Originally published Septmeber 20, 2014 in the Journal Review, Crawfordsville, IN.
“So, what’s the deal with Saints in your church?” This is a question I have received many times, as an Orthodox priest in central Indiana. Sometimes it is from serious, honest inquirers, sometimes from folks who are just curious at something that is very different from their tradition, and, occasionally, its just to pick a fight. That’s okay. I understand that the practice of honoring, or “venerating” Saints, as we call, can seem odd, even troubling, if its something one hasn’t encountered. I know I didn’t “get it” when I was first interested in finding out about the Orthodox Church. I was wary of anything that even hinted at “idol worship”. I made the usual, normal arguments from scripture, “Well, doesn’t Paul call all believers ‘saints’?” “Whats so special about these people?” And don’t even get me started on what I misunderstood at the time of “praying to the Saints”. “Isn’t Christ enough?” “Can’t we approach Christ without a mediator?” “It is Christ who saves us after all!” All good, honest questions.
Well, as it turns out, the answers to my questions were not what I expected at first.Yes! Of course we are saved by Christ! Of course He is enough! Yes, of course we can approach Him without a mediator! And, yes, we are, actually, all called to be Saints, and can become Saints through the Grace of God! Wonderful!
But, still, what’s the deal with Saints? Why all the pictures, why the remembrances (The Orthodox calendar includes multiple Saints to be honored on every day of the year)? Most Orthodox Churches are even named after Saints. Our parish over on Whitlock is called St. Stephen, after the First Martyr, whose story is found in the book of Acts. Saints are a big deal in Orthodoxy. They do play an important role in the daily life and services of the Orthodox Church. But why?
The “Cloud of Witnesses”: One Really Big Family!
In Hebrews Chapter 12, St. Paul offers encouragement by recalling the people of Faith who had gone before. He is speaking of the great men and women of the Old Testament, who were accounted righteous by Faith, and who lived in expectation of the coming of Christ. He paints a picture of a great stadium of fans at a sporting event. In the Orthodox Church, this picture extends to include all the believers through all the centuries, even up to our present times who lived by that same Faith. They are ones who have “finished the race” cheering on those of us still in the race. I know I find great comfort in this, for, while I know my salvation is in Christ, I need all the help, all the encouragement I can get from these folks who persevered. I also love the image of a family. We have lots of families who worship together on Sunday. Men, women, children, young folks, older folks, married and single. A beautiful thing that is literally “shown” in an Orthodox Church, is the paintings (we call them icons) of men, women, children, who have gone before us, who have finished the race, and who are there, worshiping God alongside all of us. Its like a huge, centuries-long extended family!
Christ is Risen, and Death No Longer Reigns
But aren’t the Saints dead? Isn’t it strange to think of dead people as still with you? I mean, they’re dead. Maybe we see them in heaven, but what do they have to do with us now?
On the occasion that Jesus was asked about the Resurrection of the dead, He had a curious way of talking about it. First, He mentioned that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, indeed, people who had, physically, died. But then He says, “God is the God of the living and not the dead.” The dead, then, are not those who have physically died, but who have rejected God, becoming spiritually dead. When Christ died and rose again, we believe, He REALLY conquered death, and broke down the wall forever. Yes, we still physically die, but the greater reality is that our eternal existence, our real life, is in Christ. So those who are in Christ in death, remain as a part of the living, breathing thing that is Christ’s Church on earth. So they are with us. Not in the same physical way, but with us as we worship in Spirit and in Truth, proclaiming the Resurrection which unites us in a way that even physical death cannot sever. Think of it this way. When we lose a loved one, they continue to very much “live on” in our lives, through our memories. We might even see qualities of a loved one who has passed away in a child or grandchild and say we “see” the person who has died “in them”. The Saints can kind of be that way as well. As we get to know their stories, their example of living for Christ, we can be encouraged, and hope to live like they did.
“The Fervent Prayer of a Righteous Man Avails Much”
So why pray “to” them? Can’t we just pray to Christ? Yes, of course. I had it explained to me once like this. When we are in need of prayer, do we not ask people to pray for us? Often we will ask specific people we know are fervent in their prayers, “Prayer Warriors” if you will. Why? It has something to do with the mystery of our togetherness in Christ, how our need for one another reflects our need for God. There is a profound mystery in the fact that Jesus showed how to follow Him in community, together with others, at meals, and, even praying together with His disciples, and teaching them to pray together. This is woven into our life as Christians. If the Saints are still with us, if they remain “cheering us on” to finish the race, if they exemplified in their lives a tireless dedication to God, then wouldn’t they be good people to ask to join in those prayers for us, and for those who we are praying for? Think of it as “extending your prayer circle” by a couple thousand years! And it does need to be clarified that the Orthodox tradition does not teach “praying to Saints”, but rather “asking for the prayers of Saints”. The Saints serve, honor, and worship the same God, the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit as we do. Saints are not a source in and of themselves – they help point to the source – the Holy Trinity.
We are all called to be Saints
The goal of the Christian life is to respond to the Grace offered us, thus being conformed to the image of Christ. This faithful response to the Grace of God is at the very heart of what it means to be a Saint. So, anyone who accepts Christ, who is baptized into Him, is called to be a Saint. I think we often have a distorted picture of what it means to be a Saint – we think of it as a special club of people who never messed up, who never struggled, who were ‘special’ right from birth. This can make Saints seem very unapproachable, or even cold to us. True Saints were men, women, and children who responded to the Grace and calling of God in their lives, in their place, and persevered. Many of them came from very imperfect circumstances and faced great difficulty in their lives. But they strived on, getting back up when they fell or struggled. Are their lives not worthy of our attention, as we face the struggle to live faithfully in the time and place we are given? It is important also to note that, in the Orthodox tradition, the Saints which are recognized by the Church are not the “exhaustive” list of Saints, but rather those who were recognized by so many, who encouraged and influenced so many to know Christ, that they are celebrated. But it is acknowledged that the majority of Saints are those known only to God, or maybe to those very close to them in this life. It is not an exclusive, unattainable club, but rather a great cloud of witnesses, a big extended family, which invites us in, keeps reminding us that we can keep going, and which greets us even now, in prayer, in the life of the Church, but which will also, Lord willing, be there to greet us with open arms when our race is complete.