By Fr. Moses Samaan – Parish Priest from St. Marina Coptic Orthodox Church, California, USA.
In the Orthodox Church, we define saints as men and women who lived their lives in a manner that reflected the light of Christ to those around them. They are persons who lived such lives of holiness that Christ shone in them in a resplendent way. The definition of a saint as a person who reflected Christ’s light in the world comes directly from the Holy Scriptures, which Orthodox Christians venerate as the Word of God.
In the Gospel according to St. John 12:46, our Lord Jesus Christ tells us, “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness” and John 9:5, our Lord says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” In these passages, our Lord declares that He is the light that came into the world, which, before the coming of Christ, was in darkness, the darkness of sin and death that mankind chose for itself.
Not only did our Lord Jesus Christ declare that He was the Light that came into the world, He also called upon His follower, all those who love Him, to reflect that light in the world through their actions. In Matthew 5:16, our Lord says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
We can say, therefore, that the saints are the men and women who lived this commandment in its fullness.
Venerating the Saints
Now that we have a general idea as to who the saints are, we can begin to discuss our relationship with them. In the Orthodox Church, we venerate the saints because of the pure way they lived their lives reflecting Christ’s light in the world. In our modern American society, the veneration of saints is not something many people practice or are even familiar with, because the dominant Christian ideology comes from the group of Protestant churches, which reject the veneration of saints completely. However, in the Orthodox Church, we disagree with our brothers and sisters who reject the idea of venerating the saints, because this idea is presented clearly in the Holy Scriptures.
In the Old Testament, for example, 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,” it is clear that one person is 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 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 of 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.”
So, what we do is 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 comes because a person was righteous and with God. I mention this important point, because, 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.
Seeking 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 we have said, 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.
Let me explain this to you through a simple analogy. All of you, as students, undoubtedly face difficult exams and assignments. Those of you that are faithful might very well ask your parents and friends to pray for you in light of a difficult midterm coming up. We as Orthodox Christians believe that this act reflects the fact that we are in communion with one another. In other words, we share and exchange with one another.
In the Orthodox Church, we believe that this principle of communion with one another continues even after some of us depart this world. This is why, whenever we speak about our relationship with the saints, we call it the “communion of saints.” After all, if we ask each other 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, and in fact, 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.
All of this points to the unity of the Church, both in heaven and on earth. For Orthodox Christians, the Church is not just the four walls of a parish or a definite group of people coming together to worship God. This is only one part of the Church, the visible and earthly reality. There is a whole other part of the Church that is invisible and heavenly. The Church is both the earthly and the heavenly realities in one Body. Everything that Orthodox Christians visibly do in the Church reflects a heavenly reality that is taking place at the same time. Thus, asking for the saints’ intercessions in the Orthodox Church reflects the continuity of the communion that exists between those of us who are living in the world and those who have lived righteous lives and departed into the heavenly habitations. It is a reflection of the unity of the Church.