theological meaning of the Icon was revealed during the Seventh Ecumenical Council which was held in 787 at Nicaea. Using texts from Holy Scripture and the fathers, the council proved that the veneration of Icons was a legitimate practice, but they were most explicit in declaring that this veneration was merely a veneration of honour and affection which can be given to the creature, but under no circumstances could the adoration of divine worship be given to them which is reserved for God alone.
There are different kinds of honour and honour should not be misinterpreted as worship. The Old Testament has many examples of honour which have nothing in common with worship or the adoration of God. Jacob bowed to the ground before Esau, his brother, and also before the tip of his son Joseph's staff (Genesis 33:3). He bowed down in honour but he did not bow down in worship or adoration. Joshua, the Son of Nun, and Daniel bowed in veneration before an angel of God (Joshua 5:14) but they did not adore him. Adoration is one thing, and honour is just a form of respect.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council unanimously decreed that the Icon was to be honoured in a manner similar to the precious and vivifying cross, and that Icons of Christ, the Mother of God, the Angels and all the Saints made of any other suitable material, whether painted or mosaic, should be placed in the Holy Churches of God, upon sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and panels, houses and streets. Because the more often and frequent their representation in an image is seen, the more those who see them are led to remember the originals which they represent. By seeing the Icon a person identifies with the person it represents and the soul grows to love them more. The Council also declared that people are to kiss them and pay them honorary veneration, not the true adoration which according to our faith, is proper only to God, but in the same way veneration is given to the image of the precious cross, the Holy Gospels and other sacred objects. The Council also noted that the honour given to the Icon is passed on to the original, and whosoever bows down in reverence before the Icon, is at the same time bowing down in reverence to the person represented on it.