What is a saint?
The word saint comes from the Latin sanctus which means holy. Therefore, a saint is very simply “a holy person”.
From the earliest of times in the Church, certain men and women have been designated as saints, “Holy,” either by being outstanding in spreading the Holy Gospel of our Lord, or having offered their lives for the cause of proclaiming their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, or perhaps in their quest for a life of perfection. Seeking eternity with the Lord, they left their example for others to follow. “Holy” as you can see can be broadly defined. All people destined to be ” Holy” have been in the pursuit of TRUE HOLINESS. These ” Holy” people were followers of the Lord our God.
It must be stated at the beginning that the only true “saint” or Holy One is God Himself. The Bible states “For I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy. ” (Lev. 11:44). Man becomes holy and “sainted” by participation in the holiness of God.
Holiness or sainthood is a gift (charisma) given by God to man, through the Holy Spirit. Man’s effort to become a participant in the life of divine holiness is essential and required, but sanctification itself is the work of the Holy Trinity, especially through the sanctifying power of Jesus Christ, who was incarnate, suffered crucifixion, and rose from the dead, in order to lead us to the life of holiness, through the communion with the Holy Spirit.
What is the veneration of the saints?
In venerating the saints, we celebrate God’s accomplished work of salvation. In glorifying the saints’ spiritual struggle and victory, the Church is in fact glorifying God’s work of salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit; it experiences the salvation already accomplished in them, the goal towards which the members of the Church are still pressing on (Phil. 3:12,14). Thus, by remembering the saints, we celebrate what the Holy Spirit has done in their lives. The saints show us what a glorious destiny we have in God.
God honors His saints by giving them extraordinary powers and gifts. For instance, we read that the dead bones of Elisha the Prophet raised the dead (2 Kg 13:21), and the handkerchiefs or aprons of St. Paul healed the sick and cast out demons (Acts 19:12), while the shadow of St. Peter healed the sick (Acts 5:15). Therefore, Elijah the Prophet said with confidence, “there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word.” (1 Kg 17:1) – Our Lord reaffirmed this when He said, “If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.” (Jn 12:26). Thus, since God Himself has honored His saints, and accepted their intercessions, we are not mistaken if we honor them and ask for their prayer, blessing, and intercession.
In the Old Testament, there are many examples of praise and veneration being offered to the righteous people of God. One instance is found in the Book of Ruth (3:10) in which Boaz praised Ruth saying, “Blessed are you of the Lord.” In 1 Samuel, Saul said the same thing to Samuel the Prophet: “Blessed are you of the LORD!” (1 Samuel 15:13) These exact words – “Blessed are you of the LORD” were also said of Jonathan and Abigail elsewhere in the Holy Scriptures. When we analyze this phrase, “Blessed are you of the LORD,” one is clearly praising and venerating another person because of his righteousness.
Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself gave us an example of venerating the saints in the Gospel. When St. Peter confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the Son of God, our Lord responded to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father Who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). You will notice how this praise is offered not only to the person, but rather, to the person through God. When our Lord blessed St. Peter, He praised the Father Who revealed the truth about His divinity through St. Peter.
Another example of our Lord Jesus Christ giving us an example of venerating the saints comes from the story of the woman in Bethany who poured expensive ointment on Christ’s head in Mark 14:9. She was criticized by the people who saw this; they said the money from this oil could have been used for the poor. But what was our Lord’s response? He praised her for her good work. He also honored her throughout history for this good work, when He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” (Mark 14:9).
In all these examples, you see how the Lord accepts the praise offered to the righteous whom He loves because of their service and love for Him. This is very clear in Proverbs 21:21, which says, “He who follows righteousness and mercy finds life, righteous and honor.” St. Paul confirms this in Romans 2:10, when he mentions that “glory, honor, and peace [come] to everyone who works what is good.”
