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On the Intercession and Invocation of the Saints

by Reader Christopher Orr


Protestants often have a difficult time coming to terms with prayer to the saints. It is condemned as a christianized paganism, an example of the corruption of Christianity after the conversion of the Roman Empire under Constantine in 313 AD.

This issue falls under two broad headings: intercession and invocation. Most Protestants would accept the fact that we are prayed for by the departed saints and angels in heaven (intercession by the saints), just as our family, friends, and clergy here on earth pray us for. The difficulty lies with our asking (praying) the departed saints and angels for their prayers (invocation of the saints). How do we know they can hear us? Some, High Church Anglicans, would accept intercession and invocation, but not the Roman “excesses” of this practice. The 1917 [Roman] Catholic Encyclopedia expresses succinctly the position of the various traditional Protestant bodies:

…the High Church Anglicans contend that it is not the invocation of saints that is here rejected, but only the "Romish doctrine ", i. e. the excesses prevailing at the time and afterwards condemned by the Council of Trent. "In principle there is no question herein between us and any other portion of the Catholic Church. . . . Let not that most ancient custom, common to the Universal Church, as well Greek as Latin, of addressing Angels and Saints in the way we have said, be condemned as impious, or as vain and foolish" [Forbes, Bishop of Brechin (Anglican), "Of the Thirty-nine Articles", p. 422].

The reformed Churches, as a body, reject the invocation of the saints. Article xxi of the Augsburg Confession says: "Scripture does not teach us to invoke the Saints, or to ask for help from the Saints; for it puts before us Christ as the one mediator, propitiatory, high-priest and intercessor." In the "Apology of the Augsburg Confession" (ad art. xxi, sects. 3, 4), it is admitted that the angels pray for us, and the saints, too, "for the Church in general"; but this does not imply that they are to be invoked.

The Calvinists, however, reject both intercession and invocation as an imposture and delusion of Satan, since thereby the right manner of praying is prevented, and the saints know nothing of us, and have no concern as to what passes on earth ("Gall. Confess.", art. xxiv; "Remonst. Conf." c. xvi, sect. 3).[i]

It was my contention as an inquirer into Orthodox Christianity—which accepts the intercession and invocation of the saints—that if I was willing to accept the testimony of the Fathers of the Church when it came to such abstruse dogmas as that of the Trinity (three hypostases, one ousia) and Chalcedonian Christology (two ousia, one hypostasis), as well as the final canon of the New Testament Scriptures which was finally settled by St. Athanasius, then I must also accept their testimony concerning the intercession and invocation of the saints. That is, if they had ever said anything about it. If St. Athanasius can fight for homoousios over homoiousios; and, in similarly abstract language Sts. Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great could fight for the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, then certainly they would have commented on the error of the intercession and invocation of the saints. That is, if it existed in their day. I vaguely assumed that this “pagan practice” must have developed later, or outside of the truly Christian spheres in which these basic dogmas of our faith were formulated.

This led me to a study of the Patristic sources to find if there was, in fact, early testimony one way or the other concerning the intercession and invocation of the saints. Did major patristic figures such as Sts. Athanasius, Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian support or teach this practice? Was there only isolated testimony to this practice in Rome, Palestine, Syria, Africa, or Asia Minor separately, or was it widespread across the ancient world implying a common apostolic foundation?

I have compiled a less then exhaustive digest of patristic and scriptural citations concerning both the intercession and invocation of the departed saints of God. I have stressed texts referring to our invocation of the saints- of our asking them for their prayers. I hate to admit it, but I actually didn’t do this research before I became Orthodox. I assumed there was no written testimony to be had until many centuries after the Church came out of the catacombs in 313-14. I simply prayed my way into understanding that the saints can hear us. I was shocked to find that there was, in fact, testimony in support of “prayer to the saints”. And this testimony came not from some random, half-pagan “saint” from the backwaters of Mesopotamia, Cilicia, or the Pentapolis but from the defenders and promoters of the Nicene Creed: the Fathers who had suffered, struggled, and died for the doctrine of the Trinity, the full divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and who described this relationship in language too rarified for me to fully comprehend to this day. These doctrines most Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians still hold in common—in the face of all that we disagree on. The witness, therefore, of these Christian giants must be taken as more than simply “the doctrine of men”. They prayed to the saints without considering them to be demi-gods; they asked the prayers of those who to whom the Psalmist and Christ said, “Ye are gods.”[ii] Could the Church Which Christ promised would withstand the “Gates of Hades” really have apostatized within a generation of its freedom across the breadth of the entire ancient world?

