The other day I had a conversation with someone who was disturbed by the practice, among Catholics and Orthodox, of asking the Saints to intercede for us—or “praying to” them. I told her that we ask the Saints to pray for us in the same way we might ask a Christian friend to pray for us. Because the Saints are still with us. They are the “cloud of witnesses” mentioned by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews:
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12: 1-2a)
Asking for prayer from this “cloud of witnesses” reminds us that we do not really die—we don’t “end” when we’re finished with this life. Our ancestors in Christ are praying for us, just as surely as our friends are. It is appropriate to “pray” to them, just as we “pray” to our friends. The word “pray” in this context, does not mean we are putting that Saint (or Christian friend) in God’s place. In this context, it means “to ask or entreat,” as in, “Pray, kind sir, do you have tuppence to buy flowers from a poor flower girl?” So we are “praying for the prayers” of the Saints, so to speak.
I’ve thought of it that way for years. But I’ve always been bothered by the notion I sometimes hear that Jesus will listen better if I go through his mom first—as if He’d turn a deaf ear to me if I go direct.
So this morning I was reading the account of the wedding at Cana—when Jesus turned water into wine.
“And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” (John 2: 3-5)
And, of course, Jesus goes ahead and turns the water into wine, even though he just finished saying to his mom, “My hour has not yet come.” (“Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me,” by the way, is not an expression of disrespect on Jesus’ part. Here is the footnote on that passage from the Orthodox Study Bible: “Contrary to certain modern usages, ‘Woman’ is a sacred title in Scripture, an address conveying respect and distinction. ‘What does your concern have to do with me’ is more literally, ‘What is that to Me and to you?’”)
So what occurred to me this morning was that Jesus does not turn a deaf ear to us (ever!), He just loves His mom—because she’s His mom—and he wants for us to love her, too. Why? Because He loves her. So to the question, “Why ask Mary to intercede?” I imagine Him saying this:
“Because when you do, you acknowledge her—and that means a great deal to Me. It means a great deal when you acknowledge any of My Saints. You’re not in this alone, you know. It means a great deal when you ask friends or mentors to pray for you, because when you do, you acknowledge them, and you acknowledge that you need each other.”
I think this is what the Church means when it says we are “saved corporately.” Salvation is not just a “me ‘n’ God” thing—even though Jesus would have died for me, had I been the only soul on earth. I’m not the only soul on earth—or in the Kingdom of God (which, Jesus says, is “at hand” or “as close as your hand.”) Salvation is a family affair. We each help the other towards a closer and closer relationship with Christ. And those who have a particularly close relationship with Him are our way-showers.
Pray, pray for me, a sinner.