The Prayers of the Saints

WHEN WE HEAR THE WORDS confess or confession we naturally think it refers to the confession of sins in the Mystery of Repentance. In this Mystery, to confess one’s sins means to publicly admit them in the presence of a priest. The term confession has a similar meaning outside this Mystery. It means to acknowledge something publicly, to declare or profess outright what we have in our heart. It does not refer only to sins or faults, but to any aspect of our inner life we choose to reveal publicly.

It is in this sense that we make a public confession at the Divine Liturgy when we say: “I believe, Lord, and profess that You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, come to this world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest.” We profess or confess in a public way our inner conviction that Christ is our incarnate Savior. We may believe something without stating it publicly, but when we confess something before others there can be no doubt where we stand.

It is in this sense that the Lord Jesus uses the word in the Gospel passage heard today at the Liturgy: “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10: 32, 33). He promises to acknowledge as His followers those who publicly confess their faith in Him before the world and to reject those who claim to follow Him but keep their faith a secret, perhaps under pressure.

The Lord’s promise in the Gospel is part of a passage in which He warns that His disciples will be hounded to their deaths, even by their friends and relatives. He applies to their time a warning of the Prophet Micah during the exile of the Jews in Babylon “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household” (v.36).

Confessing Under Fire

The first disciple in whom this prophecy was fulfilled was the protomartyr, St Stephen, who was slain after professing his faith before the Jewish leadership (see Acts, chapters 6 and 7). There, and in many places since then, to confess one’s faith in Christ before hostile civil or religious authorities was like confessing to a crime, often at the instigation of relatives, or acquaintances. The result was generally death.

It sometimes happened that people condemned for their faith suffered, but did not die of their wounds. The fourth-century Church historian Eusebius described some who survived a persecution in Lyons in ad 177 in this way: “They were also so zealous in their imitation of Christ … that, though they had attained honor, and had borne witness, not once or twice, but many times—having been brought back to prison from the wild beasts, covered with burns and scars and wounds—yet they did not proclaim themselves martyrs, nor did they suffer us to address them by this name. If any of us, in letter or conversation, spoke of them as martyrs, they rebuked him sharply … And they reminded us of the martyrs who had already departed, and said, ‘They are already martyrs whom Christ has deemed worthy to be taken up in their confession, having sealed their testimony by their departure; but we are lowly and humble confessors’” (Ecclesiastical History 5, 1).

The term Confessors, then came to be used for those who suffered for their faith but did not die as a result. Thus we speak of saints like Maximos the Confessor, who was tortured during the sixth-century contro-versies over the nature of Christ. He was exiled for his faith, but was not directly martyred. These confessors joined the martyrs as being the first to be venerated as saints by the Church in the place where they suffered.

Many local figures – ascetics and hierarchs as well as sufferers – would later be recognized as saints by their Churches and assigned feast days on their calendars. Some of them would be added to the calendars of other Churches as well. On the Sunday of All Saints we honor them as well as all those glorified by God whether recognized by any Church on earth or not.

The Saints and Life after Death

Throughout our country we find memorials to those who have come before us – plaques, statues, even parks and buildings dedicated to their memory. These memorials recall their lives and achievements; in other words, they point to the past. The icons of the saints which we honor in our churches and homes do the same and more. They do not simply point to the past – they affirm that the saints are alive in Christ today and with us as we live and worship every day of our lives. By lighting candles or offering flowers and incense before their icons we affirm our faith that the saints are truly with us, witnessing to the reality of eternal life in which they share through Christ’s resurrection.

Many Protestants object to the veneration of the saints in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Sometimes they have good reason, as when people pay more attention to a favorite saint than to the Lord Himself. They seem to revere the saints as “little gods” like those of pagan religions, without any reference to Christ, the Source of our holiness. As we say in the Liturgy, “One is holy, one is Lord – Jesus Christ…”

Other objections are not so good, denying some basic aspects of the historic Churches’ faith. Some people, for example, believe that the dead are asleep (unconscious) until the general resurrection on the last day and that they cannot hear us asking for their prayers. The Scriptures are generally silent about what happens after death, but Catholics and Orthodox espouse St Paul’s faith that the faithful who die are with the Lord. He did not fear dying because it would bring him to Christ, as he wrote to the Corinthians, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). He told the Philippians that he wanted to remain with them, but he also wanted to be with the Lord: “I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Philippians 1: 23, 24). St Paul clearly believed that after death he would be with his Lord.

Others believe we should not ask the saints to pray for us – we should pray to Christ alone. At the same time these Christians often ask people – their pastors, prayer group members, TV evangelists – to pray for them. The Scripture describes the worship of heaven as including the prayer of the saints: “Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand” (Revelation 8:3, 4).

Praying for the Saints

The saints now share in the glory of God. This does not mean that they are perfected or complete. This is why the Church not only prays to the saints, it also prays for them. In every Divine Liturgy, after the holy gifts have been sanctified, the priest prays; “Again, we offer You this spiritual worship for those resting in the faith, the forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous soul who has run the course in the faith, especially for our all-holy, spotless, most highly-blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary…” The sanctifying energy of God is ever at work and no one, not even the saints, have had their fill of the love of God. They all are growing in that love, and so the Liturgy can be offered for them as well as with them in the one communion of saints before the throne of God.