All ye saints, pray to God for us!

Patristic and Scriptural Testimony

Righteous Job the Long-Suffering (1000 – 300 BC)

If there shall be an angel speaking for him . . . He shall have mercy on him, and shall say: Deliver him, that he may not go down to corruption" (Job xxxiii, 23).

Book of Tobit (~ 200 – 100 BC)

When thou didst pray with tears… I [Archangel Raphael] offered thy prayer to the Lord. (Tobit xii, 12)

St. John the Evangelist (+101)

And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel. (Apoc., viii, 3, 4)

St. Cyprian of Carthage (+258), writing to Pope Cornelius of Rome

Let us be mutually mindful of each other, let us ever pray for each other, and if one of us shall, by the speediness of the Divine vouchsafement, depart hence first, let our love continue in the presence of the Lord, let not prayer for our brethren and sisters cease in the presence of the mercy of the Father.[iv]

St. Hilary of Poitiers (+368)

To those who would fain stand, neither the guardianship of saints nor the defences of angels are wanting.[v]

St. Ephraim the Syrian (+373)

Remember me, ye heirs of God, ye brethren of Christ, supplicate the Saviour earnestly for me, that I may be freed though Christ from him that fights against me day by day.[vi]

Ye victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Saviour; ye who have boldness of speech towards the Lord Himself; ye 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 that so we may love him.[vii]

St. Athanasius the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria (+373)

Christ became man that men might become gods[viii]

“In one of his letters, St. Basil [the Great] explicitly writes that he accepts the intercession of the apostles, prophets and martyrs, and he seeks their prayers to God. (Letter 360) Then, speaking about the Forty Martyrs, who suffered martyrdom for Christ, he emphasizes that they are common friends of the human race, strong ambassadors and collaborators in fervent prayers. (Chapter 8)

“St. Gregory of Nyssa asks St. Theodore the Martyr …to fervently pray to our Common King, our God, for the country and the people (Encomium to Martyr Theodore).

“The same language is used by St. Gregory the Theologian in his encomium to St. Cyprian. St. John Chrysostom says that we should seek the intercession and the fervent prayers of the saints, because they have special "boldness" (parresia), before God. (Gen. 44: 2 and Encomium to Julian, Iuventinus and Maximinus, 3).”[ix]

St. Basil the Great, of Caesarea in Asia Minor (+379)

According to the blameless faith of the Christians which we have obtained from God, I confess and agree that I believe in one God the Father Almighty; God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost; I adore and worship one God, the Three. I confess to the oeconomy of the Son in the flesh, and that the holy Mary, who gave birth to Him according to the flesh, was Mother of God. I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honour and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.[x]

We beseech you, O most holy martyrs, who cheerfully suffered torments and death for his love, and are now more familiarly united to him, that you intercede with God for us slothful and wretched sinners, that he bestow on us the grace of Christ, by which we may be enlightened and enabled to love him.[xi]

O holy choir! O sacred band! O unbroken host of warriors! O common guardians of the human race! Ye gracious sharers of our cares! Ye co-operators in our prayer! Most powerful intercessors![xii]

Liturgy of St. Basil the Great

By the command of Thine only-begotten Son we communicate with the memory of Thy saints . . . by whose prayers and supplications have mercy upon us all, and deliver us for the sake of Thy holy name which is invoked upon us.[xiii]

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+386)

We then commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, that God, by their prayers and intercessions, may receive our petitions.[xiv]

St. Gregory the Theologian, Patriarch of Constantinople; of Nazianzus in Asia Minor (+389)

Mayest thou [Cyprian] look down from above propitiously upon us, and guide our word and life; and shepherd [or shepherd with me] this sacred flock . . . gladdening us with a more perfect and clear illumination of the Holy Trinity, before Which thou standest.[xv]

St. Gregory of Nyssa in Lower Armenia (+395-400)

