Intercession of the saints
To act as an intercessor is literally to become a "go-between." If we take this picture too literally, we will imagine that the one who goes to God on our behalf "gets in the way" of the relationship between God and the person in need. This picture-thinking then leads to anxieties about whether Catholics deny that Jesus is the one and only Mediator between God and His People.
It is the inadequate picture, not the idea that we should pray for each other, that must be discarded. God commands us to pray for the needs of our brothers and sisters in the Lord. He is not commanding us to block His view of those whom He loves; He wants us to participate in His original, creative, unbounded, always-present, inexhaustible love for His sons and daughters. Our prayer for them is caused by His love for them, not vice-versa. We can never "get in the way" of God's direct and personal love for the people we pray for; He is always the cause of their existence and salvation as well as the cause of our existence and salvation.
God does not want to have a solitary union between Himself and His children. Besides commanding us to love Him, He also commands us to love one another. The love that we give to each other does not take love away from God; it is the fruit and fulfillment of God's love for us.
- intercession: early 15c., "act of interceding," from L. intercessionem (nom. intercessio) "a going between," noun of action from pp. stem of intercedere (see "intercede").
Jeremiah praying for the Jews
"When he had armed each of them, not so much with the safety of shield and spear as with the encouragement of noble words, he cheered them all by relating a dream, a kind of vision, worthy of belief. What he saw was this: Onias, the former high priest, a good and virtuous man, modest in appearance, gentle in manners, distinguished in speech, and trained from childhood in every virtuous practice, was praying with outstretched arms for the whole Jewish community. Then in the same way another man appeared, distinguished by his white hair and dignity, and with an air about him of extraordinary, majestic authority. Onias then said of him, 'This is God's prophet Jeremiah, who loves his brethren and fervently prays for his people and their holy city.' Stretching out his right hand, Jeremiah presented a gold sword to Judas. As he gave it to him he said, 'Accept this holy sword as a gift from God; with it you shall crush your adversaries'" (2 Macc 15:11-16).
The role of angels in prayer is taught explicitly in the Jewish book of Tobit (Tob. 12:12), which was accepted by Christians as inspired until Luther rejected some of the Jewish scriptures on his own authority. It remains part of the Catholic Bible. "I can now tell you that when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead" (Tobit 12:12; note that God pays attention to our good works).
The Lord's Prayer
Jesus taught His disciples to pray with and for each other. I have highlighted petitions that include plural pronouns here, but every part of the prayer is intercessory:
- - Our Father
- - Give us this day our daily bread
- - Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
- - Lead us not into temptation
- - Deliver us from evil
Intercession in the Gospels
Intercessors do not interfere with God's direct and personal love for each one of His children; they help to strengthen the connection. Some examples of intercessory prayer in the gospels:
- Martha and Mary sent for Jesus when Lazarus was dying.
- Jairus asked Jesus to heal his daughter.
- Friends brought a paralytic to Jesus by lowering him through a roof (Lk 5:17-26).
- The centurion prayed for his servant: "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed" (Mt 8:7).
Jesus never rebukes these people for their intercession, but praises their faith instead.
God gives different people different gifts. He does not take those gifts away from us after death. Cf. Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus in the Transfiguration. They are after death who they were before death: Moses, the great giver of the Law (Torah), and Elijah, the prophet whom Jews still expect to come back from Heaven to anoint the Messiah.
God is the God of the Living
The saints are alive and well. They are members of the Body of Christ in Heaven. Cf. Moses and Elijah appearing in glory in the Transfiguration, and the people who rise from the dead with Jesus in Matthew's gospel (Mt 27:52-53).
- "That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called 'Lord' the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive" (Lk 20:37-8).
The Prayer of the Just Man
"The fervent prayer of a righteous man is very powerful" (James 5:16).
The Book of Revelation
"When he took it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones" (Rev 5:8).
"Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God" (Rev. 8:3-4).
Forgiveness of Sins
- Jesus rewarded the faith of those who lowered the paralytic through the roof (Mk 2:5): "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Child, your sins are forgiven.'"
- God forgives sins in answer to our prayers (1 Jn 5:14-17):
14 And we have this confidence in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
15 And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask, we know that what we have asked him for is ours.
16 If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray.
17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.
- Stephen, the first martyr (Acts 7:60): Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep.