The Evangelization Station
Pray for Pope Francis
Scroll down for topics
Saints: Holy Siblings
To approach the veneration of the Saints from a Biblical perspective, Scott Hahn begins with the Book of Hebrews and the "Old Testament Hall of Fame". In this article he explains how the Saints are members of God's family in heaven, the "older siblings" of God's sons and daughters on earth. He shows how the Saints constitute a "cloud of witnesses" which hovers over the world giving glory to God and "cheering on" the Christian family on earth.
The Veneration of Saints from a Biblical Perspective
In order to approach the veneration of saints from a Biblical perspective, I would like to begin our time in the New Testament Book of Hebrews. We can just keep a finger on Hebrews 11 and see what we really need there because we go through the Old Testament Hall of Fame rapidly. Hebrews 11, verse 1 begins, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, for by it the men of old received Divine approval, and by faith we understand that the world is created by the Word of God so that what is seen was made out of things that do not appear."
Then he begins to pick off this list of great saints of the Old Testament family of God beginning with the first martyr, Abel, who offered an acceptable sacrifice. And then Enoch and then Noah and then Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah. And then it goes on to talk about Abraham some more and Isaac and Jacob and all the sufferings they endured because their hope was ultimately not in the earthly Jerusalem but in the heavenly Jerusalem, not in the earthly Promised Land but in the heavenly Promised Land.
Then in verse 23 it speaks about Moses and all that he gave up in order to gain this glorious inheritance in heaven, and likewise, Israel. And then Rahab, the harlot in Jericho: even her faith is extolled. Then Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jethrop, the Judges, David the king, Samuel and the prophets who through faith conquered kingdoms and forced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions and quenched raging fires, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. All other great deeds are being recounted not just to go through history but principally, as you will see, to inspire greater faith, hope and love within us.
Verse 36, "Others suffered mocking and scourging, even chains and imprisonment." And the readers of this epistle, the initial readers, could relate to all that. They were stoned. They were sawed in two like Isaiah was supposed to have died. They were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated, of whom the world, this world, that is, was not worthy. Wandering over deserts and mountains and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, the well-attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God has foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect."
So, in a sense, the coming of Christ and the New Covenant economy brought great blessing and glory for these Old Testament saints, greater glory than they received just simply when they died. Something new was inaugurated when Christ was raised, when he was ascended and when he was enthroned. He opened up a new vista, a new door, the front door of heaven, for his younger brethren to come home. And we will see in the next few minutes how this glorious family kingdom in heaven has placed within it thrones and on them sit these great saints, as well as the New Covenant saints. And they are priests and they are giving judgment to serve Christ and to pray on our behalf.
But notice that the writer of Hebrews is recounting all of this to inspire us to emulate their example. This is going to be one fundamental consideration as we understand the Biblical rationale for the veneration of the saints. Heroic examples inspire heroic virtue. But let's take a look now at Hebrews 12, "Therefore," in one of the most basic interpretive principles of Biblical studies that whenever you see that word, "therefore," you ask yourself what it's there for because it basically sums up everything before it and draws a very practical conclusion, especially so in the Book of Hebrews. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every way and sin which 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 joy that was set before him endured the cross despising the shame and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin, you haven't resisted yet to the point of shedding your blood. Have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?"
And it goes on to talk about the discipline of the Lord and the chastening and the suffering which is proper for children of God to mature and grow up. Then in verse 12, "Therefore, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for your feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed."
The whole picture in Hebrews 12 is the big race and who's in the crowd? All of the saints. And what do they form? Verse 1, "a cloud of witnesses." What do you mean a cloud? Well, if you do a little bit of Biblical background study, that cloud is the same cloud that you can trace all the way back in the Old Testament. It's the shechena glory cloud that Moses ascended up into on Mount Sinai. It's the same cloud that came down when Jesus ascended before the eyes of the disciples. This cloud in a sense is a portable manifestation of what it is like to be "in the Spirit" like John was in the Book of Revelation: "I was in the Spirit of the Lord's day," and that glory cloud, the shechena, is full now of our older brothers and sisters. And they constitute a cloud of witnesses and it's not just a cloud that comes and goes depending upon the way the wind blows. It's a cloud that's a crowd for the purpose of cheering us on.
You know, why is it that the Pittsburgh Pirates have a much better home record than with away games? Or, I probably suspect it's true for your beloved Mets, unfortunately, although we're a half game in front. Why is that? Why consistently even do last place teams do better at home games than away games? Because their people are there. I mean you could say, "They know the stadium better." Yeah, perhaps so. But there's always an incredible psychological edge especially in the championship games.
You know basketball teams and football teams know, even Jimmy the Greek will tell you that if it's a home game add six points for the home team. And here we have a home game and there's a huge cloud of witnesses, all our older family members are cheering us on. It isn't like, you know, we've got family members who have never run the race before, saying, "Go for it. Go for it," although they've never gone for it. I mean these people raising up their hands, cheering and looking and you can see the scars on their hands and their feet and their faces and on their backs. You know that they've run the race and they are calling you to do the same.
And the greatest and loudest cheerleader of them all is Jesus himself, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the firstborn among many brothers and sisters, Romans 8 tells us. I mean the whole stadium is full of our family. And it inspires ardor and courage, vigor and sacrifice. And you know what? The writer of Hebrews never considers it important for a second to argue that this is so. He takes it for granted and he thinks you should take it for granted, but that you should ponder it and then draw inspiration from it.
But not so. If the saints don't know what we're doing, and we have no idea what they're doing. In other words if we have no contact, no communication, this kind of description is just simply a weak and quaint metaphor. But that's not what it is. This is the spiritual reality perceived by the eyes of faith, the eyes that are open to the spiritual truths of this great Credo statement, "I believe in the Communion of Saints."
