23 September 2008

An Interesting Observation

[After observing that the thing really took off in the 4th century:] The story of the rise of the cult of the saints and its development into an identifiably Christian phenomenon is one of the adoption and transformation of a number of related concepts and practices that already existed in the ancient Mediterranean world. *That is, few of the elements of the cult are unique to Christianity. Many, in fact, were already present in the society out of which Christianity grew and were familiar to people of all religious backgrounds.* -- from the introduction to The Cult of the Saints: St. John Chrysostom, Select homilies and letters introduced, translated, and annotated by Wendy Mayer with Bronwen Neil (SVS Press, 2006)

33 comments:

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

I find this interesting in my study/teaching of Christianity and other religions. The afterlife, how one gets there, etc. is a primary focus of many of the religions. Christianity today is not as then-focused as maybe some other religions. This is undoubtedly a result of rationalism, existentialism and other factors. Apart from that, we do appreciate a proper understanding of the cult of the Saints with Christ as head of the one Church on earth and in heaven, the holiness that comes from Him and role the saints have as they live in glory. The Eucharist is the one place on earth where we are united with the saints in Christ.

William Weedon said...

Indeed! That's what I'll largely be talking about the Symposium tomorrow - if there's anyone there to listen! :)

Chris Jones said...

The Eucharist is the one place on earth where we are united with the saints in Christ.

When you say "the one place," does that mean that we are thus united in no other place? Or that, once united in Christ with the saints, we do not remain united with them after the Eucharistic assembly is dismissed?

I should say, rather, that we are united with the saints because we are members of the same Body, and therefore that union comes about in the waters of Holy Baptism (wherein we are made members of that Body), and that union remains so long as we continue faithful members of that one Body.

Of course it is in the Eucharistic assembly that our membership in the Body of Christ -- and therefore our union with His saints -- is manifested and realized. But that fact cannot be used to limit the reality of the communion of saints to the Eucharistic assembly.

Forgive me if I suspect that saying that the Eucharist is the one place where we are united with the saints is an effort to justify the Lutheran rejection of the overt veneration of the saints by suggesting that therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven is a sufficient liturgical and devotional expression of the doctrine of the communion of saints.

Anonymous said...

[After observing that the thing really took off in the 4th century:]

I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean. Didn't Christianity itself "really take off" in the 4th Century. You know, the Edict of Milan and all that...

Chris

Chris Jones said...

Apropos of the original post:

... few of the elements of the cult are unique to Christianity.

Few elements are unique, perhaps, but those which are unique are crucially important. What is unique is the doctrinal and spiritual reality to which the cult gives expression: that we who are in Christ are in truth "members one of another," united (in Deacon Gregory Roeber's excellent phrase) "across time and across death." To treat the cult of the saints as if it were a thin Christian patina over an essentially pagan practice is to deny that spiritual reality.

Prayer for those who have fallen asleep in the Lord and veneration of the saints in Christ are two sides of the same coin, because both bear witness to the reality that death is no barrier to those whose life is hid in Him who destroyed death. Thus the invocation of saints (and prayer for the dead) not only confess the communion of saints, but also confess the resurrection of the dead.

That is why, whatever the surface similarities may be between the Christian veneration of the saints and previously-existing pagan practices, the Christian practice is fundamentally and essentially different. Because, unlike its supposed pagan antecedents, it is a confession of Christ crucified and risen, the vanquisher of death.

Chris Jones said...

Also, what (anonymous) Chris said -- excellent point.

William Weedon said...

Chris,

I don't think that Fr. May was putting the force of "only" that you were hearing. After all, at that very point we confess that our Eucharist is to be always and everywhere! I remember especially these words of our beloved Dr. Luther on the Communion of saints:

“And to everyone who believes through the Word of the Apostles the promise is given for Christ’s sake and by the power of this prayer, that he shall be one body and one loaf with all Christians; that what happens to him as a member for good or ill, shall happen to the whole body for good or ill, and not only one or two saints, but all the prophets, martyrs, apostles, all Christians, both on earth and with God in Heaven, shall suffer and conquer with him, shall fight for him, help, protect, and save him, and shall undertake for him such a gracious exchange that they will all bear his sufferings, want, and afflictions, and he be partaker of all their blessings, comfort, and joy. How could a man wish for anything more blessed than to come into this fellowship or brotherhood and be made a member of this body, which is called Christendom? For who can harm or injure a man who has this confidence, who knows that heaven and earth, and all the angels with the saints will cry to God when the smallest suffering befalls him? “ (Day by Day, p. 353, Luther’s exposition of John xvii 1528)

William Weedon said...

