The Saints – Examples in Scripture

Quite often Catholics are asked if we can provide any examples from the Bible of people in heaven interceding for those on earth. An example of this thinking:

“Catholics argue that praying to Mary and the saints is no different than asking someone here on earth to pray for us.  Let us examine that claim.  (1) The Apostle Paul asks other Christians to pray for him in Ephesians 6:19.  Many Scriptures describe believers praying for one another (2 Corinthians 1:11; Ephesians 1:16; Philippians 1:19; 2 Timothy 1:3).  The Bible nowhere mentions anyone asking for someone in heaven to pray for him.  The Bible nowhere describes anyone in heaven praying for anyone on earth.

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Perhaps one fruitful discussion that can result in this line of questioning is why we, as Catholics, are not advocates of sola-Scriptura but also rely on Sacred Tradition

But is it true the Bible nowhere describes someone in heaven praying for anyone on earth?  The answer to that question is no, because there is a very specific example in the Old Testament, and the New Testament gives tacit approval to the practice.  To explore this, we must go back into Jewish history.  There we will find at the time of Christ and the apostles, the Jewish people had for centuries had the practice of praying at the tomb of the matriarch Rachel.  Consider these explanations from Jewish sources:

“Rachel’s Tomb is located in the city of Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem.  For centuries, it lay on a deserted roadside, and Rachel’s descendants would come here to pour out their hearts to her – the mother who dwells in a lonely wayside grave in order to be there for her suffering children.  Rachel is a continuous source of comfort to her children—praying for her children and eliciting the divine promise of her children’s return to their Promised Land.

According to the Midrash, the first person to pray at Rachel’s tomb was her eldest son, Joseph, who was only seven years old when his mother died.  When he was seventeen, his brothers sold him into slavery.  As he was being carried away to Egypt, he broke away from his captors, ran to his mother’s grave and cried to her.  ‘Mother, my mother who gave birth to me, wake up, arise and see my suffering.’ ‘Do not fear,’ he heard his mother answer.  ‘Go with them, and G-d will be with you.’”

“Why did Jacob bring this up to Joseph, was the question.  Why wasn’t she buried in the family burial tomb in Machpelah together with where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Leah were buried, and where Jacob asked to be buried?

 It is believed that Rachel, one of the most righteous matriarchs of the Jewish people, chose to be buried there on the main road because she foresaw the day her people would pass by here in the course of their history and be taken out of Israel into exile by the Babylonians.

 And she elected to remain there so that she could petition the Lord for mercy on her people’s behalf.  The Talmud teaches that a righteous person continues to intercede long after their natural lifetime.”

Rachel of course died in childbirth as Jacob was bringing his wives and children back to his native land.  The Jews understood she continued to intercede for them after her death, and that “a righteous person continues to intercede long after their natural lifetime.”  And while these sources do not cite Scripture, we do indeed see this role for Rachel affirmed in Scripture.  Centuries after the death of Rachel, the Jewish people are being forcibly removed from the Promised Land in the Babylonian exile.  The prophet Jeremiah records this:

“Thus says the Lord: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.’Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.  There is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.’” (Jeremiah 31:15-17)

Rachel’s intercession and tears before the throne of God secure a promise from Him that the Jewish people would be returned to the Promised Land. 

Jesus and his apostles never once address or attempt to correct the Jewish understanding that “a righteous person continues to intercede long after their natural lifetime” that had been in place for centuries as part of their culture.  Not only do they not condemn the practice, the apostle Matthew seems to confirm it.  For when he records the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, he cites Jeremiah and says:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.’” (Matthew 2:16-18).

Matthew has an understanding that Rachel is aware of the tragedy that had occurred with her children, and would once again be weeping before the throne of God to intercede for them.  His citing of Jeremiah in this instance not only does not disagree with the ancient Jewish belief in her intercession, but rather confirms the practice.

In the book of Revelation we see both the angels and the saints offering our prayers to God in the form of incense:

“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth’.”  (Revelation 5:8-10)

“And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.”  (Revelation 8:3-4)

These passages align with the passage in Hebrews where we’re told that when we pray, we enter the New Jerusalem and there we come into the presence of both the angels and the saints (Hebrews 12:22-23).  We come into contact with the angels and saints even though we may fail to recognize that reality, and the images given to us in the book of Revelation teach us their role in praying along with us and for us. 

This is something the early Christians knew quite well.  From the earliest of times Christians went to the gravesites of the saints and asked them to pray for them, just as the Jewish people did with the matriarch Rachel.  Steve Ray cites that in the catacombs of St. Sebastian in Rome, there is one segment of the wall that covers the former tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul, and there are 614 requests for intercession scratched into the wall from the very first Christians imploring Peter and Paul to pray for them.  So may we join them in praying:

“Petrus and Paulus, pray for us!”

“Peter and Paul, pray for victory!”

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