Therefore, we also venerate the saints. We honor them, we magnify them, we glorify them, but we do not worship them. Notice, however, that this praise and veneration does not take place separately from God, but rather, the praise and veneration come because a person was righteous and with God. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that Christians who venerate saints actually worship them above and beyond God Himself. In the Orthodox Church, this is absolutely not true. When we venerate the saints, we are worshipping God Who worked in the lives of the saints and Who honors the saints Himself.
How do we venerate the saints?
Reading the Lives of the Saints:
In the early church, the accounts of the suffering of the martyrs used to be read during the liturgical services to the Christian community on the anniversary of the martyr’s death.
When we read the Lives of the Saints (the Synaxarium), we are reading the Life of our Lord Jesus Christ. This should be enough to convince us of the importance of filling our souls with the Lives of the Saints. The Lives of the Saints are a continuation of the Acts of the Apostles. “What are the ‘Acts of the Apostles’?” “They are the acts of Christ, which the Holy Apostles do by the power of Christ, or better still: they do them by Christ Who is in them and acts through them. “And what are the ‘Lives of the Saints’? They are nothing else but a certain kind of continuation of the ‘Acts of the Apostles.’ In them is found the same Gospel, the same life, the same truth, the same righteousness, the same love, the same faith, the same eternity, the same ‘power from on high,’ the same God and Lord. For the Lord Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb. 13:8).
Reading the lives of the saints is one of the most important spiritual means that is used by the grace of God to make our relationship with the Lord grow and inflame our love for Him and for His Kingdom. It offers us the practical way to carry out the spiritual principles.
Many of the commandments and teachings may seem to us as being theoretical. But in the lives of the saints, we see them carrying out the Lord’s commandments in their everyday lives.
And so, the lives of the saints show us that God’s commandments are beautiful and possible, and not just theoretical ideals. The Church showed great interest in the lives of the saints. Their icons in the churches are placed with candles before them to remind us of the lives of these saints, which may become food for our spirit and an opportunity to contemplate on their virtues. In Orthodoxy, these icons always show Christ or provide an opportunity to give Glory to God.
Blessings from their relics
From earliest times, the bodies of the saints have been recognized as a source of miracles and the power of God. One need only read the short passage from the book of Kings below to know the Old Testament even recognized this as true (contact with the bones of Elisha raised a man from the dead).
And Elisha died, and they buried him. And the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulcher of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet. (2Kings 13:20-21).
From the earliest days, disciples reverently gathered the remains of martyrs (among other objects) and preserved them carefully. They quickly (and as surely as the bones of Elisha) became objects of honor and devotion. This is perfectly natural and human and illustrates proper piety and devotion in the light of Holy Scripture. Relics are never worshipped (such a practice is contrary to the canons of the Church). However, they are given the honor that is due them.
In addition it was noted in the book of Acts concerning St. Paul, “Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them.” (Acts 19:11-12). And about St Peter: “so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them (Acts 5:15).
Even in the early church, the honoring of the relics of the saints was a practice. Interesting information on this subject derives from the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, who was the Bishop of Smyrna, according to which the early Christians reverently collected the remains of the saints and honored them “more than precious stones.”
Use and veneration of icons
Reverence for Saints is enhanced through the use and veneration of icons which are ever-present, not just in in Orthodox churches, but also in homes. The icon becomes a meeting place, an existential encounter, a window through which we look on the Saints, not as shadowy figures from a remote past, but as contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the same household of God. We feel free to call on them through prayer for family support as they intercede to God on our behalf. For example, St. Basil writes, “I accept the saintly apostles, prophets, and martyrs, and in my prayer to God I call upon them and through their prayer I receive mercy from our God who loves all humanity.
Icons are not merely a picture or a drawing, but a spiritual and dogmatic expression. An Icon is written and not painted. It is a faithful representation of the biography of a Saint. Icons in the Church or at home signify the spiritual presence of Christ, the Saints and events of their lives. The iconographers know the rules to project icons that are considered a religious beauty and aimed to embody the visions of faith and hope. “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For why does one still hope for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24). Icons are an integral part of Coptic worship. They inspire and teach the faithful the mysteries of the Christian Church. It is visual theology – icons stand between the material and spiritual realms.
