Prayer to the saints is one of the areas where most Protestants differ with the Catholic Church. Actually, this is not fully accurate; as it turns out, non-Protestant Christians — whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Coptic Christians — all have no problem praying to the saints, of whom the blessed Virgin Mary is the paradigmatic example, being the greatest of all the saints.
Perhaps the most clear argument against prayer to Mary, to the saints, and to angels is found in the Smalcald Articles, part of the Lutheran’s Book of Concord. Here Martin Luther draws from and expands upon Philip Melanchthon’s arguments from the Augsburg Confession, and from the Apology to the Augsburg Confession.
The invocation of saints is also one of the abuses of Antichrist conflicting with the chief article, and destroys the knowledge of Christ. Neither is it commanded nor counseled, nor has it any example [or testimony] in Scripture, and even though it were a precious thing, as it is not [while, on the contrary, it is a most harmful thing], in Christ we have everything a thousandfold better [and surer, so that we are not in need of calling upon the saints]. And although the angels in heaven pray for us (as Christ Himself also does), as also do the saints on earth, and perhaps also in heaven, yet it does not follow thence that we should invoke and adore the angels and saints, and fast, hold festivals, celebrate Mass in their honor, make offerings, and establish churches, altars, divine worship, and in still other ways serve them, and regard them as helpers in need [as patrons and intercessors], and divide among them all kinds of help, and ascribe to each one a particular form of assistance, as the Papists teach and do. For this is idolatry, and such honor belongs alone to God. For as a Christian and saint upon earth you can pray for me, not only in one, but in many necessities. But for this reason I am not obliged to adore and invoke you, and celebrate festivals, fast, make oblations, hold masses for your honor [and worship], and put my faith in you for my salvation. I can in other ways indeed honor, love, and thank you in Christ. If now such idolatrous honor were withdrawn from angels and departed saints, the remaining honor would be without harm and would quickly be forgotten. For when advantage and assistance, both bodily and spiritual, are no more to be expected, the saints will not be troubled [the worship of the saints will soon vanish], neither in their graves nor in heaven. For without a reward or out of pure love no one will much remember, or esteem, or honor them [bestow on them divine honor]. (Dau and Bente 1921, SA II, 26-28)
In the passage, Martin Luther argues not from scripture. Instead, his argument is that prayer to the saints is against the chief article of faith — Justification, as defined by Lutheran dogma. This is a highly curious stance, as it can be argued that prayer to the saints and to angels is supported in scripture, even in the Protestant’s truncated canon.
The Scriptural Witness
The book of Zechariah is important for a number of reasons, but for our purposes we will focus on the importance of Zechariah for its development in the theology of angels. In particular, God communicates to Zechariah through angels, and Zechariah questions them as to the meaning of the visions he has been seeing. In the first chapter of Zechariah receives a series of visions, after which is recorded an extensive conversation with an angel, beginning as follows:
Then said I, O my lord, what are these? And the angel that talked with me said unto me, I will shew thee what these be. … And the LORD answered the angel that talked with me with good words and comfortable words. So the angel that communed with me said unto me, Cry thou, saying, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; I am jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great jealousy. … Then lifted I up mine eyes, and saw, and behold four horns. And I said unto the angel that talked with me, What be these? And he answered me, These are the horns which have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem (Zec 1:9, 13-14, 18-19).
The careful reader will notice that Zechariah inquired of the angel what these things meant; the angel asked the Lord, the Lord replied to the angel, and the angel told Zechariah. For our purposes, this demonstrates that prayer (which may be described as a conversation) may be made to angels. In Zechariah there seems to be little difference between asking an angel for an interpretation, and asking the Lord himself. Moreover, Zechariah treats the answer from the angel as though it came directly from the Lord. This same back and forth between the Zechariah and the angel continues throughout the book. This idea is also found in the book of Daniel, where Daniel prays to God for the interpretation of his vision, and then discusses the interpretation with an angel. And of course Mary herself had a conversation with an angel, a non-corporeal, spiritual being, a conversation we know of as the Annunciation, and which is discussed more fully in Part V: Mariology in Sacred Scripture (from my book, “Why Mary Matters”). Not only did Mary converse with the angel, but treated the angel’s words as being those of God Himself.
