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ASK AN ORTHODOX PRIEST
Why does the Greek church teach people to pray to Mary and the saints this is not biblical?
Answer to Question 96
The Orthodox Church continually honours and 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 the Apostle recounts the achievements of the Saints, 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.
Another unbiblical doctrine of modern Christians is that they refuse to give any honour to the Blessed Mother of our Lord as commanded in the New Testament. This is a stumbling block for most Protestants and don’t believe the Bible in fact honours the Mother of God until they are shown the passages they have been blind to notice before. The Gospel according to St. Luke clearly says that the Virgin Mary is “the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38) and that “from henceforth all generations shall call her blessed,” Her cousin Elizabeth “filled with the Holy Spirit” proclaims: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42) In spite of these testimonies most modern Christians maintain that the Blessed Virgin was just an ordinary Jewish girl and nothing more and treat and ignore her as such.
Where in the modern Christian service has the pastor ever called the Virgin Mary “Blessed” as the Holy Bible and the Holy Spirit instructs? When has the pastor ever referred to her as the “Mother of God” as the Holy Bible tells us? Oh, come on now, does the Bible actually call Mary the Mother of God? Indeed it does. Elizabeth says “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) which is synonymous with “Mother of God”, unless one argues that Our Lord is not God.
Why then do the modern Christian communities feel exempt from obeying the Holy Bible of giving proper respect and honour to the Mother of Our Saviour? Why do they refuse the honour due to her as dictated in the Holy Bible? Either they believe every word in the Bible or they don’t. They claim to love Jesus and call themselves his friends yet they refuse to honour his mother whom the Holy Spirit through Elizabeth called Blessed and the Mother of our Lord.