An icon is meant to be a window into the spiritual world helping us to contemplate spiritual matters, lead us to a prayerful frame of mind, and remind us of events in the Bible, the life of Christ, and the saints. The icon is NOT to be an object of worship. Again, we must contemplate the scene within the icon and not bow before it. We kneel to Jesus Christ, not to pictures. We kiss these pictures, which are anointed with the Holy Mayroun oil, as if kissing the Lord, His Mother, the Disciples who touched Him, and the Saints who precede us to eternal life.
History relates that the use of icons in the Church has its Christian roots from the time of Christ:
- Luke was not only a doctor and a Gospel writer, but also an artist. He painted the icon presenting St. Mary “the Theotokos” holding Baby Jesus in her arms.
- The early Christian historian, Eusebius of Caesaria (264-340 A.D) mentioned in his book “The History of the Church” that King Abagar of Edessa (an area in eastern Iraq) sent a message to the Lord Jesus asking for a visit to heal him from his disease and inviting our Lord to come and live in his kingdom. The messenger returned with a cloth with Jesus’ image imprinted upon it. The Lord’s image healed the king.
Chanting of hymns
As H.G. Bishop Mettaous remarks, each time we mention the names of the saints, they join us, one by one in praising the God of Heaven. In this act, the Church becomes united with the heavens. The saints are an important part of our lives, and this is traced back to the beginning of the church. In the early church, on the anniversary of the death of the martyrs, the Christian community would gather in church and sing hymns in memory of the martyrs.
Intercessions of the saints
Now that we have defined saints generally and spoken about their veneration in the Orthodox Church, we come to our relationship with the saints.
One large part of our relationship with the saints comes, as previously mentioned, from our venerating them for the lives of righteousness they lived. Another part, however, comes from something Orthodox Christians do every day: we ask for the saints’ intercessions and prayers.
The formal definition of intercession is a supplication to God on behalf of another person. Christ intercedes before God the Father on behalf of the repentant sinner, and God’s people intercede for one another.
In our Orthodox Church, we do not accept any mediator between God and man except Lord Jesus Christ, the Chief High Priest and the Sacrifice by whose blood we receive the reconciliation and remission of sins “There is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus…” (1 Tim 2:5).
There is a major and essential difference between the Advocacy of our Lord and that of the Saints: The Advocacy of Christ is a propitiatory one
This means that our Lord is our advocate when we sin having made Himself the propitiation of our sins, who paid the wages of sin on our behalf. Christ’s advocacy with the Father is because He has carried instead of us the iniquity of us all (Is 53:6).
In this capacity He stands as a mediator between God and men. In fact, He is the only mediator between God and men, having satisfied the Divine justice required by the Father and granting men the forgiveness of their sins by dying on their behalf as a propitiation for their sins.
Intercession of the Saints is merely a prayer on our behalf, it is a supplicatory intercession far removed from Christ’s propitiatory advocacy.
The bible supports this kind of intercession: “pray one for another” (James 5:16). Even the Saints requested others to pray for them. St. Paul asks the Thessalonians: “pray for us” (2 Thes 3:1). The same he asks of the Hebrews (Heb 13:18), and of the Ephesians “Praying always with all prayer and supplication… for all the saints; and for me, that utterance may be given unto me” (Eph 6:18). Similar requests for prayer are innumerable in the Bible. Now, if the Saints request our prayers, shouldn’t we request theirs?
In the Orthodox Church, we believe that the principle of communion with one another continues even after some of us depart this world. Therefore, whenever we speak about our relationship with the saints, we call it the “communion of saints.” After all, if we ask one another for prayers while we are in this world, why should that stop after some of us depart this world? If we believe that our communion with the saints stops after death, then we are essentially saying that death is something that breaks our relationship with the saints. And if we say that, we are effectively denying the power of the Lord’s Resurrection, because we’re denying that the Lord was victorious over death.
