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O Elbereth Gilthoniel!

June 26, 2010

As I begin this post, I realize that the title of the post might give the impression that I’m going to discuss the Theotokos again (those familiar with who Elbereth is, at least). Maybe indirectly, but I want to share what I am learning about our relationship with the Saints.

As fans of the books will remember, Frodo is given a glass phial by Galdriel, that is said to contain the light of a star, and when all other lights fail, this one will shine in the darkness. In two scenes from Shelob’s Lair, both Frodo and Sam say the name of Elbereth, which triggers an intensifying of the light from the phial. In both cases, the one who speaks the elvish words is given unexpected courage. Withthe elvish words: “A Elbereth Githoniel o menel palan-diriel, le nallon si di’nguruthos! A tiro nin, Faniulos!” Sam is given “supernatural” fury to defeat the giant, demonic spider/creature, and is even given a kind of fearful presence before the orcs of the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

What I mean to point out with this story, is that the connection with Elbereth is not completely dissimilar to our connection to the Saints. Obviously, the “powers” demonstrated in the fictional story are of a mythological nature. The power is solely under the control of the individual to use how and when they please, under certain parameters. They have no tangible link in the Creator of all. In that way, it has no resemblance to our relationship with the Saints. Of course, all these posts only have a very loose resemblance to the theology I am learning and experiencing. So really there may be better illustrations for this topic, but I’m sticking with the Lord Of The Rings theme for now.

This is a topic that I first became aware of in Bible College. Of course, it was spoken of in negative, derogatory terms, and was conveyed under the assumption that it was simply a Roman Catholic “thing”. Being of a Sola Scriptura understanding, it was also assumed that such things are never spoken of in the Bible, and therefore the whole idea was a “late” superstition of the already apostatizing  Church. Many scriptures used to combat the idea of “praying to the saints” revolve around Jesus being our One Mediator, that we come boldly to the Throne of Grace, and other such references to us coming to the Father directly because of our position in the Son, by the Holy Spirit. The things I was taught also took issue with our relationship to the sacraments, clergy, etc. Needless to say, I had it pretty well ingrained in my head that “prayer to the saints” = bad. Eventually I learned differently.

For the benefit of any Protestant friends that might be reading this, let me give an explanation of the theology and reasons for our relationship to the saints. For any Orthodox, please feel free to point out any grave errors in my understanding (or even minor ones for that matter). This way, I can see if I’m getting it. Don’t get me wrong, I am under the care and direction of my priest. This just helps me see if I can clearly communicate this to someone who asks.

First of all, as with many things in Orthodox theology, it centers on the Incarnation of Christ. I was just talking with a brother at my parish about how I once thought I understood the Incarnation and the Resurrection. I realized that as an Evangelical Fundamentalist, I really missed the meaning of the Incarnation. Christ’s coming in the world was not just taking a body in which to die, in order to pay a penalty that God needed to be appeased for. The Incarnation was Christ assumption of all creation in Himself, and is the means whereby we have tangible communion with Him (in the Holy Spirit, of course). Furthermore, because Jesus, “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man” and we are one in Him, we also have communion with one another (see the prayer in John 17). This includes those that have gone before us.

Jesus tells us that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not the God of the dead, but of the living. If this is the case, then those that have departed this life are in fact alive. They constitute the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We see a multitude under the heavenly altar, praying to God in the Book of Revelation. These are our brothers and sisters who behold the face of God. We can ask for their prayers the same way we would of a Christian friend, family, or fellow Church member.

Isn’t that like consulting a medium? No. We are not trying to make contact with spirits in some kind of a pagan way. This is simply making a request for intercession before God, on our behalf. How does it work? I don’t know. It’s one of the mysteries about our faith. As near as I can guess, it has to do with our union to the Trinity and one one another. The same Spirit of adoption that allows us to cry, “Abba, Father” connects us to one another, both here, and hereafter. Can’t you pray to God yourself? Of Course (It would be more fun to use Paul’s words from 1Corinthians 15 – “Thou fool!”). The saints are not Mediators of the Covenant. That position belongs to Christ alone. We are told to pray, one for another. This includes the Saints no less than it does us. It’s a communion that has it’s root in love.

