Monday, December 3, 2012

Quick Primer on the Communion of Saints

"There before me was a great multitude that no one could count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" (Rev 7:9)
What is the Communion of Saints? Here is the formal answer from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Q194-195):
The expression indicates first of all the common sharing of all the members of the Church in holy things: the faith, the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the charisms, and the other spiritual gifts. At the root of this communion is love which "does not seek its own interests" (1 Cor 13:5) but leads the faithful to "hold everything in common" (Acts 4:32), even to put one's own material goods at the service of the most poor.

This expression also refers to the communion between holy persons; that is, between those who by grace are united to the dead and risen Christ. Some are pilgrims on the earth; others, having passed from this life, are undergoing purification and are helped also by our prayers. Others already enjoy the glory of God and intercede for us. All of these together form in Christ one family, the Church, to the praise and glory of the Trinity.
During the early ministry of the apostles, the word saint meant anyone sanctified by baptism: "To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you..." (Rom 1:7). The word's meaning expanded over a generation's time; it gained a secondary definition to indicate anyone who entered heaven. This progression of language was a direct result from the culture of Christian martyrdom instituted by pagan Rome. As the apostles and other heroic Christians were being crucified, stoned to death, mauled by lions, burned at the stake, and beheaded, the remaining faithful looked upwards to heaven with pride where their martyred brothers and sisters reigned in Christ's glory.

Hundreds of ancient inscriptions in the Roman catacombs
asking the martyred Peter and Paul for prayers.
Being "snatched up to God and to His throne" (Rev 12:5) where death can never again touch them, the saints in heaven are in a privileged position to assist their sojourning brothers and sisters on earth. The former see God face to face; they can plead for help directly in front of His holy throne; they can plead unceasingly without ever tiring while the latter must eventually sleep. The first Christians understood this link between heaven and earth -- an inseparable bond of love in the Body of Christ (Rom 8:38-39). Therefore, they fervently prayed to their departed brothers and sisters for greater prayers to God.

What about today? Following the practice of the early Church, Catholics pray to saints. Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Anglicans, some Episcopalians, and maybe some Methodists do too because they confess it in the Nicene Creed (a profession of faith declared by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD). On the other hand, there are many Protestant Christians who disagrees with this practice. Are you one of them? Perhaps my writing will help you see the Bible from another perspective. If you wonder why Catholics "pray to dead people", keep reading. If you believe praying to saints "takes away" glory and power from God, keep reading. If you question why at all if you can "go directly to Christ", keep reading. These all are very good concerns which deserve a systematic explanation.

1. The dead are alive in Christ

Christ taught that the physically dead are presently alive with God:
And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, and the God of Jacob"? He is not the God of the dead but of the living (Matt 22:31-32).
Notice how the words are not "I was the God of Abraham" or "I will be the God of Abraham." The former would be teaching the annihilation of the soul (Abraham ceasing to exist at death). The latter would be teaching the dead are no longer conscience but comatose (like spiritual sleeping) until the Resurrection. Both are errors. Still not convinced? As if Christ's words were not enough, He also took action to demonstrate it:
[Jesus] took with Him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. While He was praying, His face changed in appearance and His clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with Him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His exodus that He was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. And as the men were parting from Him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah" -- not knowing what he said (Luke 9:29-33).
Jesus was conversing with two "dead" saints, in front of three living saints, about His forthcoming suffering! Therefore, it is clear that the dead and living are not members of two separate churches but one. There is no tourniquet in in the Body of Christ. Seeing this togetherness, the saints on earth are intimately connected to the saints in heaven. As one New Testament writer has beautifully pictured this unity: "Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1).

2. The heavenly saints can hear prayers

Can the heavenly saints hear us? The answer is expressly in the affirmative since Moses and Elijah were conversing with Christ on earth. When Peter suggested to build shelters for them all (Luke 9:33; Matt 17:4), it is completely plausible Moses and Elijah heard Peter speak too. However, caution is required using the word "hear" because the dead are separated from their bodies until Resurrection. With no body, the dead have no ears for hearing nor eyes for seeing. How then can the dead hear and see? Simply put, God is God. He is omnipotent. God can imbue the soul with whatever grace necessary to accomplish His most holy will. Just as Peter can be graced to see Moses, so can Moses be graced to hear Peter.

In the Book of Revelation, John had a vision of the hidden activity between heaven and earth. What was the activity? Under the imagery of rising incense, the heavenly saints ("elders") were collecting prayers from Christians on earth. The collected prayers were then offered up to God:
Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints (Rev 5:8).

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the saints, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the saints went up before God from the hand of the angel (Rev 8:3-4).
In fact, this imagery is remarkably similar to the one in the Book of Genesis. Study and compare:
The Noah built an altar to the LORD, and choosing from every clean animal and every clean bird, he offered holocausts on the altar. When the LORD smelled the sweet odor, he said to himself: "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the desire of man’s heart are evil from the start; nor will I ever again strike down all living begins, as I have done" (Gen 8:20-22).

3. The prayers of heavenly saints are powerful

Think of St. Paul and the many times he asked for prayers: "I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in the struggle by your prayers to God on my behalf" (Rom 15:30). Given that he had direct access to God through the one meditation of Christ (1 Tim 2:5), why did he ask others for prayers? He didn't need to enlist other people. True, but there is an old adage about "power in numbers" -- the prayers of the many are stronger than the prayer of the one.

Likewise, asking the heavenly saints for prayers is useful, but on a much grander scale. Praying to them is enlisting very powerful help because the "fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful" (James 5:16). The heavenly saints are perfectly righteous, and their fervor surpasses anyone's on earth. They have no esoteric/magical powers. They aren't a way to "go around" God. No, they are merely at your service in charity by the pleasure of Christ.

Do you have to pray to them? Of course not! You are not obligated to ask your righteous family in Christ to pray for you... but, if you do, your heavenly brothers and sisters are ready for action.