Another Old Testament passage from 2nd Maccabees clearly indicates that prayer to the saints is not only heard, but answered.
And this was his vision: That Onias, who had been high priest, a virtuous and a good man, reverend in conversation, gentle in condition, well spoken also, and exercised from a child in all points of virtue, holding up his hands prayed for the whole body of the Jews. This done, in like manner there appeared a man with gray hairs, and exceeding glorious, who was of a wonderful and excellent majesty. Then Onias answered, saying, This is a lover of the brethren, who prayeth much for the people, and for the holy city, to wit, Jeremias the prophet of God. Whereupon Jeremias holding forth his right hand gave to Judas a sword of gold, and in giving it spake thus, Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with the which thou shalt wound the adversaries (2 Mac 15:12-15).
You may argue that 2 Maccabees is not in the Protestant canon of Scripture, and you would be correct. It is, however, in the scriptural canon used by every other Christian body (not just the Roman Catholics). Moreover, 2 Maccabees was in Martin Luther’s German translation of the Holy Bible, and in the original 1611 King James Bible (although in both were separated from those books that make up the current canon of the Hebrew Scriptures.) This is not the place to discuss canonical issues, other than to state that there are good and valid arguments to make for its being part of the Christian canon. But what we can say is that it is clear that the Jews of the diaspora 1) believed the saints were alive, 2) believed the saints were able to hear their prayers, and 3) believed the saints were able to respond. Therefore, it is not much of a stretch to understand how the early Christian church, being comprised mainly of Jews, did not have a problem with intercessory prayer to the saints.
A belief in prayer to the Virgin Mary appears to be a quite early development. The John Rylands Papyrus 470 is a fragment dated to around 250 A.D., and containing the following prayer to the Theotokos:
we take refuge,
Mother of God! Our
prayers, do not despise
but from the danger
only blessed. (Tribe and Villiers 2011)
Notice, if you will, the dating of this fragment — well before the time of the edict of Milan in 313 A.D.; this papyrus dates to the time of Emperor Decius, under whose reign there was a persecution of Christian laity across the empire. This prayer, dating from a time of great persecution, is still contained in the Greek Orthodox “Book of Hours”, where it is one of the concluding prayers of the evening services; also, the Orthodox sing this hymn as the last dismissal hymn of daily Vespers during Great Lent. (Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia 2011) The prayer is also used in the Roman Catholic Church, where it is known as the Sub tuum praesidium. (Mathewes-Green 2007, 85-86)
Shawn Tribe and Henri de Villiers provide us with the following theological analysis of this prayer.
Three fundamental theological truths are admirably synthesized:
- The special election of Mary by God (“only blessed”).
- The perpetual Virginity of Mary (“only pure”).
- The Divine Motherhood (“Mother of God”; “Mother” may be considered as a poor translation of Genitrix). (Tribe and Villiers 2011)
We should also add the idea that Mary hears our prayers and, in some sense, answers them. Thus prayer to the Theotokos, along with a belief in her remaining ever-virgin, is an expression of ante-Nicene Christianity, rather than (as some suggest) a syncretic grafting of paganism onto Christianity by a post-Constantine, apostate church.
Witness of the Fathers (and others)
St. John of Kronstadt waxes lyrical on this topic.