Now it isn't just because we all believe the same thing that we have this real nice but eerie feeling that we are all united by this bond of doctrinal confession and liturgical worship. It's much more than that. It's more than just being a fellowship of the like-minded. We say, "I believe in the Holy Spirit," and that's why we believe in the holy Catholic Church because apart from the Holy Spirit, we would only be another human organization. But the Holy Spirit, the Church teaches de fide, is the soul of the Church. The Mystical Body of Christ is animated and draws its supernatural life from the Holy Spirit. So we say, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church what? the communion of saints."
Now how can you have communion with people that you have no communication with? How can you possibly be in communion with people that really share nothing in common together in terms of everyday experience? I'm not saying that the Lord has told us to have daily conversations. All right, some people are gifted with those mystical revelations. But whenever somebody says, "Well, you're communicating with the dead and that is wicked sin judged by Old Testament and New Testament standards because that's divination, that's sorcery or whatever." You say, "They're not dead. They're more alive than we are. Blessed are those who die in the Lord, henceforth." Why? Because their works follow them into heaven. The Old Testament saints had to wait for the Messiah, but the waiting is gone. Those martyred saints are with the Lord and a crowd, and they are cheering us on. We need not just eyes but ears with faith, to hear and so it goes.
Veneration of Saints does not Violate the Sole Mediatorship of Jesus
Now I want to move on from that, though. I want to say one thing and that is, before I move on I want you to know that the saints are not an alternate route to God, as opposed to Christ. If you think that, then stop praying to the saints until you get your spiritual life readjusted back on course. Because you're not a good Catholic. The fact is there is one sole mediator between God and man and that's the man, Jesus Christ. Paul couldn't make that any clearer than he does to Timothy. He says, "There is one mediator one and only one mediator between God and man."
Let's turn to 1st Timothy, chapter 2, to see what he is saying. 1st Timothy, chapter 2 verse 5 says, "There is one God and there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus who gave Himself as a ransom for all." Now what conclusions can we draw from that? Can we draw from that the false conclusion that because we've got one mediator, therefore it's undermining the work of Christ to go through the saints and ask them to intercede on our behalf? No, of course not. Forget the fact that saints are the Christians in heaven, we're also aware of the fact that Christians on earth are continually addressed in the New Testament as saints. That's who we are. That's who we must become, and if we continue on and hold fast to the faith, that's what we will be for eternity. But we are saints if we are in Christ right now.
Now saints, Catholic and non-Catholic, if somebody asks you to pray for them, to intercede for them to God on their behalf, do you go around and say, "How dare you undermine the sole mediation of Jesus Christ, the only High Priest?" Of course not. Why? Because what does Paul say in the first four verses before 1st Timothy, 2:1, "First of all then, I urge the supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men." By Jesus alone? Of course not. By us, "for kings and all who are in high positions in order that we might lead a quiet and peaceful life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good and is acceptable by God our Savior who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and there is one mediator between God and man."
How often did I used to pull that text out of context and use that to undermine the proper veneration of the saints which is rooted in two things, asking them for intercession and supplication and being inspired to follow their example. We could add a third and we are going to; that is, we honor them. We glorify them when we venerate them. But why? Because we're just a little bit bored after ten or fifteen hours of honoring Christ? No. It's precisely because we honor Christ. It's precisely because we imitate Christ. We imitate Christ, and so if we see Him honoring those who have died for the truth, those who have confessed to the faith with much pain, we do what Christ does and we honor those whom He honors. Those whom He blesses, we bless.
It's rather simple. It's only when we unconsciously reduce the Christian faith to an individualistic, me and Jesus relationship that it becomes a typically American self-centered thing. I mean, let's face it, the American family is not a great example of strong communion bonds these days. And it hasn't been for centuries. Do you know that Daniel Boone was one of the worst fathers? Do you know that I believe it was his brother or one of his neighbors who fathered a child through his wife? Davey Crockett, the same way. Great American heroes, rugged individualists, not great family men. You should hear what John Adams' wife had to say a radical feminist who was just a died-in-the-wood individualist. She wasn't more concerned about the marriage and about the family and the home and America. She was concerned about individual rights that she could exert and that others could exert and if they couldn't, they could get it by force. That's the American way.
As they used to say in the 18th Century, "We serve no sovereign." No kings, and kings were always father figures. I'm not arguing for political monarchy and natural politics because human sin is what it is. But we've got a supernatural monarchy, a heavenly kingdom, a father figure apart from sin who bestows his pure life and grace upon our older brothers and sisters, his children. And that kingdom is the Kingdom of Heaven. And that inspires us in a much greater way to serve our Sovereign and to serve his cabinet ministers and the princes and the princesses that he appoints over us.
Do you realize how difficult it is for Americans to think and to behave in that way? When everything in our culture goes in the opposite direction? To whom do we bow in our society? Nobody. And when we even say, "Your Honor" to a judge or "Your Excellency" for an Archbishop, it feels kind of unnatural, and we bristle, don't we? It's un-American. Who do you think you are? But the fact is in a family, it isn't the person as much as it's the office that we venerate and honor. And that's what we're doing when we venerate the saints. We're imitating Christ who honors them. We, in turn, want to imitate the saints as they serve Christ.
Now when you put it this way, I'm tempted to respond now, I've been in here for about five years, it seems as plain as the nose on my face. But only when you make a very slight but profound adjustment in your thinking. "We Are Family," as Sister Sledge sang so many years ago. We are the family of God. So no father is going to feel gypped or ignored or neglected as the brothers and sisters fall in love with each other and inspire each other to the courageous sacrifice and service for the family's name. It's even silly once you put it into those terms, but what other terms suffice for what the Blessed Trinity, the Divine Family, has been doing in all of history? It's the only one that makes sense. It's the only one that pulls the entire Bible together. It's the only reason why Paul in 1st Timothy 2:5 considers one mediator and still says, what he says in 1st Timothy 2:1-4, "Therefore, because there's one mediator, with greater confidence we can pray and make supplication and intercession for everybody," even for the kings and the wealthy and the rich and the corrupt. Why? Because there's one mediator, the God-man, Jesus Christ.
We could go nuts praying like we never could before. Why? Because there's one mediator. Does that mean no other intercessors, no others to make supplication? No! That's just not right. There's one mediator and because our mediator is the most awesome mediator we could possibly imagine, we have now the capacity to intercede as priests in the Priest, as sons in the Son, as pastors and shepherds in the one Pastor and Shepherd. We draw our life from him. "No longer I, but Christ who lives in me. Apart from Christ, I can do nothing." But with me, Jesus says, you can do anything. "With God, all things are possible."
Scriptural Support for the Fact that God Hears the Cries of the Saints
We need to adjust our thinking. This isn't new. All the way back in Genesis, there's a kind of cryptic allusion to the fact that God is in touch with the needs of the martyrs. In Genesis 4, verse 10, God says to Cain, "Listen, your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil." Now do you think if you got out in the field and found the place where all that blood had spilled, put your ear down to it, you would have heard a voice? No, I don't think so. No, this is a literary device, the part for the whole. Abel's blood is Abel's soul which has died. It wouldn't be crying out for anything unless Abel had been vindicated by God in some manner. In some manner we know not, it might be Abraham's bosom, like we see in Luke 16.
At any rate God hears the cry of those martyred saints from the very beginning. The blood is the life, the life is the soul and the soul cries out for vindication and God responds. That's why Hebrews 12, verse 24 alludes to that in comparing Abel's blood crying for vengeance to Jesus' sprinkled blood which speaks more eloquently than that of Abel. Now, would Jesus' blood speak to us? Well, in a sense, no. It's not the blood, but it's the life of the soul which the blood signifies that is speaking, "mercy, mercy, mercy" on our behalf. Not vengeance but forgiveness because Christ wasn't slain by a brother out in the field contrary to his will. Christ laid down His own life as a ransom for all. And so His blood speaks like Abel's blood speaks, but it speaks in a greater and more eloquent way.
Now I would suggest that the kind of teaching we find in Luke 16 would not have come from the lips of Jesus; were not this outlook commonplace. Let's turn now to Luke 16, verses 19 through 31. There, of course, we find the famous story of Lazarus and the rich man. We're told that Lazarus who was very poor and the dogs licked his sores when he sat outside the rich man's gate; at death Lazarus is carried to rest in Abraham's bosom. The other man, the rich man, Deus or Dives as he is sometimes called, is carried off into torment in the abode of the dead. He cries, "Father Abraham," he cries. He still sees himself, I would suggest, in some way as God's child. That is the child of Father Abraham. He cries out, "Father Abraham, have mercy on me." Not exactly the cry of the demonized, despicable reprobate's soul whose evil and sin are only perfected. "Have mercy on me, Father." He knows that he belongs there, but he's asking now not for justice, but for mercy. And he's not saying, "Get me out of here. I don't belong. Get me out of here. I've got to go back. I deserve a second chance."
He says, "Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue for I am in anguish in this flame." That's why I would suggest this may well refer, not to hell fire and eternal torment, but purgatorial fire belonging to a soul who through neglect of the corporal works of mercy ends up going to summer school for a long time. He cries, "Father Abraham, have pity on me." And then Abraham replies, "My child." Not you accursed reprobate, you son of Satan, you despicable worm, you viper. No, "my child,' Abraham replies. 'Remember that you in your lifetime received your good things.'" And the man doesn't say, "What do you mean, 'remember?" Once the soul dies, he doesn't remember anything. He doesn't remember anybody. He remembers what Abraham had said; he remembers. But how often have I run into Christians who assume that we don't remember or we have only a vague remembrance and they don't really mean anything, those memories.
But no, read further. It goes on, "Then I beg you, father," verse 27, "send him to my father's house." He remembers his father's house. "...for I have five brothers." He not only remembers his five brothers, he is very concerned for those five brothers. He's interceding on behalf of those five brothers. "So that Lazarus may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment." He doesn't say, "Abraham, can you give my five brothers a glimpse of my torturous fate down in the flames?" He says, "Will you resurrect Lazarus. Will you send him back from the dead?" What a small favor to ask on Lazarus' behalf. Certainly going to be a vindication for the poor man, isn't it?
But Abraham said, "They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them. And he said, 'No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they would repent.' He said to him, 'If they don't hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'" End of story. Now you might say, "So, there. They may pray in purgatory, but they are not answered." But notice one thing. Jesus raised a man named Lazarus after four days. This might be a parable, but Jesus didn't say, "Let me tell you a parable." There is no evidence that this is a parable. You may not want to believe it but nowhere, in any parable of Jesus does he name the characters.
Here He names the man and He happens to give him the name of one of His very best friends, His only best friend that he raised from the dead. A man who had been afflicted long and sore, what a coincidence. Maybe, maybe not. But I would suggest this, that if a man in torment can communicate according to his own felt needs, how much more can Lazarus help? In other words, here we have a situation where the man can communicate and intercede on behalf of those that he wants to help.
Now if a man in the flames can do that, how much more can we assume that Lazarus would have a clear recollection of his beloved family on earth and he would probably have a clearer perception of their needs. And with a perfected love, he would have a greater capacity to intercede for those needs. Maybe you deny that, but what scriptures do you show to deny it? I couldn't find any when I was thinking along these lines. At that point, you might say, I was on a train rolling without brakes; but the train was a scriptural train.
Catholics Need to Have a Balanced Perception of What the Veneration of Saints is
Let's go on. Before I look at some other scriptures, let me just ask you, and think of this when you are talking to non-Catholics because, I've got to confess and apologize all the time to my non- Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, albeit separate, but brothers and sisters through baptism. I've got to apologize because they learn of the many Catholics who do weird things, like one ex-Catholic whose Mom has a life-size statue of Mary that she dresses and undresses every day. She's got no real prayer life. She never reads the Bible, but she continually dresses and undresses her little statue; it's not so little.
Now I'm not going to make any final judgments on such behavior, but I will say that if that's all you've got, it's warped. And often Catholics not only don't have a balanced perception of what the veneration of saints is in relationship to Christ but they've got little capacity to articulate what they are really doing if it is balanced. Why are they really doing it?
Say to a non-Catholic, "Do you have a family? Do you love them? Do you ever carry their photos in your wallet? Now, are those images idols?" "Well," they might say, "they're not statues. They're not paintings. I don't kiss them." Well, yeah, photography is modern technology that makes it much more easy and mobile, you know, so that in a wallet you can have the images of a family, but my point is nobody worships the photo. Explain it that way. You don't worship the photo. You don't even honor it. You get that? We don't honor statues. We don't venerate pictures or icons. We honor and venerate the real people that are signified by the statues and the pictures and the icons.
Well, they're dead! No, they're dead in Christ and so they are alive and blessed. Revelation 14 tells us that they are blessed if they die in Christ. Jesus promised Peter the keys of the Kingdom which had the power over the gates of Hades. So the Church can exercise this jurisdiction not only in releasing the souls through the merits that Christ pours into his Mystical Body but also in recognizing and pronouncing officially the fact that these souls have died in Christ and can be venerated and that they are beatified because they are blessed by Christ.
Catholics don't worship statues and paintings and icons. The statue is just a hunk of plaster or marble, if it's really good. They're just artistic devices, useful to recall to our minds the person, the event, the occasion depicted; to link us in communion but to inspire us by their example.
So does scripture teach that there is no communion between the saints who are in Christ in heaven and the saints who are in Christ down here? Or rather is the mystic sweet communion that we have with those whose rest is won, a real communion? Of course it is. Does scripture teach that after death saints lose all memory of earthly life earthly relations and needs, that they lose all interest and concern. That they're so single-minded in rapture and focused upon Christ that they don't even see each other? Scripture doesn't teach that. Scripture doesn't teach that they lose all ability to pray, intercede and supplicate on our behalf.
Archeologists Have Evidence of First Century Veneration of the Saints
Does scripture show us rather that saints recall their lives here and pray for those with whom they lived? Saints surround us like family members in a crowd as we have seen in Hebrews 12. Let's take a look now and see where all of this is, in fact, taught. Let's turn to the Book of Revelation. While we're turning to the Book of Revelation, I'm just going to mention the fact that 1st Century catacomb inscriptions found that archeologists in this century, dating all the way back to the first, second and third generations after Christ and the apostles give clear witness and testimony to this ancient custom of venerating and asking the saints for intercession. One inscription, "Peter and Paul, pray for Victor." Another one, "Peter and Paul, remember Zozamon." There are many other inscriptions just like this. They're not odd. They're not quirky. They're typical.
Scripture Shows that Saints Recall Their Lives on Earth and Pray for Those with Whom They Lived
In the Book of Revelation notice that there are three classes of saints that are highlighted as having a special role in the heavenly worship service. First of all, I'm going to come back to this in a minute, the martyrs, the white-robed martyrs. Second of all, the virgins and third of all, the confessors. For instance in Revelation 6:11. Let's turn there. Let's go back to verse 9, "When he opened the fifth seal I saw under the altar, that is the heavenly altar in the heavenly temple, the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne they're martyrs. They cried out with a loud voice, 'O sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?' " They're asking for vindication. They have communication with God. They are pleading the cause of Christ's Mystical Body.
"Then they were each given a white robe and they were told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete." In other words they were told about what was going on, on earth. Not only about what was going on at the time, but what would go on in the future. That is, you'll be vindicated in a short while but more martyrdoms must first take place. At least they have some general awareness that there is a short time in which more martyrs will be gathered and then at the end of that short time, vindication will come. They have knowledge. They have concern. They've got a capacity to intercede and they also have a greater knowledge than people down on earth and it comes from God. Why? Because they're blessed. Revelation 22, verse 14 tells us this.
At the end of Revelation this beatitude is pronounced upon those it says, "Blessed are they that have washed their robes." What do you mean "washed their robes?" You know, in other words, they had time to go down to the Laundromat right before God called them home? Of course not. "Blessed are they that have washed their robes," refers back to Revelation 7:14. I know we're flipping around rather fast but we have to catch up. I mean these non-Catholic Bible Christians really know their Bibles. We've got to learn how to flip back and forth. I mean six-year-old Bible Christians have sword drills. "This is the sword of the spirit," they're told. So they have sword drills. Malachi 2:14, first one there gets a star. Get ten stars, you get some candy or you get something else, you know? We ought to have sword drills.
Revelation 7:14 (Beat 'ya. Young kids love to compete. It ought to be a good thing to try.) "Then one of the elders addressed me saying, 'Who are these clothed in white robes and whence have they come?' I said to him, 'Sir, you know.' He said to me, ' These are they who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. These are the great multitude from every nation who stand before the throne of the Lamb." We know that from reading the larger context and we're told in 7:15, "They serve him night and day in the temple," the heavenly temple. There is a liturgical service going on in the heavenly temple. Ours is only a pale reflection that dimly compares with the glorious worship that's going on there and these folks all serve day and night in the heavenly temple.
But they are not allowed to pray for us, right? Give me a break! Would God get mad? Would he take offense? Of course they pray for us! How is it that they serve? Look over at chapter 8, verse 3, "And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer." So there is censorship in heaven. No, no, I'm sorry, I misspoke! "Stood at the altar with a golden censer and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne."
The saints that are spoken of should be interpreted contextually as the saints who have been martyred who now serve in heaven. Now we can have a secondary application which would include, of course, the earthly saints as well; but contextually it's the heavenly saints that are spoken of. And what are they doing? Praying. And that prayer is raised with incense by the angel at the altar to God upon the golden altar before the throne," which was right in front of the Holy of Holies in the earthly temple just as it is in the heavenly temple. "And the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God."
And what happens? God in response to the prayers of the saints plays a number. He calls up the heavenly priests to take their seven trumpets and to blow. It triggers the seven trumpets which trigger in turn all kinds of earthly activity that vindicate the saints and avenges their blood and takes down those who have been proud and haughty before God. Do you realize the power of liturgical worship? People say, "Well, you ought to get involved." I say, "That's right. We ought to get involved. We ought to really do the things that would change the injustices of earth beginning with good liturgical worship." Because if you read Revelation and you understand the message, you've got to realize that there's one thing above all others that changes things, bad things. And that is worshipping God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength.
It unleashes all of the things that the people on earth need from God in response to the prayers of the saints. It isn't argued. It isn't debated. It isn't logically demonstrated. It's assumed and graphically described. And what do we pray? "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Our liturgical worship is an imitation of the heavenly worship. Our intercession is an imitation of their intercession. But how can we do it if we don't have any idea of what they are doing and they have no idea what we're doing? That's not communion and that's not what Revelation describes either.
You can go back a little bit. You can see this even earlier in Revelation, Chapter 5, verse 8. I love this section. "The twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense which are the prayers of the saints, they sang a new song." They not only play the instruments, but they sing the songs and they praise the Lamb. But then they pray for the people who are in need. And what has Christ done after they pray? Does He say, "Come on, guys. Isn't my prayer enough? Is not the fact that I am High Priest sufficient for all of the needs of my people in heaven and on earth? Just hush up and take it easy?"
No, he didn't say that. What does he do? Verse 10, "He makes them a kingdom and priests who are God's sons and they shall reign on earth." In heaven their reign extends to earth. Christ has made them a kingdom of priests. In other words, what God offered on Mount Sinai, Exodus 19:6, which they refused and then God continually offers through David and Solomon, then they refuse; God offers through Jesus and the apostles and Jesus accepts and establishes, therefore, a new covenant on the basis of his acceptance. And through his power, he does what Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David put together times a hundred, could never do makes us all a kingdom of priests, if only we will receive by faith and cooperate with that grace.
We are a kingdom of priests. Does that undermine our king? Does that take away from the priestly authority of Jesus? No. It manifests it. Like pure light hitting a prism shows the intrinsic hidden beauty of that light as those rays are refracted, you see what was there in the light all along but we couldn't see it until it was refracted against the prism. That's the beauty of Christ, refracted through his saints and their intercessory prayers. And they sing the song about the Lamb and they talk about how he has received the power and the wealth and the wisdom and the might and the honor and the glory and the blessing. But what does Christ do with all of it? He turns around and gives it to us.
They have thrones and they have crowns and what do they do? They lay down their crowns. Christ picks them up and hands them back again and says, "Sit down on the thrones. You're my priests. You're my kings and I commit unto you judgment." You can see that over in chapter 4, verse 4, "the twenty-four thrones with the golden crowns." Why is this, because Christ isn't enough? Not at all. Because Christ is too far away? Of course not. On the contrary, it's because these saints trust that Christ's grace is sufficient, the very grace they now possess as martyred saints glorified in heaven.
Revelation 14:13 says it all. "And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ' Write this down: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. Blessed, indeed, says the Spirit that they may rest from their labors; for their deeds follow them." Now, we don't worship the blessed saints who have been martyred and raised and glorified in heaven. We don't worship them. In fact Revelation 19, verse 10 tells us not to worship them where the angel comes to John and John falls down and what does he say? "Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, ' You must not do that. I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.'" Hear, hear, "Worship God." That's the only one we worship. Then what do we do? Because we worship God and because we try to imitate God, we bless those that he has blessed. We honor those that he honors. That's the way of the covenant. That's always been the way of the covenant as we shall see.
Three Classes of Saints
Throughout the Revelation there are three classes of saints, the martyrs, the virgins and the confessors who are consistently held up as the example for us. For instance, turn with me now to Revelation 14, verse 4 (Beat 'ya! Give that woman a star. That's great. I wasn't ready for that. A taste of my own medicine.) In 14, verse 1, we are told about the hundred and forty-four thousand. The twelve tribes of Israel all donate twelve thousand saints. What kind of saints? We're told they sing a new song before the throne of the Lamb. It's a song but no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand of them redeemed from the earth. Must be a Jewish song, you know? Only the Jews can sing from the twelve tribes of Israel.
"It is these who have not defiled themselves with women for they are chaste," my non-Catholic version reads and in the footnote it says, "Greek: virgins." So why not translate it virgins? What are they? We dare not say that word too loud, too often in our society. Why? Is sexual intercourse wrong? No way. It's what consummates the marital covenant. It's what makes the sacrament legally indissoluble. It's what makes new life, as we become co-creators with God by the grace of Christ. Is intercourse bad? No, it's good. Is marriage bad? No, it's holy. It's a sacrament in the Catholic Church. It confers Christ's grace ex opere operato.
But God does reserve special blessings for those who renounce very good earthly goods for even better heavenly goods. 1st Corinthians, 7. Let's turn to 1st Corinthians, 7 (On your mark, get set, go. I didn't tell you which verse though.) 1st Corinthians 7, verse 32. Saint Paul says, "I want you to be free from anxiety. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs and how to please his wife." So his interests are divided and the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs and how to please her husband. All married people say, "Amen."
Does that mean we can't serve the Lord? Of course not. We can serve the Lord but we also have to take care of very mundane, temporary, transient things. That's okay. God will use those as means of grace. But they are not permanent and our families here below are not permanent because they are bound by the bonds of Adam's flesh and blood which has got to die and be resurrected in Christ and be members of a new covenant family.
Does that mean family life is bad? No, it's holy. We should be priests in our domestic churches. Fathers, bless your kids at night before they go to bed. Sing songs at the dinner table. Pray prayers, and not just, "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty." I dare you to try some extemporaneous prayer sometime. It's not a Protestant monopoly. We can pray from our heart as God's children and we must.
