Monday, May 4, 2015

Christianity without Repercussions: Prayer pt 2

In the last post of this series, I covered how we Orthodox pray in just about everything that we do, trying to reach a point of praying without ceasing. I also wrote about how using formal prayers - and set times to pray - are biblical and were also used in the Early Church. I will cover why we pray to (and for) the dead, saints, angles, and the Theotokos.

In my second post on icons, I wrote in length about the why we pray to the saints, and I tied in the praying to the saints with the venerating of the icons. Let me touch on these subjects a bit more here hopefully without beating a dead horse.

In II Maccabees 12:39-45 we can see where the Jews prayed for the souls of the dead who were found to have idols on them.

39 And upon the day following, as the use had been,
Judas and his company came to take up the bodies of
them that were slain, and to bury them with their kinsmen
in their fathers’ graves. 40 Now under the coats of every
one that was slain they found things consecrated to the
idols of the Jamnites, which is forbidden the Jews by the
law. Then every man saw that this was the cause
wherefore they were slain. 41 All men therefore praising the
Lord, the righteous Judge, who had opened the things that
were hid, 42 Betook themselves unto prayer, and besought
him that the sin committed might wholly be put out of
remembrance. Besides, that noble Judas exhorted the
people to keep themselves from sin, forsomuch as they
saw before their eyes the things that came to pass for the
sins of those that were slain.
43 And when he had made a gathering throughout the
company to the sum of two thousand drachms of silver, he
sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein
very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the
resurrection: 44 For if he had not hoped that they that were
slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and
vain to pray for the dead. 45 And also in that he perceived
that there was great favour laid up for those that died
godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he
made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be
delivered from sin.
Even if as an Evangelical you refuse to see any of the books of the Maccabees as canon, it is still evident that the Jews of this time, and the Jews of Jesus's time, believed in praying for the dead. We can tell it is evident the Jews believed as such because the feast of Hannukah is only talked about in these books which means the Jews used these events and books as part of their faith.

So, as gleaned from above we see that the Jews prayed for the souls of the dead, and as I have mentioned in previous posts, certain practices of the Jews during Jesus's time also passed over into Christianity.

What about praying to the saints? Or more specifically, asking for their intercessions?

We Orthodox believe, based on the Scripture and witness of Christians throughout the centuries, that people who have passed on are not dead and just laying in the ground, but rather are alive and well with Christ in Heaven. We find evidence of this in Jewish writings in the centuries before the coming of Christ (2 Macc. 15:11-14), and we also find evidence in the New Testament (Rev 6:9-11; Rev 7:9-17; & Rev 8:3-4).

The passages from Revelation - as well as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) - show us that the people who have passed from this life are still very much alive and aware of what is going on around them. But why should we pray to these people? Why should we ask for their intercessions in our life? Why can't we just pray to God alone?

The Bible actually makes it quite clear that we are to ask for the prayers of our brothers (and sisters) as well as pray for them ourselves (Rom. 15:30; Eph. 1:16; 1 Thes. 5:25; & 2 Thes. 3:1). Our dearly departed brothers and sisters are still very much alive! They are still part of the Church, and where two or more are gathered there is Christ, so why not ask them to intercede for us? Such things unify us Orthodox - who are part of the Church Militant - to the Church Triumphant. Such things unify us Orthodox to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Such things unify us Orthodox living in the now to the ones who lived the faith in the past.

When you cut out the prayers to the saints you are essentially saying that Jesus did not conquer death. When you cut out the prayers to the saints you are essentially denying that the resurrection ever took place! If Jesus had stayed in the tomb, if Jesus had not risen from the dead, and if Jesus had not conquered death then it would be impossible for any of us to reach Heaven. Those who are there in Heaven right now, with Jesus, wouldn't be there; those who the Scriptures show us are still alive wouldn't be. The Church would not exist. When you cut out prayer to the saints you are cutting yourself off from the Church, from the faith that Jesus passed to the Apostles, and denying that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

What about angels? Why do we ask for their intercessions? Why do we ask them to also pray for us?