Pray, my brethren, to the Mother of God when the storm of enmity and malice bursts forth in your house. She, Who is all-merciful and all-powerful, can easily pacify the hearts of men. Peace and love proceed from the one God, as from their Source, and Our Lady–in God, as the Mother of Christ the Peace, is zealous, and prays for the peace of the whole world, and above all–of all Christians. She has the all-merciful power of driving away from us at Her sign the sub-celestial spirits of evil — those ever-vigilant and ardent sowers of enmity and malice amongst men, whilst to all who have recourse with faith and love to Her powerful protection, She soon speedily gives both peace and love. Be zealous yourselves also in preserving faith and love in your hearts; for if you do not care for this, then you will be unworthy of the intercession for you–of the Mother of God; be also most fervent and most reverent worshippers[i] of the Mother of the Almighty Lord; for it is truly meet to bless Her–the ever-blessed; the entirely spotless Mother of our God, the highest of all creatures, the Mediatrix for the whole race of mankind. Strive to train yourself in the spirit of humility, for She Herself was more humble than any mortal, and only looks lovingly upon the humble.” He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden” (said She to Elisabeth), of “God, Her Saviour.” (St John of Kronstadt 2010, Kindle Locations 3050-3059)
I must admit that this troubled me for some time. Even as I write this, after being chrismated into the Orthodox Church, I am still not entirely comfortable with prayer to the saints. Yet I consider this more a matter of my sloppy prayer habits rather than conviction, for I have become convinced that prayer to the saints is the most natural thing in the world.
One of the best places to start is with the words of Jesus: “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mat 22:32). The context of this passage has to do with the Sadducees and their disbelief in the resurrection from the dead. Jesus responded not with a defense of resurrection per se, but instead with the statement that the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob was the God of the living. In other words, the mortal bodies of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may have died, but they were still very much alive. Jesus made much the same claim in his story of Lazarus and the rich man. This is likely not a parable, because Lazarus is named in the story; therefore he is a real person, despite his having suffered bodily death. Even after death, the rich man recognizes both Abraham and Lazarus, and actually converses with father Abraham (Luke 16:19-31).
St. John of Krondstat writes:
The saints of God live even after their death. Thus, I often hear in church the Mother of God singing her wonderful, heart-penetrating song which she said in the house of her cousin Elizabeth, after the Annunciation of the Archangel. At times, I hear the song of Moses; the song of Zacharias–the father of the Forerunner; that of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel; that of the three children; and that of Miriam. And how many holy singers of the New Testament delight until now the ear of the whole Church of God! And the Divine service itself–the sacraments, the rites? Whose spirit is there, moving and touching our hearts? That of God and of His saints. Here is a proof for you of the immortality of men’s souls. How is it that all these men have died, and yet are governing our lives after their death–they are dead and they still speak, instruct and touch us? (St John of Kronstadt 2010, Location 63-68)
Thus the souls of those asleep in Jesus, while disembodied, are kept conscious and alive, awaiting the resurrection of their bodies (1 Thes 4:13-18). Jesus describes one conversation in particular, a conversation in which the rich man seems aware of the spiritual condition of his brothers. This would seem to allow for the possibility that those asleep in Jesus are aware of us. Moreover, at the Transfiguration, Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, both of whom seemed aware of Jesus’ upcoming death (Mat 17:1-9).
Peter Gillquist writes:
If Saint Paul instructs us as a holy priesthood to pray “always …for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18), is it so outrageous to confess with the Church that holy Mary (along with all the saints who have passed from death to life and continually stand in the presence of Christ) intercedes before her Son on behalf of all men? For Mary is the prototype of what we are all called to be. (Gillquist 2009, 101)
It is with all this in mind that we read the roll call of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. Despite the Lutheran confessions arguing against intercessory prayer to the saints, Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulén notes:
The koinonia of the church is not limited to the church as it exists now in the present. Death does not constitute a boundary. The fellowship of the church includes the witnesses to the faith in all ages. When the Letter to the Hebrews in the eleventh chapter has enumerated a long line of witnesses from the time of the old covenant, it continues in chapter twelve to stress the significance of the fact that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” and especially that we look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2). In these words the author of the letter has disclosed the true perspective of the relationship between the many and the one. Just as the old covenant has its heroes of faith, so the new has “so great a cloud of witnesses.” (Aulén 1960, 310)
Lutheran pastor Berthold Von Schenk writes in “The Presence” regarding the presence of our dear departed, worshiping with us around the altar:
As we seek and find our Risen Lord, we shall find our dear departed. They are with Him, and we find the reality of their continued life through Him. The saints are a part of the Church. We worship with them. They worship the Risen Christ face to face, while we worship the same Risen Christ under the veil of bread and wine at the Altar. At the Communion we are linked with heaven, with the Communion of Saints, with our loved ones. Here at the Altar, focused to a point, we find our communion with the dead; for the Altar is the closest meeting place between us and our Lord. That place must be the place of closest meeting with our dead who are in His keeping; The Altar is the trysting place where we meet our beloved Lord. It therefore, must also be the trysting place where we meet our loved ones, for they are with, the Lord.