The Orthodox Church does not say this; rather, we greatly value the prayers of the faithful departed, because these are righteous people who reflected Christ’s light and who are now no longer restricted by the world and its cares. They are now able to intercede for us just as they did when we asked them to pray for us, but in a more frequent and more powerful way.
The Lord calls these holy people His friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. (John 15:14-15)
They are those He has received in His heavenly mansions in fulfillment of His words: “Where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:3). Instead of praying for forgiveness of their sins, we praise them for their struggles in Christ. We make petitions to them asking them to pray for us and the remission of our sins and spiritual growth, seeking their help in our spiritual needs.
We also know that the saints are near the Throne of God as we see in the book of Revelations – “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, who praised the Lord.” (Rev 5:11)
We may encounter an argument of “Why do I need intercession? I can just pray to God directly.” There is no doubt that you could, but for example, have you ever asked your priest, for instance, to pray for you so that God might help you at school, or because a family member is ill, for instance? So, if we ask someone on earth to pray on our behalf, how much more can we ask of the saints and angels, who are in communion with God in heaven?
If we believe in the value of praying for one another, then we should believe in the value of intercessions. To not believe in the intercessions of the saints is either to deny that these saints are alive or to deny that they are incapable of praying. Both are incorrect assumptions. Therefore, denying the value of intercessions is to reject the scriptures.
Biblical evidence for intercessions
- (Gen 20:1-7): Abimelech King of Gerar took Sarah to his palace because our father Abraham said that she was his sister. However, God rebuked him and ordered him to restore Sarah to her husband and said to him, “…he [Abraham] will pray for you and you shall live” (Gen 20:7).
- (Job 42:7,8) God made the prayer of Job the Righteous on behalf of the three friends a condition for their forgiveness.
- (Gen 18:26-32) God said to our father Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom “for the sake” of even 10 righteous people.
- (Jer 5:1) It is written that God is ready to pardon Jerusalem for the sake of one righteous person.
- (Ex 32:7-14) We read about Moses the Prophet interceding on behalf of the People with God.
Thus, we conclude that God Himself encourages and accepts intercession. Someone argue that the above passages are examples of intercession of people who are still alive. Therefore, below are additional biblical examples about the intercession of saints who have already departed:
- (Ex 32:13) Moses the Prophet is asking God to act for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.
- (1 Kg 11:12,13) God declares that He will not tear the kingdom away in the days of King Solomon “for the sake” of his father David the Prophet who had already departed.
- (Jer 15:1) God, wanting to illustrate how sever His wrath towards the people, said, “Even if Moses and Samuel [who had already departed] stood before Me, My mind would not be favorable toward this people.” – This shows that the principle of intercession does exist.
Origin of veneration and intercessions of the saints
Philip Schaff in History of the Christian Church Vol. II noted that the early catacombs contained inscriptions where the departed are asked to pray for their living relatives (p. 83). Interestingly, a letter from the Church of Smyrna dated 155 AD states:
Him indeed we adore as the Son of God; but the martyrs we love as they deserve, for their surpassing love to their King and Master, as we wish also to be their companions and fellow-disciples (pp. 82-83).
The distinction between the worship of Christ and the veneration of the saints is very much the same distinction Orthodox Christians use today. This shows the remarkable continuity of Orthodoxy with early Christianity.
The feast days and the celebrations honoring the saints had become a common practice by the fourth century. The twentieth canon of the Council of Gangra in Asia Minor (between the years 325 and 381) excommunicates those who reject the feast days of the saints. So great was the esteem in which the apostles, prophets, and martyrs were held in the Church, that many writings appeared describing their spiritual achievements, love and devotion to God. Throughout early Christianity, Christians customarily met in the places where the martyrs had died, to build churches in their honor, venerate their relics and memory, and present their example for imitation by others. Interestingly, in the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp (ch. 17-18), according to which the early Christians reverently collected the remains of the saints and honored them “more than precious stones.” They also met on the day of their death to commemorate “their new birthday, the day they entered into their new life, in Heaven.” To this day the Orthodox have maintained the liturgical custom of meeting on the day of the saint’s death, of building churches honoring their names, and of paying special respect to their relics and icons.