But Paul, the inspired, errorless apostle here is communicating what God wants to communicate because the Holy Spirit is the principal author even of these words. "I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you." We're allowed to marry and it's glorious. "But to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord." And it goes on. We won't read any further but, verse 38, "So that he who marries is betrothed does well, but he who refrains from marriage does better."
I had a good friend of mine, an ex-Catholic and an anti-Catholic now say to me just last week, "Well,Paul does not mean for life." I said, "Okay, show me where that's the case." We looked and we looked some more and we looked in vain. And I said, "You know, when you go back and you look at Revelation 14:4, those one hundred and forty-four thousand virgins were not temporary virgins. God makes us all temporary virgins and then make many permanent virgins, but in marriage we should all be virgins, right?"
No, that's not what the Bible is saying. We put words in Christ 's mouth and in Paul's mouth? These people died as virgins. Now if somebody could say, "Well, in ancient Israel there was no customary tradition that extolled virginity." Among the Pharisees, sad to say, it's very true. There was no such custom. But you have to deny what is plain and evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essene community in the Qumran sect, at least, because they extolled virginity. Now, if you were married, you could also be a holy member of the community. Noahan Essenes like Josephus and Philo and other Jews recognize it even though they weren't Essenes, they might be Pharisees, they might be Sadducees, they might be Zealots; nevertheless all the other groups of Jews knew which group was the most righteous and holy, the Essenes.
They were the ones who extol virginity. This is no novelty. Mary when she refers implicitly to this pledge of virginity, when she says, "How can this be since I have not known a man?" Well, the angel would just simply have said, "Well, in a few months when you do get married, you'll make love and you will have a baby." I mean, did she not know basic anatomy and biology? No, as the early Fathers of the Church have always said implicit in that text, the only way it makes sense for her not to be saying something nonsensical, it means that she, like the Essenes was entering the marriage with a full recognition of the glory and the holiness of marriage and marital love, physical, sexual love, but even a greater superior blessing if God confers the grace to live virginally in a marriage.
And that's what Paul's talking about in Corinthians 7 when he says, "If your passion for your betrothed is too great, if your passion for your virgin is the literal rendering." Now some translations say, "Is it daughter, is it the fiancιe, is it your sister or what?" Well, Paul was saying something that he assumes the Corinthian Christian understand clearly. And from earliest days people were imitating Mary and Joseph, and even before Mary and Joseph this custom was found in Judaism among the holiest. It might be a hard pill for Americans to swallow because we like our sex in as many different ways as possible. That's the best way to sell books and films and whatever else you've got. And sex is not bad but good.
Marital sex is sacred. It's the means by which natural life is co- created with God. But there is something even greater. We've got to pray for our priests and religious, brothers and sisters. I'm not sure there has ever been a culture which has so sorely tried and tempted them. We've got to pray that they, too, can somehow join the one hundred forty-four thousand and we'll join with them too, because in addition to the hundred and forty-four thousand, there are those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, a vast multitude that no man can number. And they sing songs and worship the Lamb. They are priests and kings as well. God shows no partiality. St. Paul says to Timothy, "If you suffer with Christ, you will reign with Christ." If you suffer. And that's who we see reigning with Christ in the Book of Revelation.
This is why in the litany of Loretto, for instance, what is Our Lady? Queen of martyrs, Queen of virgins and Queen of confessors and then Queen of all saints, pray for us. This is taken right from the Apocalypse. It's really taken right from heaven, taken from the work of Jesus Christ. We can also see in Revelation 20, verses 4 through 6, the same idea. "Blessed and holy are those who have been martyred. They are seated on heavenly thrones" And what? Why? Verse 4, "Then I saw thrones and seated on them were those to whom judgment was committed."
Jesus Christ is the true judge. He sits on the great white throne that is described later on in Revelation 20, verse 11. But then He has subsidiary thrones. Why? Because He commits judgment for them. St. Paul says to the Corinthians, "Don't you know that you will judge the angels? They sit enthroned with divine judgment entrusted to them." They're like deputies. They're like Barney Fife only with much greater wisdom and power. They're deputized by Christ himself. They execute Christ's judgment for His glory for Christ, in Christ and through Christ.
Then let them judge. Let them pass sentence. Let them find out what things need judgment. Let them know. Pray to them and ask for their intercession in the one, sole mediator because, why? Because they are priests of God and of Christ we are told right in this text, verse 6. "They shall be priests of God and of Christ and reign with Him. Amen! Thank you, Jesus. Why? Because Christ's priesthood is not enough? No, because Christ is a generous giver and He gives a share to all of us who will cooperate with that grace.
Suggestions for Talking with Non-Catholics
Now I've got to tell you that whenever you talk to non-Catholics or even some Catholics who may be confused or ex-Catholics, you've got to ground this in Christ. You've got to root all of it in Jesus. It's His life, it's His grace, it's His blessing and His blessedness that we share in. The reason why the dead are blessed in 14:13, the reason why the martyrs are blessed in 22:14 is because they are in Christ; but they are blessed.
When Christ blesses you, rest assured, you are blessed! And that's why Our Lady can say in Luke 1:48, "Henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed." We're only proving her right and all we are doing is joining in with the angels because, what did the angels say? The angel blessed her, "Hail, full of grace, blessed are you among women." And when we call to the mother of God, that's practically what Elizabeth says, "The mother of my Lord has come."
So why is the rosary so offensive? The first half is nothing but scripture: "Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary," (because Christ has made her holy,) "Mother of God," (Elizabeth declared her to be the mother of the Lord,) "pray for us sinners," (what are we confessing? We're confessing our own depravity). I mean that's the doctrine of sin. "Pray for us sinners," (now because we are weak and dependent) "and at the hour of our death, " (when we come before God). Look at all the good theology there.