Chris,

I'll gladly down the path with you of the intercession for the dead (as we pray in our funeral liturgy: give to your whole church in heaven and on earth your light and your peace!) and the intercession of those who live in Christ on the other side of death. See Luther's quote above on that joyful reality. But you know that I believe a line is crossed on invocation OF the saints that has proven across Christian history to move away from a confession of faith in the triumph of Christ's cross and resurrection toward a placing of trust in the saints themselves. I won't go into the examples again - you know them as well as I. So for me it remains ORAT pro nobis, rather than ORA pro nobis!

Chris Jones said...

I believe a line is crossed on invocation OF the saints ...

Perhaps we shall have to agree to disagree on this. Certainly there is a line there that ought not to be crossed, but sometimes is crossed. But I think that if one uses the Church's lex orandi as a model, which sets the invocation of saints precisely in the context of our common dependence on Christ and of our union in Him, then one's personal devotion to the saints need not and will not cross that line.

I will certainly admit that there can be the kind of devotion to the saints which crosses the line to a trust in the saints in themselves, apart from Christ. But just as there can be such excessive devotion to the saints, there can also be an excessive fear of devotion to the saints which leads to a refusal to honor them in any way. In practice this is, in fact, a denial that there is any genuine relationship between the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. In my view, excessive devotion to the saints is unwise and inadvisable piety, but the refusal to honor them at all is outright heterodoxy.

In my dozen or so years as a Lutheran, my experience of public worship is that the dead are never prayed for; no saint's day is ever celebrated in the Divine Service; the examples of the saints' lives is never offered as a model for our own lives; and the saints are never honored in any way nor even mentioned from the pulpit in any way. Even All Saints Day is celebrated not as a day to honor the heroes of the faith, but as a rather maudlin remembrance of our own departed family members and of our hope to meet them again in heaven (but never, of course, to actually pray for our beloved ones who have fallen asleep). To me this is an outright denial of the doctrine of the communion of saints.

Such is the consequence of the refusal to venerate Christ's saints.

William Weedon said...

Dear Christopher,

I would say, rather, that such is the consequence of your parish no longer ordering your common life according to the Symbols your parish professes. I hope that's not too harsh, but our Symbols are perfectly clear about the cult of the saints (which is not even listed in the ABUSE section, but in the DOCTRINAL section of the AC). Here Pastor McCain's oft repeated advice to "say the black and do the red" would go a long way toward remedying the situation. When the new Treasury of Daily Prayer comes out, it is my hope and prayer that this rich resource will lead to a fuller experience of that communion of saints in which we live in the Church - a communion that death has no power whatsoever to sever.

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

Chris J.,

Three brief (?) responses. First, you are right to catch on "the one place" since, obviously, the Eucharist is not the "only" place. Fr. Weedon's response rightly shows that the Eucharist is beyond the gathered assembly and is in all places. In my post there is no intentional attempt to limit this question. Rather, the saints are those in heaven together with the saints on earth together with the angels and archangels ("all the company of heaven"). In addition, the saints on earth who are gathered at the Eucharist are only those who are already baptized. The Eucharist continues and strengthens the union begun in Baptism and carried on by God's grace through faith. My primary thought in my response is eschatological. In other words, when I say "the one place" here it is with the thought that we are receiving what they already enjoy and what we will have in full. We are in communion with the saints as we are in communion with God in Christ. Another way to say this may be, the Eucharist is the primary place where we (the baptized) are united with the saints in Christ. Baptism precedes Eucharist just as the Eucharist precedes full communion in heaven.

Secondly, I agree with your post that the Christian practice of the veneration of the saints "is fundamentally and essentially different" than any similar practices of those found in other religions.

Finally, the thrust of your last post is appreciated especially this paragraph:

"I will certainly admit that there can be the kind of devotion to the saints which crosses the line to a trust in the saints in themselves, apart from Christ. But just as there can be such excessive devotion to the saints, there can also be an excessive fear of devotion to the saints which leads to a refusal to honor them in any way. In practice this is, in fact, a denial that there is any genuine relationship between the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. In my view, excessive devotion to the saints is unwise and inadvisable piety, but the refusal to honor them at all is outright heterodoxy."

The "excessive fear" usually dominates any discussion of this topic among us. Although, there is disagreement on the "ORAT/ORA pro nobis" question, as Fr. Weedon writes, the question of praying for the dead is not resolved in Christianity.

Amy said...

"(1) the dead are never prayed for; (2) no saint's day is ever celebrated in the Divine Service; (3) the examples of the saints' lives is never offered as a model for our own lives
(4) the saints are never honored in any way nor even mentioned from the pulpit in any way.
(5) All Saints Day is celebrated not as a day to honor the heroes of the faith, but as a rather maudlin remembrance of our own departed family members and of our hope to meet them again in heaven (but never, of course, to actually pray for our beloved ones who have fallen asleep). To me this is an outright denial of the doctrine of the communion of saints."

and

"I would say, rather, that such is the consequence of your parish no longer ordering your common life according to the Symbols your parish professes."

I wonder if any of us could name 2 dozen parishes in the LCMS fellowship that "order [their] common life in the way you commend?

William Weedon said...

Amy,

Believe it or not, two dozen would not be that hard to name; we have that many just in the area around here. Sadly, though, the numbers don't come close to half the Synod, I'd suspect, and that is a HUGE problem.

But the problem is not with the Symbols or the parishes that seek to live according to them; the problem is with parishes that have all but forgotten them, so that they no longer remember what it is to be a Lutheran Christian, that is a Western Catholic Christian reformed according to the Gospel.

William Weedon said...

And let me say it again: I think our wonderful new Treasury of Daily Prayer can go a long, long way toward recovery of the sanctoral cycle in our Church by simply making it be part of family and small group devotions. Order yours today!

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

1. If the argument--yours or the translators of St. John's homilies--is as follows:

a) Many elements of the cult of saints were already present in pre-Christian paganism;
b) Christians made use of these elements in the cult of saints--
c) [unspoken premise] Whatever was used in pre-Christian paganism is illegitimate for Christians to use--
d) Therefore, the cult of saints is pagan, not Christian

then it proves too much. Pagans had places of worship, sacred washings and meals, and even stories about dying and rising gods. This sort of argument is more suited to baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses than it is to you.

2. As someone else pointed out, *everything* took off in the 4th century, not because it wasn't practiced before, but because the church could come above ground. In point of fact, we have inscriptions saying things like, "St. Peter, pray for us," from the very earliest days, both at his house in Capernaum and in the Roman catacombs.

3. When novelties were introduced into the Church's life--and remember, in the ancient church, worship was (and is) central--they were met with fierce resistance. There is no evidence that a council met to examine, question or condemn the practice of asking the saints to pray for us, or icons or iconostases either, or anything else that makes up the normal life and worship of a Christian. That first happened in the Reformation.

4. Finally, the notion that because a practice has sometimes been wrongly used, you will not use it at all conflicts with the theological axiom: "Abusus non tollit, sed confirmat usus."

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory Hogg

Christine said...

What I further find historically problematic is that due to the LCMS' aversion to monasticism the titles of Virgin, Abbot, etc. don't seem to appear appended to the great figures of Western Catholicism such as Bernard, Jerome, Benedict, etc. in Lutheran resources.

That is how history saw them and how they saw themselves.

Even All Saints Day is celebrated not as a day to honor the heroes of the faith, but as a rather maudlin remembrance of our own departed family members and of our hope to meet them again in heaven (but never, of course, to actually pray for our beloved ones who have fallen asleep). To me this is an outright denial of the doctrine of the communion of saints.

That was my experience as a Lutheran also.

William Weedon said...

Fr. Gregory,

I wasn't offering any unspoken assumptions. I found the quote interesting - in fact I called it that in the title. Many facets of the cult of the saints as it developed in the 4th century were common features of the religious world of the Mediterranean world at the time. What no one has asked were: which features? She talks about that some in the intro too. Well worth the read.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Pr. Weedon,

Of course you weren't offering any unspoken assumptions; if you had offered them, they wouldn't be unspoken. My remarks were also responding to these words of yours, "But you know that I believe a line is crossed on invocation OF the saints that has proven across Christian history to move away from a confession of faith in the triumph of Christ's cross and resurrection toward a placing of trust in the saints themselves. I won't go into the examples again - you know them as well as I. So for me it remains ORAT pro nobis, rather than ORA pro nobis!"

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory

William Weedon said...

Well, that's one I'm sticking with. The abuse establishes the use, but the abuse in this case IS taking refuge in the saints and not in the Savior of the saints. Yes, yes, Body of Christ and all that. Luther, though, nails it above in the quote given. I can rejoice that the saints pray for me without me asking them to do so. We're so one body that they do so of their own accord - for they are perfected in love.

Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

Pr. Weedon,

As has been pointed out to you on numerous occasions, those who ask the saints' intercessions are not thereby fleeing from Christ, but on the contrary, taking refuge in him alone. To reach out to his feet, his hands, his side--yes, even to touch the fringe of his garment, is to reach out to him. How sad to dismiss the communion of saints with "yes, yes, Body of Christ and all that."

I thank you for your post; it reminds me to ask the intercessions of my patron saint, which I so often forget.

The unworthy priest,

Fr. Gregory

William Weedon said...

Fr. Gregory,

I am no longer in a position to advise you in any way on spiritual matters; nor you me. We'll leave it at that. I ask the Lord to have mercy on you, hold you always in His love and grace, and correct whatever is amiss.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

A few thoughts -- first, we should acknowledge that the Church exists in this world and is full of fallen folks. Errors were introduced in the first days, Errors came up after the Flood, errors came up over and over again throughout the Old Testament. We shouldn't assume any different in the New. Just as the Old Testament worship was oft corrupted by pagan influences, the same could (I would say has) happened in the New Testament times.

In light of this - we ought look at what we do within the Church, at our various traditions, to make sure that they line up. If we simply assume that what we have received is okay, we can gladly swallow spiritual poison that Satan has prepared.

Two - and this was just a humorous thought I have. . . is the Eastern approach sort of the equivalent of "talk to the hand"? =o) (of course, for equal time, I suppose the Lutheran approach would be "look at me when I'm talking to you!")

Past Elder said...

Even the traditions of men that do not contradict the Gospel can become a barrier to the Gospel.

And I think that is the source of much of the loss of valid Christian piety that our Lutheran fathers retained but we do not, and become more American Protestant.

We can go to far with this. We can get so concerned not to trust in works for our salvation that we no longer speak of works at all -- then wonder why we loose them to "evangelical" churches where all the get are works, and think we can get them back by holding "evangelical" style services. We get so concerned not to be "too Catholic" that we won't make the Sign of the Cross (though the LC tells us to!) yet we adapt Rome's new mega-lectionary and call it traditional worship.

What struck me the most, coming from an RC background, and having myself believed all this stuff about oh, it's really about Christ, not the saints, is the part (I think it's in Babylonian Captivity) where Luther says something like we pray to Mary and the saints to intercede for us with God as if he had to be persuaded to act benevolently toward us, as if he had not already done so becoming Man and paying our price, and where he says that even practices which may have served a good purpose have long since gone way beyond that.

What we need to do is become more truly "Lutheran" instead of all these factions running off after Rome, the East, Willow Creek, Saddleback and who knows what else or what next.

Dixie said...

"...Luther says something like we pray to Mary and the saints to intercede for us with God as if he had to be persuaded to act benevolently toward us, as if he had not already done so..."

What we know from Scripture is that His mother asked Jesus to do something about the wine running out at the Wedding of Cana. Even though He said His time was not yet, He answered her plea.

Futher, Scripture says the prayer of a righteous man availth much.

Both scriptural truths suppporting the way the Church has always prayed.

But I am certainly not going to attempt to try to convince a group of Lutherans to pray to the saints! Rather, I'd like to nail down the Lutheran perspective of "prayers for the dead".

I was reading the correspondence between the Tubingen Lutherans and Patriarch Jeremias II all written between 1573 - 1581. I would think this correspondence pretty much represents original Lutheranism and the Tubingens are very clear that they do not approve of prayers for the dead.

What is the true Lutheran position? Are the 2 dozen plus parishes in central Illinois which Pastor Weedon cites representing the truth of Lutheranism when they pray for the dead or are the parishes which Chris Jones, Amy, the Tubingens (and I would add all the Lutheran congregations I ever attended plus the one my husband currently attends) representing the truth of Lutheranism when they deny prayers for the dead?

Or is it that both positions for Lutherans are neither truth nor lies and the matter is adiaphora?

Sometimes I when I attempt to show my husband that Lutherans believe something like "prayers for the dead" and he tells me there are a group of people on the Internet who think they are Lutherans but are a quasi Lutheran cult instead! He ain't buyin' this one.

William Weedon said...

Dixie,

The position of the Lutheran Church on any question that is addressed in our Symbols is settled for us by those Symbols. Those Symbols teach that prayer for the dead is neither forbidden nor useless.

The practice of praying for the dead is done in ANY LCMS parish that uses the prayers prescribed for the funeral rite. Let me quote:

Almighty God, You have knit Your chosen people together into one communion in the mystical body of Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Give to Your whole Church *in heaven and on earth* Your light and Your peace....

