The season of Lent is here with us again. And as we get into prayer, penance, and almsgiving, it would be good practice to implore the Saints to help us in prayer so that we might have a fruitful Lenten season. It is also enlightening to find out what the early Church thought about asking for the intercession of the saints. The early Church Fathers of the Church were the most respected pastors and theologians of their day. Their opinion on matters of faith set the standard for what is today thought to be biblical Christian teaching.
Intercession of the Saints
Let us consider how some of their many writings have recognized the Biblical teaching that those in heaven (i.e. Saints) can and do intercede for us. It is agreed that they unanimously taught and applied this teaching in their practices. In addition, there are some anonymous writings from funerary inscriptions near St. Sabina’s Basilica in Rome, which are dated as early as 300 A.D., which also supports this doctrine.
One of these dedications implores someone named Atticus to “sleep in peace, secure in safety, and pray anxiously for our sins”. Another one asks a baby called Matronata Matrona, who lived one year and fifty-two days, to pray for her parents. There is an inscription at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth that simply states, “Hail, Mary!” (200 AD). From the John Ryland Library of Manchester (England) is a papyrus that is believed to be the oldest known fragment of the New Testament. In this is yet another inscription that implores the Mother of God to listen to our petitions and not disregard us in adversity, but instead rescue us from danger (Rylands Papyrus 3, 350 AD).
The Shepherd of Hermas is a Christian literary work of the 1st or 2nd century that was considered canonical scripture by some of the early Church Fathers including St. Irenaeus. In this work, the Shepherd teaches that those who are weak and slothful in prayer hesitate to ask anything from the Lord.
Since the Lord is full of compassion, He nonetheless gives without fail to all who ask Him. The Shepherd then tells Hermas (and I believe He tells us too), that having been strengthened by the holy angel (whom Hermas is said to have apparently seen), and having obtained from that same angel such intercession (as we also undoubtedly do), is not (as we also are not) at all to be slothful. Hermas (as well as you and I) ought, therefore, to ask of the Lord understanding and be sure to receive it from Him (The Shepherd 3:5:4, 80 AD).
Origen of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria ( † circa 254) was a biblical scholar and an early Christian theologian who believed that apart from the High Priest praying for those who pray sincerely, the angels and the departed saints do also the same (On Prayer 11, 233 AD). Then there are those who wish to stand in God’s grace, whom St. Hilary of Poitiers (†368) advises that neither the guardianship of saints nor the defenses of angels are to be found wanting (Commentary on the Psalms 124:5:6, 365 AD).
St. Clement of Alexandria
From the writings of St. Clement of Alexandria (†215), a true Christian is always pure for prayer when the Christian also prays in the society of angels, as being already of angelic rank, and is never out of their holy keeping. He adds that although the Christian may physically pray alone, he always has the choir of the saints standing with him in prayer (Miscellanies 7:12, 208 AD).
St. Cyprian of Carthage
In his teachings, St. Cyprian of Carthage (†258) makes a request to saints who will depart to pray for us who are on earth because departed Christians have a continual awareness of what goes on with those on earth. We must, therefore, remember one another in concord and unanimity, and relieve burdens and afflictions by mutual love. It is important that all of us on both sides of death must always pray for one another. In this way, our love continues in the presence of the Lord, and our prayers for our brethren and sisters cease not in the presence of the Father’s mercy (Letters 56 :5, 253 AD).
The martyred St. Methodius of Olympus (†311), who was an important theologian as well as a prolific and polished author, venerates the Blessed Mother of God as the most excellent among women, who glories in the confidence of her maternal honors. The saint prays that the Blessed Mother would unceasingly keep in remembrance those who make their boast in her and who in hymns august celebrate the memory which will ever live and never fade away.
St. Methodius also venerates Simeon of the Presentation as the earliest host of our holy religion and teacher of the resurrection of the faithful. He beseeches Simeon (who we know was by the time of these writings long gone from this world) to be our patron and advocate with that Savior God, whom he was deemed worthy to receive into his arms. He further urges that we, together with Simeon, should sing our praises to the Lord Jesus Christ, who has the power of life and death. And recognize Him who is the true Light proceeding from the true Light, and the true God, begotten of the true God (Oration on Simeon and Anna 14, 305 AD).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
In his 5th Lecture on the Mysteries (On the Eucharistic Rite), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (†386) testifies that during the Eucharistic prayer we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us. We celebrate first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition. Then on behalf also of the Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word of all those who in past years have fallen asleep among us. All the while believing that it will be a very great benefit to the souls for whom the supplication is put up at that particular moment that the Eucharistic sacrifice is set forth (Catechetical Lectures 23:9, 350 AD).
St. Ephraim the Syrian
In The Fear at the End of Life, one of the writings of St. Ephraim the Syrian (†373) the saints are implored as heirs of God and brethren of Christ, to remember him and to earnestly supplicate the Savior for him, so that Ephraim may be freed through the Lord Jesus Christ from him that fights against him day by day (The Fear at the End of Life, 370 AD).
In his Commentary on Mark (370 AD), St. Ephraim beseeches the victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the Lord God and Savior, and who have the boldness of speech toward the Lord Himself. These are the saints whom he asks to intercede for us, we who are timid and sinful men (and women) and full of sloth. That they intercede so that the grace of Christ comes upon us and enlightens the hearts of all of us, so that we may come to so love him (Commentary on Mark, 370 AD).
St. Basil the Great
On his part, St. Basil the Great (†379) charges that it is by the command of God’s only begotten Son that we communicate with the memory of His saints. So, he beseeches that by their prayers and supplications the Lord God may have mercy upon us all, and deliver us for the sake of His Holy Name (Liturgy of St. Basil, 373 AD).
In his writings against the Manicheans, St. Augustine of Hippo (†430) says that Christian people celebrate together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers (Against Faustus the Manichean, 400 AD). Accordingly, he argues that at the Lord’s Table, we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do others who rest in peace, so as to pray for them. No, it is rather so that they may pray for us in order that we may follow in their footsteps (Homilies on John 84, 416 AD).
In his epitaph, Pectorius’ plea is with Aschandius, his father, whom he refers to as the dearly beloved of his heart, together with his sweet mother and with his brethren. They are to remember their Pectorius in the peace of the Christ (Epitaph of Pectorius, 375 AD).
St. Gregory of Nazianzus
In his oration on Cyprian, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (†389 AD) urges that he (Cyprian) may look down from above propitiously upon us, and guide our word and life; and shepherd this sacred flock in order to gladden the Holy Trinity, before which he stands (Orations 17(24), 380 AD). And St. Gregory felt well assured that his father’s intercession was of more avail than was his instruction in former days. The reason he says is that his father is now closer to God, having now shaken off his bodily fetters and freed his mind from the clay that used to obscure it. Thus, he now holds conversation naked with the nakedness of the prime and purest mind, being promoted, to the rank and confidence of an angel. (Orations 18, 380 AD).
St. Gregory of Nyssa
On his part, St. Gregory of Nyssa (†395) addresses St. Ephraim the Syrian (†373) as one who is standing at the divine altar in heaven, to bear us all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition of an everlasting kingdom (Sermon on Ephraim the Syrian, 380 AD).
St. John Chrysostom
In his homilies, St. John Chrysostom (†407) teaches that the one who wears purple (i.e. royalty) should stand begging of the saints to be his patrons with God, just as the one who wears a diadem begs the tentmaker (Paul) and the fisherman (Peter) as patrons, even though these be dead (Homilies on 2nd Corinthians 26, 392 AD). He also gives advice to any who perceives the chastening of the Lord God to fly not to his enemies, but to his friends, the martyrs, the saints, and those who were pleasing to the Lord God, and who have great power in God (Orations 8:6, 396 AD).
St. Dominic of Osma
On his deathbed, St. Dominic of Osma (†1221) was heard to urge those around him not to weep, since he was bound to be more useful to them after his death and should thus help them more effectively than during his life. In Hexameron, one of the writings of St. Ambrose of Milan (†397), he prays that St. Peter who wept so efficaciously for himself may also weep for us so as to turn Christ’s benign countenance towards us (The Six Days of Creation 5:25:90, 393 AD).
In the principal works of St. Jerome (†420), he argues that if the apostles and martyrs while still in the body could pray for others at a time when they ought still to have been solicitous about themselves, they surely will much more do the same after they have received their crowns, victories, and triumphs (Against Vigilantius 6, 406 AD).
Therefore, considering then what the early Church Fathers have taught us, we can only do that which Pope St. Leo I the Great (†461) told us; that we rejoice with spiritual joy and make our boast over the happy end of the illustrious man in the Lord so that by his (the saint’s) prayer and intercession we trust at all times to be assisted (Sermons 85:4, 450 AD). Now we know what the early Church Fathers wrote, how about if we also should practice it?
Excerpted from STANDING IN THE GAP: An Invite to Minister as Intercessor by Dr. Pamela Mandela Idenya