Many Christians find the Orthodox veneration of saints blasphemous and even incomprehensible. But like so many other things that seem bizarre from the outside, the practice is based on ancient wisdom.
Saints are bright stars, showing us the way to the Heavenly Kingdom
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During baptism, a person is given a name in honor of one of the saints, who from that moment becomes his heavenly patron. Each Orthodox Christian should know the “life” — the history — of his heavenly patron and turn to him in prayer for help and guidance. Our devout ancestors tried to commemorate the day of their saint’s memory—their “angel’s day”—by partaking of the Holy Communion and celebrating this day more festively than their birthday.
What is the meaning of the Orthodox reverence of the holy servants of God? Do the saints in Heaven know our needs and difficulties and are they interested in us? Do they hear our prayers to them and do they try to help us? Indeed should we turn to saints for help, or is it enough to pray only to the Lord God?
Sectarians, who have lost the apostolic traditions, do not understand the essence and purpose of Christ’s Church and thus deny the necessity of prayers to the saints in Heaven. We will briefly outline herein the Orthodox teaching concerning this.
Orthodox reverence of the holy servants of God comes from the conviction that all of us, those seeking salvation or those already saved, living and dead, form a single family of God.
The Church is a great society, encompassing the visible and invisible world. It is a huge, universal organization, built on the principle of love, in which each member must care not only about himself, but about the well-being and salvation of others. Saints are those people who during their life more than others expressed love to others.
We Orthodox believe that when a righteous person dies, he does not sever his ties with the Church, but crosses over to its higher, heavenly domain—into the Church triumphant. Once in the spiritual world, the soul of the righteous person does not stop thinking, wanting, feeling. Just the opposite, these characteristics are revealed more fully and completely.
Modern non-Orthodox Christians, having lost the active connection with the heavenly-earthly Church, have the most vague and contradicting ideas concerning the afterlife.
Some of them think that after death the soul of the person falls asleep and is as though shut off from everything; others—that the soul of a person, even if it continues its activity after death, does not concern itself with the world from which it has departed.
Others think that as a matter of principle one should not pray to saints, because a Christian has direct association with God.
What is the teaching of the Holy Scriptures concerning the righteous who have departed the earthly world, and the power of their prayers? In apostolic times the Church was considered as one Heavenly/earthly spiritual family.
The Apostle Paul wrote to newly-converted Christians:
But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect (Heb. 12:22-23).
In other words, you, by becoming Christians, have joined a great family and come into close contact with the heavenly world and with the righteous who are found therein.
The parting words of the Apostle Peter—
“Moreover I will endeavor that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance” (2 Peter 1:15)
clearly attest to the fact that he promises to continue to care about them from that spiritual world.
The ancient practice of turning to the holy martyrs and servants of God for help is based on the recognition of the active association of the Heavenly-earthly Church and on the basis of faith in the power of prayer.
We know that not all, but only the most zealous and devout persons did God during their lifetime call His friends, and glorified them with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and miracles.
Thus, Christ told the apostles at the Last Supper:
Ye are my friends!… For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” (John 15:14-15; Mt. 12:50).
Sacred history presents many examples of spiritual closeness, or “audacity,” of the saints with God.
For example, Abraham asks God to have mercy on the citizens of Sodom and Gomorra, and God was willing to fulfill his request, if there were at least ten righteous persons found there. Another time God rescinded his punishment of Abimelech, king of Gerar, by the prayers of Abraham (Gen. Chap. 18, Gen. Chap. 20).
The Bible relates, that God spoke with the Prophet Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. When Miriam, the sister of Moses, sinned and was punished with leprosy, Moses attained forgiveness for her from the Lord through prayer (Ex. 33:11; Numbers Chap. 12). Other examples can also be presented about the particular strength of the prayers of God’s servants.
The saints themselves do not overshadow God and do not weaken the need to turn to Him as the Heavenly Father. For even grown members of a family do not lessen the authority of the parents, when they care for their children together.
Even more so: nothing pleases a parent more, than seeing how older brothers care for the younger. In similar fashion, our Heavenly Father rejoices, when the saints pray for us and try to help us.
The holy servants of God possess a stronger faith than we, and are closer to God by their righteousness. For this reason we will turn to them as to our older brothers, appearing at the throne of the Almighty for us.
It is noteworthy that the righteous, while still living on earth, saw and knew much that was inaccessible to normal perception. Even more so should these gifts be inherent in them, when they, free from their mortal body, have passed on to the higher world.
The Apostle Peter, for example, saw what was occurring in Ananias’ soul; the illegal act of his servant Giezia was revealed to Elisha and, what is more amazing, all the secret plans of the Syrian court were revealed to him, which he later related to the King of Israel.
The saints, while on earth, penetrated the higher world with their spirit, and some saw hosts of angels, others earned the right to see the image of God (Isaiah, Ezekiel), others were transported to the third Heaven and heard secret indescribable words there, for example, the Apostle Paul.
