Why pray for the dead?
the departed saints to pray for us?
Thomas: It is true that many people pray more to St. Mary or St. Gregorios than to Christ. What do you think, John? Can you answer Paul’s question?
John: I am not sure that I can. I would like to ask Paul
a question. Does he ever ask anybody at all to pray for him?
Mary: I do ask people
to pray for me when I am in trouble, or when someone dear to me is
sick, or when I need something very badly from God.
How come? Why can’t you pray for yourself?
Mary: I guess I am a very sinful person, and I am not
sure that God will always hear my prayer. So I ask somebody who is
more religious or pious, like some friends I have, or our Achen to
pray for us.
Thomas: Does that mean that you don’t pray for
yourself, or do you ask somebody in
Mary: Of course, I do pray for myself, but my prayers
are rather weak. So I need the help of someone who will pray for me.
Paul: I see no problem
in somebody living praying for me. But how can I be sure that St.
so it is only a question whether the Saints are able to hear our requests.
If they can hear our requests you see no objection to our asking them
in interceding for us?
I still think that Jesus Christ is the only true mediator between us
and God, and that it is taking away from Christ’s role as Sole Mediator
to ask the departed Saints to pray for us.
Thomas: Paul, I see an inconsistency in your thought. You say it is all right to ask a living Christian to pray for us; but not a departed believer. Well, by asking a living Christian to intercede for you, are you not making that Christian friend another Mediator, taking away from the sole Mediatorship of Christ?
Paul: Yes, but I can see living people praying for each other. In fact the Bible says “Pray for one another” (James 5:16). So that I can see. But why pray to those who are already dead.
Thomas: Paul, would you make clear what your objection is. I don’t understand. You say that if you ask a living person to pray for you, you are not violating the sole mediatorship of Christ. Do you think only when you ask a departed saint to pray for you, you violate that sole mediatorship principle?
am not sure. I see your point. Somehow I have a prejudice against praying
to the Saints. It seems to be almost like idolatry. But where does
the Bible say that we should pray to the departed saints?
Martha: Well, then, how do we know what we should do or should not do as Christians?
John: Christians have freedom – within the Tradition. That is to say, Christians do not live by law, but the Tradition of the Church serves as a basic guideline, within which they have freedom to decide what is good in each situation. In the cases of both intercession through the Saints and prayer for the departed, the Tradition of the Church, of which the Bible is the earliest witness, offers a reliable orientation. But the Bible does not witness to the whole of the Christian Tradition. It shows us the earliest strata of the Tradition of the Church. The Tradition is always growing and we should know it in its dynamic continuity.
Martha: That is a lot of heavy theology which I don’t fully understand, John. But tell me, did the early Church practice either of the two – prayer for the departed or asking for the intercession of the Saints? What is the evidence?
John: One of the earliest documents we have is the Martyrdom of Polycarp. St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (Asia Minor), was a great leader of the post-Apostolic Church. Baptized as an infant, he died as a martyr at the age of 86, being burnt to death around 155 A. D. The story of his martyrdom was written immediately afterwards and is a classic of the Christian Tradition. In this document, the people of Smyrna, who are the authors, say
“The Centurion. …. put him (St. Polycarp) in the midst, and as their custom, is burned him. So we afterwards took-up his bones, more valuable than precious stones, and finer than fine gold, and laid them where it was fitting. There the Lord will permit us, as shall be possible to us, to assemble ourselves together in joy and gladness, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom”. (para XVIII).
Thomas: So, that shows only that the relics of martyrs were treasured by the Church, and that the anniversaries of their martyrdom were celebrated by the Church with joy and gladness. But does it say anything about praying for the dead or asking for the intercession of departed Saints?
John: Yes, you are right. All that we know from this passage is that
Thomas: Is there any other evidence from the early centuries?
John: Of course there is plenty of other evidence. Let us begin with the New Testament. The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks about the cloud of witnesses by whom we are always surround (12:1). There are the holy people of the Old and New Testament, who always share with us life in the Body of Christ. Praying for each other is an essential aspect of life in the Body of Christ; they pray for us and we should pray for them.
Martha: Tell us more arguments from the Bible.
John: Well, look at the same Hebrews passage: “The writer says to the Hebrews Christians, that they are no longer standing before Mount Sinai, with its blazing fire and tempest and thunder and lightning that accompanied the receiving of the law; but
This is where the Church lives and worships – in the company of the first-born whose names are inscribed in heaven and the “spirits of righteous human beings made perfect”. Our Orthodox Church never thinks of itself without becoming aware of the “cloud of witnesses” who surround us all the time in the Body of Christ.