Grant that *all* who have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection may die to sin and rise to newness of life and so pass with Him through the gate of death and grave to our joyful resurrection...

Grant that *all* who have been nourished by the holy body and blood of Your Son may be raised to immortality and incorruption to be seated with Him at Your heavenly banquet....

These are not petitions prayed by "12 churches in southern Illinois." These are petitions prayed at LCMS funerals throughout the Synod!

Additionally, I offer this prayer which appeared in Starck's Prayer Book, a very popular prayer book throughout the majority of Lutheran history:

"O holy and righteous God, it has pleased You to call from this life the departed lying here before us by temporal death. Let us learn from this death that we, too, must die and leave this world, in order that we may prepare for it in time by repentance, a living faith, and avoiding the sins and vanities of the world. Refresh the soul that has now departed with heavenly consolation and joy, and fulfill for it all the gracious promises which in Your holy Word You have made to those who believe in You. Grant to the body a soft and quiet rest in the earth till the Last Day, when You will reunite body and soul and lead them into glory, so that the entire person who served You here may be filled with heavenly joy there. Comfort all who are in grief over this death, and be and remain to the bereaved their Father, Provider, Guardian, Helper, and Support. Do not forsake them, and do not withdraw Your hand from them, but let them abundantly experience Your goodness, grace, love, and help, until You will grant them also a happy and blessed end. Hear us for Your mercy’s sake. Amen."

The desire to depict the above as a "quasi Lutheran internet cult" strikes me as both uncharitable, untrue, and quite uncharacteristic of your usual self.

Dixie said...

The desire to depict the above as a "quasi Lutheran internet cult" strikes me as both uncharitable, untrue, and quite uncharacteristic of your usual self.

Forgive me, Pastor Weedon, for using that expression. To hear my husband say it with teasing tone in his voice seems to negate the actual harshness of the words as they splash on the page.

The Stark prayer seems to clearly suggest prayer for the dead...the funeral rite is not so clear and I could see how one could take it as prayer for the dead while another would not.

So your position is that prayer for the dead is not adiaphora but rather is both approved and useful?

Thanks and again, sorry for the slip of the keyboard.-----R

William Weedon said...

Dixie,

Forgiven!

My position on this is simply what the Apology says:

"We know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, *which we do not ban*."

"Epiphanius declares that Aerius maintained that prayers for the dead were useless. He finds fault with this. *We do not favor Aerius either*."

I'm not sure, though, how the funeral prayers are in any way ambiguous. "Your whole Church in heaven and on earth" is pretty explicit! And we ask for that whole Church both light and peace. Likewise "all" who have been baptized or received the Eucharist is as wide as the first petition for the whole Church. CPH, by the bye, is in the process of republishing the Starck Prayer Book in more modern language - revised by yours truly. :)

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

On Mt. Tabor, Jesus Himself was seen conversing with two "dead" saints, Moses and Elijah. Those who are Christ's Body are certainly allowed and encouraged to do the same, in Him, with Him, through Him.

We shouldn't let Roman abuses scare us off from this treasure.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Concerning prayer for the dead - what might be pointed out is that if one says "Lutherans don't pray for the dead" it is normally spoken in contrast to the commonly understood Roman-style "pray for aunt Betty to spring her out of purgatory." The Lutheran aversion tends to be against trying to get the dead through our prayers "to a better place".

Now, many Lutherans would say that those who are in heaven don't *need* specific prayers -- and so there is a strong focus on those who mourn. However - the Church exists both in heaven and on earth - so all prayers for the Church are in reality for both those in heaven and those on earth.

This reality is one that is sadly not fully rejoiced in at many Lutheran congregations - but it's getting better. It's amazing how many people have had their eyes widen when I tell them that we believe that their dead _______ is with us at Church --- therefore with Angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. . . isn't _______ part of the company of heaven?

We view so many things with the "But we aren't Roman Catholic" lens that we can obscure some of the great comforts that should be ours.

William Weedon said...

When Peter joined in the conversation he spoke only to our Lord, though his mind was on Moses and Elijah and their tents. The voice of the Father in the cloud of glory told him: "This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased. HEAR HIM."

Did He ever teach us to invoke the saints?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Yes, by His own example, invoking them as witnesses of Him to the disciples.

"Hear Him" doesn't mean "and not anyone else," or we wouldn't be allowed even to hear the Holy Apostles.

William Weedon said...

Invoked them as witnesses. I don't see "invoking" in their witnessing. Are you saying that the Lord invoked the saints???

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Certainly, and in the same sense we do: come; I need your assistance.