...I wish to commemorate one person who spoke of their noble testimony because I am close to Ibora, the village and resting place of these forty martyrs' remains. Here the Romans keep a register of soldiers, one of whom was a guard ordered by his commander to protect against invasions, a practice common to soldiers in such remote areas. This man suffered from an injured foot which was later amputated. Being in the martyrs' resting place, he earnestly beseeched God and the intercession of the saints. One night there appeared a man of venerable appearance in the company of others who said, "Oh soldier, do you want to be healed [J.167] of your infirmity? Give me your foot that I may touch it." When he awoke from the dream, his foot was completely healed. Once he awoke from this vision, his foot was restored to health. He roused the other sleeping men because he was immediately cured and made whole. This men then began to proclaim the miracle performed by the martyrs and acknowledged the kindness bestowed by these fellow soldiers…. We who freely and boldly enter paradise are strengthened by the [martyrs'] intercession through a noble confession in our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.[xvii]

Do thou, [St. Ephraim the Syrian] that art standing at the Divine altar, and art ministering with angels to the life-giving and most Holy Trinity, bear us all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition of an everlasting kingdom.[xviii]

St. Ambrose of Milan (+397)

May Peter, who wept so efficaciously for himself, weep for us and turn towards us Christ's benignant countenance.[xix]

St. Jerome, b. Dalmatia, d. Palestine (+419)

If the Apostles and Martyrs, while still in the body, can pray for others, at a time when they must still be anxious for themselves, how much more after their crowns, victories, and triumphs are won! One man, Moses, obtains from God pardon for six hundred thousand men in arms; and Stephen, the imitator of the Lord, and the first martyr in Christ, begs forgiveness for his persecutors; and shall their power be less after having begun to be with Christ? The Apostle Paul declares that two hundred three score and sixteen souls, sailing with him, were freely given him; and, after he is dissolved and has begun to be with Christ, shall he close his lips, and not be able to utter a word in behalf of those who throughout the whole world believed at his preaching of the Gospel? And shall the living dog Vigilantius be better than that dead lion?[xx]

St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople; b. Antioch, Syria (+407)

When thou perceivest that God is chastening thee, 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 [parresian, "boldness of speech"].[xxi]

He that wears the purple, laying aside his pomp, stands begging of the saints to be his patrons with God; and he that wears the diadem begs the Tent-maker and the Fisherman as patrons, even though they be dead.[xxii]

St. Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa (+430)

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.[xxiii]

Endnotes

[i] Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08070a.htm.

[ii] St. John 10:34.

[iii] "De Oratione", n. xi, in P. G., XI, 448.

[iv] Ep. lvii, in P. L., IV, 358.

[v] "In Ps. cxxiv", n. 5, 6, in P. L., X, 682.

[vi] "De Timore Anim.", in fin..

[vii] "Encom. in Mart.".

[viii] "De Incarn.", n. 54; cf. St. Augustine, "Serm. De Nativitate Dom.".

[ix] Bebis, George. “The Saints of the Orthodox Church” (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, http://www.goarch.org/en/resources/saints/).

[x] Letter 360, “Of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the invocation of Saints, and their Images”.

[xi] “Homily on the Forty Soldier Martyrs of Sebaste”, quoting St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Homil. in SS. Martyres”, Op. Gr. and Lat. ed. Vat. an. 1743, t. 2, p. 341.

[xii] "Hom. in XL Mart.", P. G., XXXI, 524.

[xiii] Cf. the Liturgy of Jerusalem, the Liturgy of St. Chrysostom, the Liturgy of Nestorius, the Coptic Liturgy of St. Cyril, etc..

[xiv] "Cat. Myst.", v, n. 9 in P. G., XXXIII, 1166.

[xv] Orat. xvii — according to others, xxiv — "De S. Cypr.", P. G., XXXV, 1193.

[xvi] Catholic Catechism, 1917. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08070a.htm.

[xvii] “Second Letter Concerning the Forty Martyrs”.

[xviii] "De vita Ephraemi", in fin., P. G., XLVI, 850.

[xix] "Hexaem.", V, xxv, n. 90, in P. L., XIV, 242.

[xx] "Contra Vigilant.", n. 6, in P. L., XXIII, 344.

[xxi] Orat. VIII, "Adv. Jud.", n. 6, in P. G., XLVIII, 937.

[xxii] "Hom. xxvi, in II Ep. ad Cor.", n. 5, in P. G., LXI, 581.

[xxiii] "In Joann.", tr. lxxxiv, in P. L., XXXIV, 1847.

Reader Christopher is the creator of the Web site Lutheran inquirers into Orthodoxy: Orthodoxy for Lutherans. It is the companion site to the Lutherans Looking East list on Yahoo! Groups, which is a forum for asking questions of Orthodox converts from Lutheranism. Posted 6 Dec, 2005.