What is a saint?…Making new friends in heaven

Maybe you have seen a saint card, or heard someone mention praying to a saint and you are left with a bucket full of questions. Well today’s your lucky day, because below is my search for answers about saints.

What is a saint?

“a saint, that is, of a disciple who has lived a life of exemplary fidelity to the Lord.” (CCC 2156)

“What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints?”[nicetas] The communion of saints is the Church.” (CCC 946)

“But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is” (CCC 954,     Lumen gentium 49; cf. Mt 25:31; 1 Cor 15:26-27; Council of Florence 1439)

“All of us, however, in varying degrees and in different ways share in the same charity towards God and our neighbors, and we all sing the one hymn of glory to our God. All, indeed, who are of Christ and who have his Spirit form one Church and in Christ cleave together.” [ CCC 954] Lumen gentium 49; cf. Eph 4:16.

“The intercession of the saints. “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…. [T]hey do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus…. So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.”[CCC 956] Lumen gentium 49; cf. 1 Tim 2:5.

Okay so according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
saints are holy men and women, got it. They make up the church on earth and in heaven, okay. We are all connected together in praising God and the saints also never stop praying for us. Sounds pretty cool, holy men and women who never stop praying for me, I am in. But where did these ideas come from? There are many ways to investigate this question. Lets start by looking at what the bible says.

Biblical explanation for saints

Saints are…

Alive in Christ

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” -John 11:25

Essential to our practice of honoring and asking for intercession from the saints is the knowledge that after earthly death we are alive in Christ. Jesus promised that faith in God offers life in heaven (John 5:24).

Part of the Body of Christ

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”- 1 Cor 12:12-13

Death does not limit us from the body of Christ (Rom 8:38-39). Jesus’ desire from the beginning of time is “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10). In Christ, we are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). Jesus has but one body that includes those alive in heaven and earth and because Jesus is the head of the body, we are “joined and knit together to promote the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph 2:20-21, 4:15-16). The body is one, but with many members, where they all care and work together (Eph 4:4;  Col 3:15, 1 Cor 12:12-26).

Powerful Intercessors

“…The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”- James 5:16
Of course we should pray directly to Jesus, but as Christians we believe in the power of prayer and that in asking a friend to take our petition to God, we are recipients of grace. The practice of praying for one another is good and highly recommended in scripture.
Paul and the other epistle writers asked in almost every letter for the readers to pray for them and thier teams proclaiming the Gospel (1 Tim 2:1, Rom 15:30-32; Eph 6:19; Col 4:3-4; 1 Thes 5:25; 2 Thes 3:1; Heb 13:18). In general the act of praying for each other was a commendable part of the Christian life (Mt 5:44; Eph 6:18, Genesis 20).
So intercession in general is good, but why don’t I just stick with the people on earth? As James writes the righteous man’s prayers are powerful. Peter writes in his epistle that “the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer” (1 Pet 3:12, James 5:16). No one is more righteous than a saint in heaven! The saints are men and women who lived on earth just like you and me with the same temptations, struggles, and joys. They overcame this world with the power of Christ and now sit in perfection with God (Heb. 12:22-23). They are the best prayer partners you could find.
If the saints are alive and connected with us in the body of Christ then they can be part of our intercession team. Just as my friends here on earth encourage and pray for me, so can the holy men and women that have gone before me.

Worthy of Honor

So, they are alive in christ, part of his body, great prayer partners, but do they deserve honor? Does anyone but God?

How about Ma and Pa? Several times in God commands his people to “honor their mother and father” (Matt 15:4. Luke 18:20, Ex 20:12, Deut 5:16, and Eph 6:2-3). The letter to the Romans also adresses this, “pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:7).

So there we have it, God asks us to honor our mother and father, elders, and those living a holy life. Honoring these people does not distract from God, but rather pleases him. The question then is, if this all makes sense why don’t we see it in bright bold letters in the bible. Well really we do. Below are times that we see the practice of honoring and asking saints for intersession in the bible. 

Saints in the bible:

There are several time that saints appear in the bible, very much a ive and aware of what is happening, to name a few:

Jeremiah appears to the Jews (2 Macc 15:12-16),
Samuel appears to Saul (1 Sam 28:7-20)
Moses and Elijah appear on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-3)

The bible also records occasions where we see others praying to those in heaven, “Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!” (Psalm 148:2). What does David in the psalms mean by all you hosts? Those with God in heaven. David reached out to the hosts of heaven and so can you.
Revelation 5:8 also shows a depiction of the saints in heaven actively interceding for those on earth. We are explicitly told by John that the incense they offer to God are the prayers of the saints.
Okay okay, this may be making some sense, but did the earliest Christians participate in this practice?


Historical explanation for saints

We worship Christ as God’s Son; we love the martyrs as the Lord’s disciples and imitators, and rightly so because of their matchless devotion towards their king and master. May we also be their companions and fellow disciples -Polycarp, 396 AD

The practice of honoring and asking saints for their prayers is ancient. Generations of Christians have made this part of their daily practice. If you are still wary of their potential significance in your life or aren’t sure if it is kosher, I urge you to check out the writings we have from the 1st-5th centuries  

From Hermas to Augustine, many ancient  writers hold in high regard the company of the saints in prayer. Even stronger evidence is the silence of disputes on this point. We see no evidence that anyone disagreed with this tradiation.

This was a practice of the earliest Christians. As their fellow brethren were being martyred left and right they knew the needed to rely on the strength of the church that the apostles talked about and use it in every way possible. They needed to utilize a team, and so do we.

I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.-St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Final Conversations.

Lastly, you may be wondering why you should care about saints from the last 2000 years. Why investigate the saints all?

They can relate

One of my favorite things about saint stories is how different and unique each is, from female warriors to hermit monks. The diversity of saints show us that being holy can look so many different ways. Or as the catechism states it… “In their rich diversity they are refractions of the one pure light of the Holy Spirit.” (2684)

We need examples

We see the emphasis Paul places on spiritual imitation throughout his letters, he knows that we need examples to refer to when things get tough. He stated: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me…” (1 Cor. 4:16). Later he told the same group: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ…” (1 Cor. 11:1). Also seen in Hebrews, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” (Heb. 12:1).”Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). Paul and his church know we need examples of holy lives to look to and imitate. 

Common Concerns Alleviated

Why not go straight to Jesus? Isn’t Jesus the only mediator?

In first Timothy we are told that Jesus Christ is the one mediator between God and man (Tim 2:5-6). But it is important for us to understand what a “mediator” is. A mediator is someone who works to resolve a conflict between two estranged parties to bring them to agreement. I, and any orthodox church, full heartily agree with Paul here. There is one mediator that reconciled the world to God, the man Jesus Christ. The saints do not reconcile the world, offer salvation, or forgive sins. This is Jesus’ role. The saints are fellow pilgrims, who have already made it home, and offer their company to us as we journey.

Is it worship of something other than God?

To pray to the saints is to use the old English sense of the word, to simply ask. In no way does the Church condone the worshiping of saints. We honor them in s similar way that you might honor a grandparent who has passed away. Asking for saints intercession may look physically similar to praying to God, but God sees our heart. Divine worship is to acknowledge that God is the Creator of all things, we are his humble creatures, and we depend on Him for all things. We do not offer this worship to saints, but rather acknowledge the holy life they led and simply ask their intercession. We are wise to adhere to Scripture, Tradition, and the teaching of the Church to worship God and Him alone.

How can they hear us?

The practicalities of saints being aware of our prayers is not clear. Obviously they are not omniscient, as God is. It is only through God’s willing of it that saints can hear the prayers of those of us stateside. Saints are created beings, but we know that saints in heaven are not subject to the limitations of time and space as we are on Earth (1 Cor. 15:51-57, Phil. 3:20-21). It is not clear exactly what our capabilities in heaven will be. But we do  know, from passages like Revelations 5:8, that the saints can hear the prayers of the faithful. 
A couple of theories of how the saints might hear our prayers are that 1.) in our glorified bodies, our minds are greater than when on earth, they are capable of hearing the prayers of those on earth or 2.) maybe God makes sure they are delivered to the right saint, kind of like a mail delivery service. 
I believe that God is mighty enough and heaven is awesome enough that we can’t image how it all works. And the reality is, sometimes this is a comforting fact, that it is beyond our imagination.
I am always up for making new friends. As a family we are making an effort to investigate the lives of the saints. To learn more about the lives of holy men and women and to see how God is glorified in their lives. I think the best way to do this is one at a time. A sort of cocktail party of saints if you will. So this is the beginning of a series of posts outlining our exploration and discovery of new friends and prayer partners in heaven.
Each post will have historical information, ways to celebrate the feast day, book suggestions, quotes, art, and prayers. I hope that together we can learn more and grow in holiness.

CCC paragraph 957 “It is not merely by the title of example that we cherish the memory of those in heaven; we seek, rather, that by this devotion to the exercise of fraternal charity the union of the whole Church in the Spirit may be strengthened. Exactly as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself”


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