Even more so, being in Heaven, they are more capable of knowing what is happening on earth and hearing those who turn to them, since the saints in Heaven are “equal to the angels” (Acts 5:3; 4  Kings Chapter 4; 4  Kings 6:12; Luke 20:36).
From the parable of the Lord about the rich man and Lazarus we find out, that Abraham, being in Heaven, could hear the cry of the rich man, suffering in hell, the “great gulf” dividing them notwithstanding. The words of Abraham: your brothers have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them — clearly show that Abraham knows the life of the Hebrew nation, occurring after his death, knows of Moses and his law, about the prophets and their writings.
The spiritual vision of the souls of the righteous in Heaven, without doubt, is greater than it was on earth.
The Apostle writes:
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
The nearness of the saints to God’s throne and the power of their prayers for the faithful existing on the earth, is obvious from the book of Revelations, in which the Apostle John writes:
”And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands.”
Later he describes the vision of the righteous in Heaven, praying for the people suffering on earth:
And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand (Rev. 5:11; 8:3-4).
Great is the power of prayer! Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much, taught the Apostle James (Jam. 5:16). Praying for another is an expression of love for him; and the saints in Heaven, praying for us, show us their brotherly love and care.
In the Gospel and other New Testament books we find numerous examples witnessing the power of prayer for other people. Thus, for example, at the request of the nobleman, the Lord healed his son; at the request of the Canaanite woman her daughter was freed from the demon; at the request of a father the Lord healed his possessed son; and by request of his friends, He forgave and healed the sick of the palsy, whom they lowered from the roof with ropes; by the faith of the Roman centurion, his servant was healed (John 4:46-53; Mat. 15:21-23; Mark 9:17-25; Mark 2:2-25; Mat. 8:5-13). In addition, the Lord performed most of the miraculous healings at a distance, in absentia.
In this way, if the prayers of simple people have such strength, then even more powerful are the prayers of the righteous, standing before the throne of God. And this is the confidence that we have in him (the Son of God), that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us, urges us the beloved pupil of Christ (1 John 5:14).
This is why the Church from the very earliest times taught about the benefits of prayerful appeal to the saints. This we see, for example, from ancient liturgies and other literary monuments of apostolic fathers.
In the liturgy of the Apostle James we read:
“Especially we perform the memory of the Holy and Glorious Ever-virgin, Blessed Mother of God. Remember Her, Lord God, and by Her pure and holy prayers have mercy on us.”
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in describing the Liturgy of the church of Jerusalem, notes:
“Thus we remember (in the Liturgy) those deceased earlier, firstly the patriarchs, the prophets, apostles, martyrs, so that through their prayers and intercessions God would accept our prayers.”
There are numerous accounts of the Fathers and teachers of the Church, particularly beginning with the fourth century, of the Church’s reverence of the saints. But even from the beginning of the second century there is direct evidence of ancient Christian writings of faith in the prayers of the saints in Heaven about their brothers on earth.
Witnesses of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius the God-Bearer (beginning in the second century) say,
“Returning home in tears, we conducted an all-night vigil… Later, dozing off, some of us saw the blessed Ignatius suddenly arisen, embracing us, and others also saw him praying for us.”
Similar notes containing mentions of prayers and intercessions for us by martyrs are contained in other writings from the era of persecutions on Christians.
The determination of the holiness of the dead person is confirmed by special evidence, such as: martyrdom for Christ, fearless espousal of their faith, selfless service to the Church, the gift of healing. Particularly, when the Lord confirms the holiness of the dead person through miracles after their death upon praying to them.
Besides the help of the saints through prayer, they help us attain salvation through the example of their own life. The familiarity with the lives of the saints enriches the Christian with the spiritual experience of those, who more zealously than others embodied the Gospel in their life.
Here are so many clear examples of living faith, courage, patience. Being persons like ourselves, and overcoming the most difficult temptations, they inspire us to carry out our path of life patiently and uncomplainingly.
The Apostle James called upon Christians to imitate the patience of the ancient prophets and Job the Long-suffering, to acquire strong faith, like the prophet Elijah.
The Apostle Peter taught Christian wives to take the example of modesty and obedience from the righteous Sarah, Abraham’s wife. The Holy Apostle Paul presents the feats of the ancient righteous, beginning with Abel and ending with the Maccabees, and urges Christians to imitate them. In the conclusion of his thorough teaching on this theme he writes:
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us (James fifth chapter; 1 Peter 3:6; Heb. 12:1).
The Lord said:
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in Heaven (Matt. 5:15-16).
Saints are bright stars, showing us the way to the Heavenly Kingdom.
Let us treasure the closeness to God of God’s holy servants and turn to them for help, remembering that they love us and concern themselves with our salvation.
Familiarity with the lives of the saints is particularly important in our time, when the general mass of “Christians” of the most varied direction has become so trivialized and the understanding of the Christian ideal has been distorted.
Translated by N. and N. Semyanko / Irina Zerebko