Together with the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, information on the veneration of the Saints derives from the Martyrdom of the Martyrs of Scilli, a small town in North Africa (end of the second century). The list of sources includes St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony; St. Basil’s Homily honoring the “Forty Martyrs”; Gregory of Nyssa’s Homily honoring St. Theodore; St. John Chrysostom also delivered a considerable number of sermons dedicated to the Martyrs of the Church.
Additional sources of veneration in the early church:
- Cyprian of Carthage (+258), writing to Pope Cornelius of Rome: Let us be mutually mindful of each other, let us ever pray for each other, and if one of us shall, by the speediness of the Divine vouchsafement, depart hence first, let our love continue in the presence of the Lord, let not prayer for our brethren and sisters cease in the presence of the mercy of the Father.
- Basil the Great adds: “I confess to the economy of the Son in the flesh, and that the holy Mary, who gave birth to Him according to the flesh, was Mother of God. I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honour and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.
- “We should seek the intercessions and the fervent prayers of the saints, because they have special ‘boldness’ before God.” – Saint John Chrysostom
- “… Let us sit every evening alone by ourselves and search our souls for what we presented to our guardian angel to offer to the Lord… Let it be beyond doubt that everyone one of us- male or female- young or old, who was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit has been assigned to a designated angel until the day of his death”. – St Shenouda the Archimandrite
Veneration of St. Mary
It suffices to mention the Virgin’s words which are recorded in the Holy Bible: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Lk. 1:48). The phrase “all generations” means that venerating the Virgin is a universal dogma which commenced at the Nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ and will continue until the end of ages.
Some of the venerations of the Virgin Mary are recorded in the Holy Bible. For example Elizabeth, who was about the same age as saint Mary’s mother, said to her: “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (Lk 1:43,44). What amazes us here in the Virgin’s greatness is that when Elizabeth heard her greeting, she “was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41). The mere hearing of the Virgin’s voice caused Elizabeth to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Not only did the Virgin receive veneration from the human race, but she also received it from the angels. This is clear from Angel Gabriel’s greeting to her: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Lk. 1:28). The phrase “Blessed are you among women” was repeated by Elizabeth in her greeting to the Virgin Mary (Lk. 1:42). In addressing Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel used more glorious and venerating manner of speech, more than what was used for Zacharias the priest (Lk 1:13).
There are many prophecies in the Holy Bible that refer to the Virgin Mary. Among them are “At Your right hand stands the Queen” (Ps. 45:9). The Divine Inspiration also says of her: “The royal daughter is all glorious within” (Ps. 45:13). Therefore, the Virgin is the Queen and the daughter of the King. That is why the Coptic Church, in all the icons of the Virgin Mary, portrays her as a crowned queen and places her at the right hand of the Lord Jesus Christ, glory be to Him.
If we give importance to the principle of intercession in general, then how much more effective would be the prayers of the Mother of God for the salvation of her children? We have seen St. Mary receiving the motherhood of the Incarnate Son of God and becoming a mother of His flesh, i.e. His Church. This motherhood is not merely an honorable title but a responsibility of unceasing work. Being a superior member of the body of Lord Jesus Christ (the Church), she responds to the need of the other members seeking the salvation of everyone.
In the story of the wedding of Cana of Galilee, we can realize the limits of the intercession of Virgin Mary. For she informed her Son, “they have no wine” (Jn 2:3). Surely the Lord was aware of that and did not need to be reminded of the need of his children. But our Lord Jesus Christ, who is full of love is pleased to see the mutual feeling of love in His mother and His children. Her request was only made once, which shows clearly her confidence in Her Son’s reply, for she did not repeat her request but with every assurance she said to the people, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” (Jn 2:5). Through her conversation with the wedding guests, we can visualize her role in intercession. She presents our needs to her Son and then directs our hearts to diligently carry out His commandments and to do whatever He tells us.
Sources and where to go to learn more: