31 July 2008

"Most holy Theotokos, save us!" (Part 2)

Here we encounter a problem. How is it that we can call on anyone other than God in prayer? Protestants tend to work with a definition of prayer something like this:

(1) Prayer is talking to God.

Given that definition, any prayer offered to someone other than the Father, Son and Holy Spirit would be idolatry. For it would be treating as God, someone who is not God.

But the word "pray" was not always defined in the Protestant way. It simply means, "request." Those who read Shakespeare have surely encountered the phrase "I prithee," which is a colloquialism for "pray thee." Even now, plaintiffs "pray" the Court in lawsuits to grant them relief.

For us, then,

(2) Prayer is making a request of God, angels, saints, or other believers.

There is this difference, of course--in the last analysis, God is the one who grants all requests. He alone is all-knowing and all-powerful. If God alone grants all requests, why do we ask others?

First, when we ask others to pray for us, we admit our own weakness. We are not ashamed to admit that our needs are beyond our own ability to help; indeed, we do not even know how to pray as we ought.

Second, when we ask others to pray for us, we confess the bond of love that unites us. How shall we not ask others whom we love--how shall we not pray them--to intercede for us before the throne of the merciful and man-loving God? And how can we love others and not pray for them--even and especially our enemies and those who hate us?

Third, when we ask others to pray for us, we are confessing the amazing and biblical truth, that what happened for us in Christ also happens through us. All that Christ is by nature, we become by grace.

Why does the Lord walk on water? Because the divine perfections were communicated to his humanity, and his one Person works in and through both natures in performing his actions.

But why does Peter walk on water? Because through the Head, those same perfections are communicated to his Body. The power Peter displays when he walks on water is not his own power--all too soon he doubts and begins to sink. It is Christ's own power, working in and through him.

Does that mean that each and every believer will, for example, walk on water? No; each member of the Body contributes something, but no one member contributes all. There is one Head, one Body; each Christian is but a member of that body. Eyes see, ears hear.

So St. Paul can say to the Colossians, "I know that this will turn out for my deliverance (Gk soteria) through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ." Here the Spirit and the prayers of the Colossians work in a wonderful synergia.

What of the departed saints, though? Even if they could pray for us--even if they do pray for us--how can we know that they hear our prayers? "We mustn't pray to dead people," some Protestants will say.

But that's the point. The saints aren't dead, they're alive. "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him," Christ told the Sadducees. To claim that the saints are dead, is to subscribe to the world's point of view on death and life--not God's.

How can we know that they hear us? According to Scripture, when believers fall asleep in Christ, they are "with Christ," which, according to St. Paul, is "far better" than our present condition. If, in this present condition I ask people to pray for me, and I trust that they have heard me and will do it, why can I not trust that those others, joined to me and the rest of the Church by one and the same life and love, will also pray for me? The history of the Church (such prayers go back as far as archaeological evidence allows us to say) and the experience of the faithful serve to show those who believe that their requests are not in vain. No amount of "proof" will serve those whose hearts are hard against it.

Look carefully into the eyes of your beloved, and you will see the world behind you, reflected in the beloved's eyes. The saints behold the face of Christ; how shall they not, gazing into his eyes, see reflected in them the whole world?

So it is right and proper for Christians to ask others, including the saints and the Theotokos, to intercede for us with God. And if God chooses to work through their agency to meet our need, it does not take away his glory, but reveals it. "God is wondrous in his saints," says the Psalmist, and especially the Theotokos: "the Queen stood at thy right hand, clothed in a robe of gold and many colors."

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