Thomas: I begin to see the point that Jesus, the Sole Mediator, is never without his body, the Church in heaven and on earth. I now understand better what Hebrews also says: i.e. “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all one” (Or, “one one” – Heb. 2:11). So neither we nor the departed saints can intercede for each other except as part of Christ’s own intercession, for he is always, perpetually, praying for us (Heb. 7:25), and as part of the Holy Spirit’s perpetual intercession (Rom 8:27).
Mary: I also can see that (a) both the living and the departed are in Christ, as members of His body (b) that we should all pray for each other, i.e. we the living should pray for both the living and the departed, and that they the departed, should also pray for the living and the departed.
Paul: What I don’t understand is (a) whether the departed saints can actually hear our prayers and (b) what good our prayers can do for a person after he or she has died.
John: The second question was specifically raised in the Church in the 4th century and St. Cyril of Jerusalem gives a clear reply, in his catechetical lectures on the Holy Eucharist (Lecture xxiii: 9-10). I have the text here:
Martha: That is a peculiar illustration. Who was this St. Cyril? When did he live?
John: He was Bishop of Jerusalem from about 340 to 386; a strong fighter against the Arian heresy in the period after the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.). These 24 catechetical lectures were given in or around Lent, 347 AD in the great Cathedral of Jerusalem, and form the most complete corpus we have of the teaching of the Church in the 4th century.
Mary: That is interesting. Then it was not just the medieval Roman Catholic Church that began the cult of the Saints and prayer for the departed. Do any other Eastern Fathers testify to such a practice at that time?
John: The interesting thing is that this is not St. Cyril’s personal view that we have in the catechetical lectures. He is commenting on the prayers used in the Qurbana in Jerusalem at that time. And all scholars know that the Jerusalem Qurbana retained the original form established by the Apostles themselves. Everywhere in the churches of that time in the Holy Qurbana the saints were commemorated and asked to intercede for us, and we remembered also the departed faithful.
Paul: All right I am beginning to see. But tell us, who else among the Fathers write about this?
John: I cannot give you an exhaustive list. But I have some notes here, from which I shall read:
“O thou, come here to us, where you once were, on this thy feast day, we invoke thee; even thou dost dwell in the ethereal regions above, even if thine abode is about the heavens, circulating with the choirs of angels serving Thy Lord, worshipping as a faithful Servant with the principalities and powers, come for a little while to us who honour thee, O friend Invisible, …. intercede for your country to our common king; for the country of the martyr is the place of his suffering, of which the citizens and relations are those who know him, have him and honour him. We honour your afflictions, we show forth your sufferings: ….. (He then goes on to invoke the protection of the Martyr for his homeland which is being invaded by the scythians)”.
Such instances can be indefinitely multiplied from both East and West. We know that every year there was an annual Qurbana in the cemetery when all the departed were commemorated. We know that the place of burial of Saints and martyrs became places of pilgrimage.
Paul: I can see now that in the early centuries Christians prayed to the Saints and prayed for the faithful departed. The only question is, does not the Bible say somewhere that the dead cannot pray?
Martha: I know the passages which all my Protestant friends quote:
Mary: But Psalm 115:17 is followed by 115:18 which says
Evermore, does not mean up to the moment of death, does it?
John: Again we have some theological problems here. If it does not sound too heavy for you, I will say that we don’t create our theology from stray verses of the Old Testament. Or even from stray sayings of our Lord, who said “Let the dead past bury their own dead” (Mt. 8:22); this we do not understand in the sense that there should be no funerals at all. There were periods in Old Testament history that the soul survived in Sheol as a pale shadow of your self. That was not the teaching of our Lord. He taught us that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alive, since the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was God of the living and not of the dead (Mt. 22:32).
Thomas: What is the context in which the Psalmist has said these things in Ps. 88:10 and Ps. 115:17?
Mary: That is clear. In Ps. 88, it is Human crying out to God from a long-standing illness, asking for immediate relief. He says in effect, “what is the use of your healing me after I am dead? Heal me now, so that I can praise thee, which I am still alive”. One cannot make a doctrine out of that.
Martha: What about Ps. 115:17?
Mary: The same thing. It is a dialogue hymn, in which two groups of people are saying to each other to “bless God” and “may God bless”. And the choirs are saying that those who do not praise Yahweh are already dead, and that those who are really alive will eternally praise him. That poetic statement is not a basis for Christian doctrine about the Saints and the departed.
think I have learned a few things today. I will tell you what I have
Mary: There are many other things I want to know about our faith. We should meet again soon.