One of the other things about the saints, is that their lives are examples for us, the same way we learn from the Old Testament. These are men and women who have “fought the good fight” and been victorious. They are truly Martyrs (witnesses) of the Gospel. One of the great terms I have come across is “Athlete”. They truly lived a life of sanctified discipline. They “contended earnestly for the faith, once for all delivered”. Every day in the Church, a Saint is commemorated. This commemoration is generally done on the day of their death. This may seem morbid to some, but if you think about it, this is the day they received their reward for a life well lived. These Saints were true “Co-laborers with Christ”. They lived His life, by the power of the Holy Spirit. They show us what a life fully surrendered can look like. Yes there was a lot of unspeakable suffering and sorrow, but what joy at the end! I have learned a lot from these daily commemorations. A great resource is the Podcast “Saint Of The Day” on Ancient Faith Radio. They give a 1 to 3 minute account of the life of a Saint, or Saints.

I understand in my mind that this is a mystery. As such, it doesn’t require extensive explanation. Really, how can you fully explain something like this? I suppose one could try to apply a reasoned, scholastic approach. But this isn’t faith. For my part I had hoped to learn exactly when this practice might have started. If this faith Orthodoxy follows has it’s foundation in the Apostles, then it should reason that this practice came very early. That’s my Western mind at work. I am learning that wonder is often a better way to approach these things. Having said that, there seems to be some empirical evidence that prayer to and veneration of the Saints is indeed an early practice. An old friend of mine posted this link: 4th century icons of Peter and Paul found in Rome – Yahoo! News. This is a catacomb with icons from the 4th Century (300’s), and is evidence of early Christian reverence for Saints. Another thing I learned on Search The Scriptures, that the homilies of St John Chrysostom contain reference to asking intercession of the Saints. I was also discussing this with my priest, and he pointed out that some early precursors to the Christian era, comes from the Books of the Maccabees. I have not yet read those, but I will and will get back to you on that.

For me, this was one of the more difficult things to incorporate in my person life. How does one make the Saints part of their life in Christ? As a catechumen, I kept my same name, but was given the Prophet Jeremiah as a patron Saint. I have always felt a connection with him, from before I ever knew of Orthodoxy. I have learned that the answer to my question was to simply learn from their lives, and ask for their intercessions. It is as simple as, “Saints of Christ, intercede to God for us.” (Which is a common refrain in the chanted prayers of the daily services). Sometimes it’s asking the prayers of a specific Saint. I have ask Saint John Maximovich to pray for healing for my family when they are ill. I have asked for prayer from the Theotokos during times of difficulty. I have found a once awkward practice to be very comforting. Having a patron saint to call on is quite a comfort. It’s really no different than the comfort one draws from hearing a friend say, “I’m praying for you.”

Do I still address the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in prayer? Absolutely. If anything, this strengthens my prayer. And just to clarify, it is never actually prayer TO a Saint, it is asking the intercession of a Saint. Doesn’t Christ make supplication for us, as it says in the letters of Paul? Yes He does. But not only He Himself, but in His Saints prayers are offered. This has been a wonderful discovery. It’s like finding out you have a whole extended family you never knew about. And not the kind that you wish you never found out about, once you do. This is a family you can really “be proud of”.

So, like our characters in the story, we can call on power that is greater than ourselves. We can find strength and encouragement in the darkness. “A light when all other lights have gone out.”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2010 2:03 am

    just a quick thought i had yesterday: the sola scriptura of the reformation is actually an oxymoron, because the canon of new testament scripture is itself founded in the church authority and thus part of our tradition.

    • June 28, 2010 1:16 pm

      Absolutely. I have heard people try to say that the Church derives its authority from the Scriptures. This fails to see that the Church was Born of the Holy Spirit, then the Scriptures of the New Testament followed. It’s the Tradition and Scripture that are the fruits of the Church. Like I said in this post, people that rely on the error of Sola Scriptura, fail to see the true significance of the Incarnation, let alone the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentacost.

      • Sean permalink
        July 10, 2010 10:35 am

        The point is that there was no officially recognized Scripture until the First Oecumenical Council in Nicaea. That of course does not mean there was no Tradition for it had already been handed down through speech and letter since the days of the Apostles. It was this Council of the Bishops of the Church that actually sought to define the canonical books. With a doctrine such as Sola Scriptura one has to accept that the Christian faith began with the First Oecumenical Council (whose authority they disregard) rather than with the Resurrection and the Pentecost – which is an oxymoron in and of itself. The Church derives its authority from the Holy Spirit, which inspired the Holy Scripture.

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