We've got the doctrine of sin. We've got the doctrine of salvation. We've got the doctrine of grace. We've even got eschatology, the "hour of our death." I mean seldom do you find a paragraph in a theology textbook that's got so much good doctrine and good scripture. And all we are doing is echoing the angel and all he was doing was echoing Jesus because all he is, is a messenger of God, with God's message.
We bless God who is blessed over all and then we bless those whom He blesses because that is the nature of the covenant. It always has been. On your mark, get set, Genesis 27:29 (greater distance, this time. I'll give you a clue. It's after the table of contents and before the maps.) Genesis (Okay, okay, you both get a star.) The blessing of Israel, listen to this blessing of Israel, "Let people serve you," Isaac blesses Israel, "and nations bow down to you. Be Lord over your brothers and may your mother's sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you. Blessed be everyone who blesses you."
That's what we do in venerating the saints. We bless those that God has blessed. That's it. "Blessed be everyone who blesses you." That is the nature of the covenant in the Old Times and the blessings don't diminish in the New Covenant. They increase. And so, if you are blessed when you bless those that God blessed back then, how much more blessed are you going to be when you bless those that God has blessed in Christ? It's ultimately the blessing of Christ.
We don't pray to the saints instead of Christ. We pray through the saints to God in Christ. Now you can say it various ways and you can have secondary meanings that could be right, but ultimately, the saints don't answer our prayers. They echo our prayers with greater profundity, insight and love. "The prayer of a righteous man availeth much." That's not only found in the New Testament, but that is basically witnessed throughout scripture. "The prayer of a righteous man availeth much." It's not just righteous men on earth but righteous men and women in general, wherever they are. They can pray and have it avail much.
That is beautiful. The German word for bless is segnum. It's actually derived from the Latin signare, which means to make the sign of the cross. The cross is the source of all blessing. We don't detract from the cross when we bless the saints whom Christ has blessed. We hold up the cross. We exemplify the cross. We exemplify the work of Christ. 2nd Timothy, 2, verses 11 and 12. I've already mentioned this, but I will mention it one more time. "If we die with Christ, we shall live with Him. If we suffer or endure with Christ, we shall reign with Him."
We imitate Christ. That is the call of the Christian. We honor those whom Christ honors with the same honor with which He honors them. That's the first and perhaps most fundamental reason but secondly, we want to follow their heroic example as they imitated Christ. I know for a fact that I've seen in many families where, if you have a good firstborn, the others can follow his example. I know from my experience that if you get a firstborn who goes astray, the chances are much greater that the others will go astray, like I did. Thanks be to God, he reaches us no matter where we are or who we are or what we do, but the fact is examples, especially heroic examples often help a great deal.
Think of American culture. The father of our country, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and so many others inspire courage and so what do we do? Erect monuments. And so what do Christians do, bash them and crash them and crush them? That's idolatry? No. We're not worshipping the statues, but we are venerating and honoring the memory of those who have sacrificed that we may live and prosper in natural life here below. And how much more would it be fit and proper to erect statues and have paintings and icons of those whose sacrifice provided us with supernatural life to prosper in Christ.
All we are doing is celebrating Christ's works, Christ's masterpieces, especially when it comes to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Worship God and God alone, but venerate, honor and bless those that he has honored and those he has blessed. We're only imitating Christ and we are only helping ourselves and others to follow the heroic example of His virtue and His sacrifice.
Now before I close, I want to take a kind of concluding tangent. Perhaps I should have taken it yesterday, but I've talked about Mary quite a bit this morning as well as yesterday. I focused upon our Lady yesterday, so you might think I shouldn't focus on her this morning, but I like to focus on her every day. In particular there is one question that has already risen at least implicitly. We've talked about her and the Church teaches that we give dulia, we give veneration and honor to the saints, but to the one who is the Queen of all saints, we give hyper-dulia, which is not the same as latria, which is worship.
They're finite. They're creatures. They'd be lost and dead in sin were it not for the grace of Christ. God alone is infinite, eternal. He alone possesses esseity, self-existence. They have being. He is being itself. We never forget it. Let's help others realize that we never forget it and make the distinction clear. And let's make our worship of God all the better so that our dulia will be distinguished from our latria.
But what about the perpetual virginity of Mary? I mean we've talked about Mary and the hyper-dulia. We've talked about the virtue of virginity. Why the doctrine of perpetual virginity? Why is that defined de fide as something Catholics must believe to be in good standing with the Church? Well, for one reason because it's true. Second, because the Church has always accepted it and the Church has always taught it. The Creed of Epiphaneus in 374, "Mary, ever virgin." Second Council of Constantinople in 553 as well as the Lateran Council in 649, "Mary, ever virgin." Augustine insisted upon it. In addition to St. Augustine, St. Jerome wrote a book on the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in response to Helvidious who in 380 was the very first person on record to actually deny Mary's perpetual virginity and to suggest that Jesus' brothers were blood brothers and sons of Mary.
Jerome didn't even want to write the book. He thought Helvidious was so weird. He referred "to the novel, wicked and daring affront to the faith of the whole world" at the denial of the perpetual virginity that this upstart represented. Luther believed in it. Calvin affirmed it. Zwingle, they all spoke of "Mary, ever virgin" in their writings. Well, wait a second. How do you deal with the Biblical passages?
Why don't we do that just briefly? The brethren of Christ is probably the greatest obstacle. Matthew 1:25 is the passage we looked at before, "He knew her not until she brought forth her firstborn son." Now I've already said that the word "until" can be a conjunctive. What I mean is that "until" does not always mean something like, "Well, she was a virgin until after she had a child and then she ceased to be a virgin." It doesn't always mean that. For instance in 2nd Samuel 6, verse 23, "Mishal, Saul's daughter and David's wife, had no children until the day of her death." 2nd Samuel 6:23, "Mishal had no children until the day of her death," which obviously does not mean she had twins at her funeral. Deuteronomy 34, verse 6 speaks about Moses' burial, which God apparently performed and it says, "No man knows of Moses' burial place until this present day." Well, it doesn't mean that when Deuteronomy was written, they found it. They never found it.
