How Do the Saints Help Us?
The intercession of the saints has been sought and invoked in the Church from almost the very beginning of its history—i.e., from the time that the Church began to produce martyrs, which happened very early indeed.1 It had always been the view in Israel (and therefore in the Church) that those in heaven somehow can see what transpires on earth and are praying for us.
Thus, for example, we read in 2 Maccabees 15:12f that the martyred high priest Onias “was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews.” Moreover, he was joined in his intercession by a man “distinguished by his gray hair and dignity and marvellous majesty and authority.” Onias revealed in the vision that “This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city—Jeremiah the prophet of God.”
This view continued into New Testament times and lay behind our Lord’s words that those in heaven rejoice over the repentance of a single sinner on earth (Luke 15:7)—for how else could they know of the sinner’s repentance unless earth somehow lay open to the gaze of those in heaven? The same view also undergirds the image found in Hebrews 12:1, which uses an athletic race to portray the Christian struggle. We on earth are running the race of faith, cheered on by a “great cloud of witnesses” observing us from the heavenly stands. We see also in the Book of Revelation2 that the saints know what is happening on earth while they are in heaven.
Therefore, the saints in heaven are not separated from us here, still struggling on earth. There are not two churches—the Church Triumphant (in heaven), and the Church Militant (on earth). There is just one single Church, whose members share unity in Christ and pray for one another. Therefore, in the Divine Liturgy we say,
We offer unto Thee this reasonable worship for those who have fallen asleep in the faith: ancestors, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith, especially for our most, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, for the holy, Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John, the holy, glorious, all-laudable apostles, and all Thy saints, at whose supplication look down upon us, O God.
Our invocation of the saints’ prayers finds its context in this vast network of mutual love and intercession. The saints are already praying for us because we are part of the Church. Yet love is specific—as specific as friendship, and so as friendship grows between us and a particular heavenly saint, we enjoy that saint’s particular intercession as well. We have our own patron saint, on whose love and intercession we rely, just as we also rely upon the love and prayers of our Christian friends on earth. But our heavenly friends, because they are closer to Christ, have a more powerful prayer than our friends on earth. This is why the Church has always invoked the prayers of its martyrs. If, for example, the prayers of Polycarp for his flock in Smyrna had power while on earth, how much more power will his prayers have now that he is in heaven close to the throne of God?
One sometimes hears that the saints in heaven do not provide any help for us except for the help of intercession, and that they do not help and heal us themselves, but only pray for Christ to heal us. It is doubtful if such a dichotomy can be sustained. For Christ sent his apostles out to heal (Matt 10:8), and it is recorded that they did indeed heal the sick (Mark 6:13). So, who healed those people—the apostles or Christ? Obviously, both! One could say, “The apostles healed by the power of Christ” or one could equally well say, “Christ healed through his apostles.”3
The saints, then, do hear us and heal us, for it is Jesus Christ who heals through them. Hymns to the saints (such as akathists) are all part of our ultimate praise to Jesus. We love the saints because they are his friends, and we praise them for their help, because this powerful help comes ultimately from Christ. And the saints themselves are the works of Christ, the divine Author. That is why at the feasts of the saints we praise Christ by saying, “God is wonderful in his saints!”