Why Saints?

We don’t have saints in my church.  We focus only on Jesus and the Bible…
We don’t have saints in my church.  We can pray directly to Jesus, we don’t have to go through a “middle man”.

It is not uncommon as we rub shoulders at work and school with people of different faiths that we are challenged to explain what we believe and why we believe it.  I once worked with a nurse who was very proud that her Church was “just Christian without any of those ‘add ons’.  One of the “ad ons” that she was referring to and a part of our Faith that is often challenged is our devotion and veneration of the Saints.  Some Christians, such as my nurse-friend have the uninformed notion that such devotion crept into the Church at some late century,  say the Middle Ages, and that pure, apostolic Christianity had no such practice as the honoring of Saints. 

In the New Testament, St. Paul referred to all baptized Christians as saints.  For example, in his epistle to the Ephesians he addresses all the saints who live in Ephesus.  (Ephesians 1:1)  Near the close of the New Testament age, in the vision of St. John the Evangelist which is recorded in the book of Revelation, it becomes clear that the saints are not all baptized Christians but only those who remained faithful and endured the persecution and deception of the antichrist. 

Here is the patience of the saints, here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.   (Revelation 14:12)

One of the disciples of this same St. John the Evangelist was a man named Polycarp who became bishop of the city of Smyrna.  It is believed that he was about 20-25 years old when St. John died, the last of the Apostles of the Lord.  In his old age, around the year 165 A.D.  he was arrested by the Roman authorities and led away to be executed by burning at the stake.  One of the oldest Christian documents is an account of his death called the Martyrdom of Polycarp.  What is fascinating is the light this ancient document sheds on the devotion and honor that the early Christians paid to the martyrs and to the earthly remains.  As these early Christians attempted to retrieve his bones from the ashes, some unbelievers suggested that they would now worship Polycarp rather than Christ.  The ancient document records:

..it is neither possible  for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world, nor to worship any other.  For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow disciples!   (Martyrdom of Polycarp, chapter 17)

This ancient Christian text clearly explains the devotion that these early Christians had for the martyrs whom they honored and loved but worshipped the Lord Jesus alone.  The document goes on to describe the honor with which they treated his bones as holy relics and gathered at his grave each year on the anniversary of his death:

…we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, where, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom….    (Chapter 18)

From this and other ancient texts it is clear that the early Church worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ as King and God alone but honored the saints who were powerful examples and role models of what a true Christian ought to be.  They honored these martyrs and cherished their memories.   Their bodies were retrieved and carefully buried, their graves becoming places of prayer and pilgrimage. 

The other challenge to our faith is that saints are somehow a middle man standing between us and the Lord Jesus.  Some believe that our reverence for the Saints does not give us direct access to Jesus but that we have to ask the Saints to speak to Him in our behalf.  A brief look at any Orthodox prayerbook or attendance at any Orthodox service proves that Orthodox Christians are entirely capable of speaking to Jesus directly.  As with the honoring of saints and the honoring of their holy relics, is this asking for the intercession of the saints another of those “add ons” claimed by my nurse-friend? 

Christians have always asked for and depended on the prayers of each other before Christ.  In fact, Christ worked His first miracle at the Wedding in Cana at the request of His Mother!  St. Paul, in his Epistles to the Ephesians, Thessalonians, Colossians, and Romans asks them to pray for him.  (Ephesians 6:19;  Thess 5:25;  Colos 4:3;  Rom 15:30-31)  The Epistle of St. James says:  The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.  (James 5:16)   If we sinful and bound by earthly desires can pray to Jesus for others how much more effective will the prayers be of those holy men and women who are now standing in His presence!  The Saints are not dead nor are they asleep, they are alive and with Christ in His Kingdom.  In the third century, St. Cyprian of Carthage expressed the thought that those that fall during time of persecution are aided by the martyrs’ prayers before God.  (Epistle XV)   In the 4th century, many of the Fathers testify to the practice of asking for the intercession of the Saints.  St. Basil, in his Letter 360 states that he accepts the intercession of the apostles, prophets, and martyrs and he seeks their prayers to God.  St. John Chrysostom instructed people to seek the intercession and fervent prayers of the saints because they have special “boldness” before God.  (Encomium, 3).   The 7th Ecumenical Council, meeting in 787 A.D., dealing with the controversy over the use of icons, sums up the ancient teaching of the Church on the veneration of Saints:

…we adore and respect God our Lord; and those who have been genuine servants of our common Lord we honor and venerate because they have the power to make us friends with God the King of all.

So, we Orthodox Christians, the direct, unbroken continuation of the ancient, Apostolic Church continue to give glory, honor and worship to One God in the Holy Trinity and also give honor and devotion to the Saints who were faithful disciples of the Lord and remain alive in His presence.  This veneration of Saints, rather than the “add on” of later centuries, was part of the Christian Faith from the first century.  We Orthodox hold the original faith of the Christian without any “add ons” while most other Christians have “subtracted” or “taken away” beliefs and practices known to the earliest Christians.

- Father Edward Pehanich