How pathetic it is to see ‘men and women going out to the cemetery, kneeling at the mound, placing little sprays’ of flowers and wiping their tears from their eyes, and knowing nothing else. How hopeless they look! Oh, that we could take them by the hand, away from the grave, out through the cemetery gate, in through the door of the church, and up the nave to the very Altar itself; and there put them in touch, not with the dead body of their loved one, but with the living soul who is with Christ at the Altar!
Oh, God the King of Saints, we praise and magnify Thy holy Name for all Thy servants, who have finished their course in Thy faith and fear, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the Holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, and Martyrs, for all Thy other righteous servants; and we beseech Thee that, encouraged by their example and strengthened by their fellowship, we may attain to everlasting life, through the merits of Thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Von Schenk 1945)
The saints are living, are aware of us (as seen in the conversations between Moses, Elijah, and the transfigured Christ), fellowship with us, worship with us at the heavenly altar (of which the earthly altar is but a shadow), and are able to speak with Jesus. The author of Hebrews charges us to keep in mind the saints in heaven, the great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1) — of whom constant mindfulness in some way helps us avoid sin and keep us on the path towards salvation.
Many Protestant churches are aware of the saint’s perpetual involvement in the life of the church, even if they do not fully comprehend it. Why is it that many Protestant churches have graveyards on the church grounds? If you ask some of them, the more theologically sophisticated will say that the departed are still members of the church. Some sacramental Protestants (such as Lutherans) will go so far as to say that every time they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the departed dead are celebrating it with them in heaven.[ii] If this is true, then why would we not ask the saints to intercede for us, just as we might ask the pastor or a trusted friend?
Aulén, Gustaf. The Faith of the Christian Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960.
Dau, William H. T., and Gerhard F. Bente, . Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.
Gillquist, Peter. Becoming Orthodox: A Journy to the Ancient Christian Faith. Third. Ben Lomond: Conciliar Press, 2009.
Mathewes-Green, Frederica. The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Theotokos in Three Ancient Texts. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2007.
Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. “The Oldest Hymn to the Theotokos.” OMHKSEA. August 10, 2011. http://www.omhksea.org/2011/08/the-oldest-hymn-to-the-theotokos/ (accessed February 12, 2012).
St John of Kronstadt. My Life in Christ, or Moments of Spiritual Serenity and Contemplation, of Reverent Feeling, of Earnest SelfAmendment, and of Peace in God. Edited by John Iliytch Sergieff. Translated by E. E. Goulaeff. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2010.
Tribe, Shawn, and Henri de Villiers. “The Sub Tuum Praesidium.” New Liturgical Movement. February 3, 2011. http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2011/02/sub-tuum-praesidium.html (accessed February 12, 2012).
Von Schenk, Berthold. The Presence: An Approach to the Holy Communion. New York: E. Kaufmann, Incorporated, 1945.
[i] This is an excerpt from the diary of St. John of Kronstadt. As such it lacks the theological precision one might otherwise expect. Theologically, we honor or venerate Mary and the saints, but reserve worship for God alone.
[ii] Scandinavian Lutheran churches often have a semi-circular altar rail; the other half of the circle is in heaven, and reserved for the departed saints who celebrate their heavenly liturgy with us.