If we look at what the word "angel" means it becomes a little more evident what it is that angels do. Angel means messenger. Messengers deliver messages. We see in the Scriptures where angels are coming to us humans and telling us things. The Archangel Gabriel - in perhaps the most famous example - appears to Mary to tell her that God wants her to give birth to Jesus. But they don't only deliver messages one way; the angels also present our prayers before the throne of God.
3And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.
4And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand. (Rev 8:3-4)
Angels also minister to us, as can be seen in the Old Testament (Ps 91:10-12; Zec 1:12; & Judith 13:20), and in the New Testament (Matt 4:11; Matt 18:10; Mark 1:13; & Heb 1:13-14). One of the best references of angels ministering to us humans comes from the book of Tobit.
12 Now
therefore, when thou didst pray, and Sara thy daughter in
law, I did bring the remembrance of your prayers before
the Holy One: and when thou didst bury the dead, I was
with thee likewise. 13 And when thou didst not delay to rise
up, and leave thy dinner, to go and cover the dead, thy
good deed was not hid from me: but I was with thee. 14
And now God hath sent me to heal thee and Sara thy
daughter in law. 15 I am Raphael, one of the seven holy
angels, which present the prayers of the saints, and which
go in and out before the glory of the Holy One. (Tobit 12:12-15 LXX)
In the above passage, we see that the Archangel Raphael delivered the prayers of Tobit to God, and was sent to heal Tobit and his daughter-in-law, Sara. Again, even if you want to discount the book of Tobit as not being canon you still have to accept that this is what first century Jews believed, meaning that this belief was carried over into the Early Church.

It makes sense, then, to pray to these angels who are looking after us. They directly present our prayers before God, and they are here to help us. Why not pray to them and ask them to intercede and protect you? It's their job!

So how does the Theotokos - the Virgin Mary - fit in with all of this? Even if it is OK to pray to her and ask for her intercessions why is there so much emphasis put on her?

If we take a look at my post on the Oldest Hymn to the Theotokos we can start to see why Mary is so important to the faith. Firstly, Mary, as the Theotokos (bearer of God), she was able to contain what even the heavens can not contain; she was able to contain in her womb God. Secondly, Mary is the holiest human that we know of (second of course to Jesus); she was raised in the Temple having dedicated her life to God (which we know from the Protoevangelium of James [PDF]), and when she was asked with the awesome task of giving birth to God she said yes! Thirdly, Mary is the Queen Mother; she is the mother of the King of Heaven, and the mothers of kings traditionally had a very important role in their son's kingdoms.

There is an Aramaic word, “Gebirah”, which means “Queen Mother”. Traditionally, next to the throne of the King was a second throne. Many would assume that the second throne belonged to the wife of the King, but in Israel it belonged to the mother of the king.
The Gebirah was an official position, one with which everyone (Jesus and His disciples included) was entirely familiar.
Her role was as an ADVOCATE OF THE PEOPLE ; anyone who had a petition or sought an audience with the King did so through her. She was an iINTERCESSOR [sic], presenting the wishes and concerns of the people to the King.
This does not imply that the King was unapproachable, or that people were afraid or unable to speak to him. It merely means that the King honored his mother and took her requests into special consideration. (TheOrthodoxChurch.info)
We can see the important status of the Queen Mother in Israel by looking at a passage from 1 Kings (or III Kings according to the Septuagint),

12 And Solomon sat on the throne of his father David,
and his kingdom was established greatly. 13 And Adonias
the son of Aggith came in to Bersabee the mother of
Solomon, and did obeisance to her: and she said, Dost
thou enter peaceably? and he said, Peaceably: 14 I have
business with thee. And she said to him, Say on. 15 And he
said to her, Thou knowest that the kingdom was mine, and
all Israel turned their face toward me for a king; but the
kingdom was turned from me and became my brother’s:
for it was appointed to him from the Lord. 16 And now I
make one request of thee, do not turn away thy face. And
Bersabee said to him, Speak on. 17 And he said to her,
Speak, I pray thee, to king Solomon, for he will not turn
away his face from thee, and let him give me Abisag the
Somanite for a wife. 18 And Bersabee said, Well; I will
speak for thee to the king.
19 And Bersabee went in to king Solomon to speak to
him concerning Adonias; and the king rose up to meet her,
and kissed her, and sat on the throne, and a throne was
set for the mother of the king, and she sat on his right
hand. 20 And she said to him, I ask of thee one little
request; turn not away my face from thee. And the king
said to her, Ask, my mother, and I will not reject thee. (1Kings [III Kings] 2:12-20 LXX)
 The above passage shows how important the Queen Mother was in Israel. She was seen as an advocate for the people, she was someone who could intercede on our behalf. Mary, who showed extreme holiness and humility in using her freewill to say yes to being the Mother of God, is our intercessor.
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