So the Knox translation of Matthew 1:25 is that he knew her not at any time before she brought forth her firstborn son. Well, what about that phrase "firstborn?" Doesn't that imply second and third born? No, of course it doesn't, and anyone who knows the Old Testament realizes it because firstborn in Exodus 13:2 and elsewhere and Exodus 34 as well is actually a technical term for the child that " opens the womb." The firstborn is consecrated automatically to the Lord. Even if you have many others that firstborn is consecrated and special.
Well, you could say, "This is unnatural for her not to have relations with Joseph." Well, not if she made a sacred pledge which apparently was a custom back then, even if it was rare. But let's take it a step further and say, "Okay, it is a little bit unnatural to be married and not have sexual relations with your partner, but it's also unnatural to conceive the second person of the Godhead in your womb and to have your womb become the ultimate, cosmic tabernacle of salvation for all God's children. To be set apart for the holiest conceivable purpose in all of human history."
I mean we don't use our finest china for backyard picnics, do we? And so, if God uses this vessel for the holiest purpose conceivable to man, Joseph may have had a sense of propriety about other uses that are not unholy in themselves, just like picnics and plastic cups are not unholy, but things belong in their proper place. It is a little bit unnatural to give birth to the Second Person of the Trinity, teach the God who created you to walk and to talk and to pray. It wouldn't be unnatural, I think, if you found yourself in this situation, it wouldn't be unlikely to devote yourself so entirely to serving God in this absolutely unique and spectacular and strange opportunity of a lifetime.
It's not just a normal family. The Holy Family is an exemplar, but it isn't the typical family because not many people have for a son or a brother the eternal Logos. That's one of a kind. So their marriage was one of a kind.
But wait a second. What about those who were called specifically the brothers of Jesus? Take one example, James. James, we're told is the brother of Jesus. But wait a second, if you study the cross scene, you might learn what that means. Matthew 27:56 speaks of Mary at the cross who is the mother of James and Joseph. Mark 15:40, you can go to the Paramount text describes Mary the mother of James the Less. And then in John 19, verse 25 we read about Mary, Jesus' mother and then the next phrase is, "Mary the wife of Cleophus."
Now it's obvious as you correlate these three texts, Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40 and John 19:25, that Mary the wife of Cleophus, distinct from Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the mother of James. But only after you have correlated the three texts. Somebody could say, "Wait a second. Matthew 10:3 describes James as the son of Alphaeus, but the overwhelming majority of scholars say that probably Cleophus is the Greek name for the same man who is called Alphaeus, because it was very typical to have an Aramiac name like Alphaeus at the same time you took a Greek name for the Greek-speaking folks in your community, such as Cleophus. Like Saul, the Pharisee. Saul is his Jewish name. God didn't say, "I'm going to change your name to Paul." That was already his legal, Roman name. It was common back then.
I also would suggest that you turn and consider John 19 at the foot of the cross. If Jesus had other brothers, older brothers, like in John 7; a lot of people supported the fact that he seems to have older brothers then who do you think he is to entrust his mother to John, the beloved disciple? But if you do some in-depth study of this, you will discover that James and John were Jesus' cousins and what Jesus was doing was entrusting his mother to one of his cousins, the beloved disciple. At least that's what countless scholars hold. Which would be very natural if you had no blood brothers but you did have cousins. And in the Hebrew there is no word for cousin. The word that's used is brother, not just for cousin but for nephews, as well.
Examples abound. Genesis 14:14, Lot is called Abraham's brother. Technically Uncle Abraham had Lot as a nephew. Genesis 29, verse 15 speaks about Uncle Laban being Jacob's brother. Actually, I think it's the other way around, Jacob is Laban's brother. It's a nephew relationship but in Hebrew there's no word for cousin. And so what you find the Greek Old Testament doing is not translating Genesis 14:14 "cousin," but transliterating it adelphos or brother, even though the translator knows we are talking about a nephew or a cousin in other cases. And what seems to happen in the New Testament is quite the same thing. That is, this custom is carried over into the New Testament books.
Adelphos is used frequently to denote those that we can prove to be cousins, not anepsios which is used infrequently because it wasn't in keeping with Hebrew custom. We could go on looking at other examples and other proofs. But let me say again that when this novel discovery, when this brand new teaching that Jesus had brothers and sisters was introduced by Helvidious in 380, almost four centuries after Christ, all St. Jerome could say is that this is novel, wicked and a daring affront to the faith of the whole world.
We, brothers and sisters, have a bad case of amnesia. We have forgotten what we need to recall. And not only do we need to recall it, we need to live it and love it and share it and increase our knowledge about it. And after all, you might say, "I don't have time. I don't have energy. But look, we've got sixty, seventy, eighty years here. Some have thirty, forty, fifty, but what better use for our time can you think of than to get to know the Blessed Trinity and all that Christ has done to save us and to make us his family? Can you think of better things to do with your time? I can't.
We've got boot camp here. We've got training ground. We've got to prepare ourselves for an eternity with God. We've got to learn to love worship. We've got to learn to love the saints. We've got to practice so that when we get up there, it isn't going to be strange and new. What will be strange and new will be to behold the glory of Christ in their faces, but those fraternal bonds will be just increasingly strengthened through this life preparing us for that grand reunion, for that great homecoming. Because heaven is our home. The Blessed Trinity is the first family and all of the saints are our brothers and sisters.
And so we imitate Christ. We hold fast to the ancient faith of the Church as we venerate saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Scott Hahn "Saints: Holy Siblings." from Answering Common Objections St. Joseph Communications.
Reprinted with permission of Scott Hahn.
Dr. Scott Hahn is professor of theology and Scripture at
Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. He received his M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell
Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in biblical theology from Marquette
University. Scott Hahn is a former ordained Presbyterian minister with ten years
of ministry experience and a former Professor of Theology at Chesapeake
Copyright © 2001 Scott Hahn