Theology & Spirituality

In Defense of Invoking the Saints

This is the third in my “In Defense of” series. Be sure to check out parts one and two!

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

At my ordination to the priesthood, there was a beautiful litany led by a deacon. The part of the prayer that is of interest here goes like this (the people’s response is in italics):

God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth,

Have mercy on us.

God the Son, Redeemer of the world,

Have mercy on us.

God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful,

Have mercy on us.

Holy Trinity, one God,

Have mercy on us.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,

Pray for us.

St. Joseph, patron of the universal Church,

Pray for us.

Holy angels and archangels,

Pray for us.

Holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us.

Holy apostles and martyrs,

Pray for us.

Holy confessors and virgins,

Pray for us.

All the holy saints of God,

Pray for us.

We pray to You, Lord Christ,

Lord, hear our prayer

The rubrics in the ordinal allow for these prayers to be omitted but we kept them in. I am glad we did because it brought to the forefront of my mind the intimate connection between us modern Christians and those who have come before. While this relationship springs forth from Apostolic Succession, it goes further than that. The main reason why we are so closely tied to the historic Church is through the merits of Christ and the victory he achieved on the cross. This connection is so close and so organic that invoking the saints, asking them for prayer, is not something we do to check it off on a list, or out of pretensions for tradition. Rather, we do it because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ who are present with him.

In order to show the value of asking the saints for prayer, it is necessary to look at its biblical support, its place in Church tradition, and its underlying theology.

Biblical Support

There are a few verses that may not directly support the practice of invoking the saints, but from which one can draw premises that support it. There are three main places to turn: Hebrews 12:1; and Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4.

Hebrews 12:1

Hebrews 11 is the famous “Hall of Faith” passage. The author defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (11:1; NRSV) and then goes on to list a plethora of examples of faith from the Old Testament: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, the people of Israel at the Red Sea, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel, among others. On the basis of these examples of faith, the author states:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (12:1-2).

The imagery of the “great cloud of witnesses” does not evoke bunch of passive observers. Rather, the cloud of witnesses is a group of spectators cheering on an athlete, in this case someone running “the race that is set before us.” Very often, perhaps because of the influence of modernity’s disenchantment with the world, we fail to see those who have come before as active participants in what occurs in this world. They are disembodied and aloof. However, the author of Hebrews has a very different vision of their role: they are personally concerned with what is occurring to members of the Church here on earth.

Revelation 5:8; 8:3-4

In Revelation 5, John is experiencing a vision of heaven. He sees a scroll which cannot be opened by anyone in heaven or on earth (5:3) until the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, comes and can open it (5:5): “When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (5:8).

8:3-4 is similar: “Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense with the prayers of the saints rose before God from the hand of the angel.”

What John teaches us in Revelation, then, is that both saints and angels in heaven can offer prayers on behalf of those who are on the earth.

Tradition

So there are some Scriptural principles that teach us that we are surrounded by saints who have come before, examples of faith for us, who care about us. Not only that, but that they can offer God prayers. This raises an important question: is there a precedent for invoking saints in the history of the Church? Many people associate invoking the saints with the abuses in Catholicism that sparked the Reformation. Of course, it is interesting to note that the Eastern Orthodox also invoke saints, so this is not a uniquely Western practice. It stretches back quite far into the history of the Church.

Around AD 208, Clement of Alexandria wrote: “In this way is he [the true Christian] always pure for prayer. He also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and he is never out of their holy keeping; and though he pray alone, he has the choir of the saints standing with him [in prayer].”1

The first hymn to Mary, which dates to about 250, goes even further than asking for prayer; it actually asks for refuge and protection: “Beneath your compassion we take refuge Theotokos! Our prayers, do not despise in necessities, but from danger deliver us, only pure, only blessed one.”

In 350, Cyril of Jerusalem acknowledged the role of invoking saints in the liturgy, “Then [during the Eucharistic prayer] we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition.” We have another example of this type of invocation from Gregory of Nyssa (380) who, in addressing Ephraim, states, “you who are standing at the divine altar…bear us all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition of an everlasting kingdom.”

These trends started developing in the Church with little to no resistance (at least on record). Not only that, but the quotations above harmonize well with the Scriptural data discussed earlier. Saints who have gone before us are not only interested in supporting believers here on earth—they also offer prayers to God on our behalf.

Theological Reasoning

One objection frequently raised against this practice actually highlights one of the reasons why we can invoke the saints, namely, the idea that saints are dead and they cannot hear us. This argument has modernist undertones that problematically treats death as if it is a barrier. However, Scripture is very clear that death is destroyed because of Christ. The Apostle Paul taunts (1 Cor 15:55): “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” If death is destroyed, how can it be a barrier separating the Body of Christ?

The Church is the God-appointed covenantal body, the channel by which those who have faith in Christ participate in the sacraments. The Church, much like Israel in the Old Testament, is a domain of reconciliation and a kingdom of light. While there are different segments of the Church, there is still just one Body. In traditional Christian circles, these groups are called The Church Triumphant (saints in heaven) and the Church Militant (those of us here on earth).2 The stark bifurcation many modern Christians read into the relationship between these groups of believers runs against the theme of the Church as one body that has been united by Christ’s victory over death.

Conclusion

Invoking the saints is not a mandatory practice for Christians. It does not demarcate an orthodox Christian from an unorthodox one. However, one’s position on this issue says something about our theological orientation. It is not essential but it is important.

As Christians, we should take full comfort in the knowledge that we are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.” Not only that, but as members of God’s family, we should take full advantage of the privileges God has given us. We have Scriptural, historical, and theological reasons to invoke the saints in our prayers. Let us not shy away from our inheritance but move forward knowing that the saints in heaven care about us and are praying on our behalf.


  1. All quotations and more can be found at https://www.catholic.com/tract/the-intercession-of-the-saints.
  2. Those souls in purgatory are called the Church Penitent, but that’s a whole other article.
Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team. He currently resides in Bedford, Virginia and is a priest at Christ our Redeemer Anglican Church (ACNA) in Lynchburg. He is also a Latin teacher at Faith Christian School in Roanoke. He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their two dogs.

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