The God of the Living
I can think of no easy or short way to explain to a Christian culture, one that has been quite heavily influenced by secularization, the reasons why Orthodox Christians petition the saints for prayer. It is a great hurdle even for those who are interested in Orthodoxy. I know it shocked me when, at a Divine Liturgy, the priest asking Mary to intercede for us. I believe our trouble with this concept stems from a lack of understanding of what the Church is, what prayer is, and where God is.
The Church, that is the body of Christ, is one. It is not split between those who are living and those who are dead. There are not two churches.
There is a passage recorded in Luke 20:34-40 in which the Sadducees challenged Jesus about what they felt was the absurdity of the resurrection. Jesus chastises them saying, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to Him.”
The Two Story Universe
The secularism of the modern age subconsciously forces us to think of life as a two story universe (as Fr Stephen Freeman calls it). We the living are here on the first floor, and God, heaven, the angels, and the good folk who have passed away are located on the second floor (unless you believe in the false doctrine of “soul sleep,” then these people cease to exist until the resurrection). This perspective has completely warped our understanding of spirituality.
We relegate prayer to the second floor of this universe. We hope our prayers get “up there” and are heard by God so he can send an angel or some kind of answer “down here.” Often we pray in order to receive something or to persuade God to act in a certain way. However, the true purpose of prayer is theosis… that is communion and oneness with God. We pray in order to connect with God.
Everywhere Present and Filling All Things
God is within us and all around. He surrounds and pervades every single cell in our body; every subatomic particle is bathed in the presence of the God who literally holds all things together (Col 1:15-17). Our prayers never need to get “up there” because God is already “down here,” present in every corner of our lives, revealing that there never was a second floor: He is next to us and within us, truly “everywhere present and filling all things.” God hears our every prayer because He is the one who is breathing within us and enabling us to live and pray.
But our God is in heaven and on earth ~Psalm 113:11 LXX
When we praise and thank God, He is within us. When we curse and yell or feel lonely, He is within us. Nothing is hidden, and nothing is going to shock Him. If you don’t believe me, read the Psalms. There are some horrendous things in there that make me think, “I wouldn’t want to say that to God!” But that book is the recordings of humans communing with God, and it is not always pretty because our lives are sometimes quite difficult.
The Church is One
As mentioned before, the Church is one, not two. All are living to God. There is not a church in heaven enjoying cloud surfing, completely oblivious to the situation on earth. Instead, Hebrews chapter 11 recounts many of the Old Testament saints and then continues into chapter 12 to talk about how they surround us,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Since we are surrounded by the saints who continue to live in Christ then it only makes sense to ask them to join us in prayer. If we acknowledge that the faithful Christians (aka saints) are alive in Christ, then we are left with one of three conclusions: either the saints are apathetic and watch us with a detached lack of sympathy; they are watching with care, but are helpless; or they have succeeded in throwing aside every hindrance of this life and are constantly interceding for their brothers and sister on earth in the Church. I personally believe the third explanation.
To ask the saints for prayer is no more idolatrous than asking those in your congregation or friends for prayer. “Why not go straight to God?” some would ask. But those same people will usually ask others to pray for them because they acknowledge that there is something special about the Church praying together as one. Not only that, but we move toward oneness with Christ and His body when we recognize that we are not in this alone, and that we need each other. Nobody is saved on their own, but we are saved together. Christ has chosen to bring salvation to the world through His Church, and that includes those whom we can see now and those whom we will one day see.