Brethren, pray for us.
I Thessalonians 5:25
In our study on encouragement, I don’t refer specifically to Orthodox Christian concepts often, because encouragement is something that crosses all denominations of Christianity. Hopefully all Christians agree that one important job of each Christian is to encourage other people. Each denomination has a different way of worshipping, and some even a different understanding of foundational precepts of Christianity.
One thing that is part of Orthodox Christianity is the concept of intercessory prayer. We invoke the intercessions of the saints in our prayers. In other words, we ask the saints to pray for us. And the saints are people who have universally been identified as people who lived extraordinarily God-centered lives. Perhaps they were martyred for the faith, or the Holy Spirit spoke through their sermons or writings in an extraordinary way. Over the two millennia of Christianity, the church has given the title of “saint” to pious people who have given extraordinary witness for God, a witness that “sets them apart.” In fact, the word which is translated as “saint” is the word “agios,” which means “holy,” and “holy” means “set apart for God.” We are all called to be holy. The saints are those who the church recognizes as extraordinarily holy in their life and witness for Christ.
Contrary to what some believe, we do not pray “to” the saints. Rather, we pray through the saints. We ask the saints for their prayers. We ask the saints to enjoin us in bringing our needs before God.
In I Thessalonians 5:25, St. Paul asks for the “intercessions” of all who are reading the letter. His request is simple. “Brethren, pray for us.”
Many people have had the occasion to ask someone else to pray for them. Perhaps one is going on a trip, or is having a serious surgery, and asks others “please keep me in your prayers.” That is intercessory prayer. When you ask someone to pray for you, you are not asking them to pray instead of you, so that they pray for you and you don’t pray for yourself. You are asking them to also include you in their prayers before the Lord.
Which leads to the question that if we can ask others to pray for us, people who are still in their spiritual struggle, why would we not ask the saints to pray for us? If we can ask others to pray for us, why would we ask the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, the angels and other known holy figures to pray for us.
Another way to look at intercessory prayer is like asking someone we don’t know well for something by using an intermediary who knows them better. So, for instance, let’s say that Joe and George are friends. Michael knows George but doesn’t know Joe. Michael needs something from Joe, so he asks George to intercede with Joe on his behalf, to ask Joe for something because George knows Joe better. Ultimately, Michael is the one in need, the one who is asking Joe for something. However, he is going through George in order to take his request to Joe.
Or perhaps Michael does know Joe, but he knows that George knows Joe also and asks George to put in a good word for him, in addition to the good word he is going to put in for himself.
Asking the saints for intercession doesn’t replace going to Christ on our own, just like asking someone to remember us in prayer doesn’t replace us praying on our own. Intercessory prayer bolsters individual prayer because it brings individual prayer into the context of a community. Asking a friend to pray for you brings individual prayer into the context of a community of friends. Asking the saints to pray for us brings individual prayer into a community of holy people.
The most important part of intercessory prayer is that it helps us now that we are not isolated. Many times we are praying out of need, even out of sorrow. Enjoining others in our prayers helps us not to feel isolated and alone. Rather it helps us feel encouraged that we are not alone.
Lord, thank You for the gift of life, and of this day of my life. Each day brings the opportunity for both joy and challenge. Allow me to share both in the context of communities—in the community of friends and in the community of holy people, saints, who have lived their lives centered on You, and who now have made their way to salvation in You. May the community of saints around You also enjoin my prayers with theirs, and may those who are already standing in Your presence in heaven pray for me also as I work my way there. Lord, I ask these things of You, but I also ask for the intercession of Your saints and angels, through the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, the Archangels and all the saints (you can list specific saints like your patron saint). Amen.
Pray for others. Ask others to pray for you. Ask the saints to pray for you.