Who are the saints?
In a broad sense, all the members of the Church are called ‘saints’ (hagioi, holy ones) because we belong to Christ, who is holy, and are called to attain to his holiness — ‘Be holy for I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:16). In the Divine Liturgy, for example, the priest lifts up the consecrated Bread, the Body of Christ, and exclaims, ‘The holy things for the holy’ (i.e., ‘for the saints’). The ‘saints’ referred to here are those about to receive Holy Communion. Likewise, the Apostle Paul, writing to different Christian churches, addresses his letters ‘to the saints which are in Ephesus’, ‘to the saints which are in Christ Jesus at Philippi’, and so on.
In a narrower sense, however, we use the word ‘saint’ to describe those members of the Church having attained that holiness. These are men and women from all walks of life, of every age, race, and class: ‘Forefathers, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Ascetics, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith’.
‘Above all’, we honour ‘our all-holy, pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin, Mary’, who, on account of her great virtue, was chosen by God to be the vehicle of his incarnation, the ladder by which he would descend to earth from heaven.
Do you worship the saints?
Our Lord tells us unequivocally: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve’ (Luke 4:8). The Orthodox Church teaches clearly that God alone is worthy of adoration (latreia).
We can and should show reverence to holy things — we treat the Bible or the Cross with great respect, for example. The same goes for those righteous men and women held in high esteem by the Church, just as we show honour and affection for the people we love and respect here on earth. How could we not show honour to the woman who gave birth to God in the flesh, or to the man who baptised him in the Jordan, to the prophets who spoke with God ‘face to face, as a man speaks to his friend’ (Exodus 33:11), or to the martyrs who gave their life for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Worship, however, belongs solely to God the Holy Trinity.
Don’t you pray to the saints?
In the Gospels, Jesus says, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life’ (John 5:24). Elsewhere, he reminds the people that God had said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’, and adds, ‘He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living’ (Mark 12:26-27).
The saints, then, though they have undergone physical death, are alive in Christ. And as living members of the Church, they are also included in the biblical exhortation ‘pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much’ (James 5:16). Since the prayers of the righteous avail much, it is natural that we should ask the saints to pray for us.
In other words, because we believe that our God is ‘not the God of the dead, but the God of the living’, we ask the saints to pray for us in the same way that we ask other members of the Church to pray for us.
Why don’t you just pray directly to God?
The answer to this is that we do pray directly to God. Asking others to pray for us — whether they be saints in heaven or friends on earth — is not something we do instead of praying to God, but something we do in addition to praying to God; it’s not either/or. And we do so because God has told us to: ‘pray for one another’. Love of God is inseparable from love of neighbour, and our relationship with God is not something that takes place in isolation from others, but in the context of our membership of the Church, the Body of Christ. This is why the Bible tells us to ‘confess our sins one to another, and pray one for another‘ (James 5:16) and to ‘carry each other’s burdens’ (Galatians 6:2).