The Cloud of Witnesses
"And therefore we also, having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us." -- Hebrews 12, 1
The First Commandment declares that God alone deserves adoration and worship (Ex. 20:2-5). Some Christians, when acknowledging this truth, overlook a wonderful mystery: God's glory is reflected in His created beings, particularly the angels and saints--our spiritual brothers and sisters in heaven. The cloud of witnesses mentioned in Heb. 12:1, bring to mind the multitude of the heroes of the faith who pray for us from on high.
Objection: That is something that sounds Catholic.
Answer: Yes, and it is entirely biblical. Rev. 6:9-10 says, "the souls of them that were slain" intercede for us on earth. They use what is known as imprecatory prayer, against the wicked and on behalf of the righteous. In Rev. 5:8-9, the 24 elders act as intermediaries, presenting "the prayers of the saints" to God. The angels make similar offerings in Rev. 8:3-4. Grace itself is said to come not only from God, but also through the "seven spirits before His throne." (Rev. 1:4).
Objection: We do not have to go through channels to get to God. 1 Tim. 2:5 clearly states: "There is one mediator between God and man: Jesus Christ!"
Answer: That is correct. But in the preceding verses of the same epistle, St. Paul maintains that it "is good and pleasing to God our Savior" when we make intercessions before God on behalf of all people (1 Tim. 2:1-4). You might consider us secondary mediators. Invoking the angels and saints in heaven is much the same as asking mature Christian friends on earth to pray for us. Since the blessed in Heaven are so close to God, they are more holy and alive than we are (Rev. 21: 27). St. James says: "The prayer of a righteous man avails much." (Jas. 5:16).
Objection: But the Scriptures refer to all Christians as "saints."
Answer: The Greek work for saint, hagios, means one who is holy and blameless. God graciously sees us not only as the imperfect sinners we are now (1 Jn. 1:8), but also as the unblemished creatures we are to become--"conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom. 8:29). We look to the saints in heaven as shining examples for us, as we strive to attain extraordinary holiness in this life. St. Paul encourages us to imitate him, as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11, 1, 1 Thess. 1:6). We are further instructed to honor the heroes of the faith (Heb. 6:12, 11:1-40, Jas. 5:10.11).
Objection: How can a created being hear thousands of prayers at once? Only God is all-knowing.
Answer: That the saints and angels are cognizant of earthly affairs is well documented in Scripture. The angels express joy over the repentance of sinners (Lk. 5:10), and they apparently observe us (1 Cor. 4:9). 1 Cor 13:12 says, "we see through a glass darkly," but someday we will know fully everything we need to know. This verse applies to the saints who have passed into a state of supernatural understanding. They have been freed from the limitations of space and time, and are in full communion with the omniscient God. In Matt. 18:10, Christ speaks about our personal guardian angels who, "do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven." Given then that angels and glorified saints are so aware of our affairs and are so intimately connected to God, why not ask them to pray for us?
Objection: Don't the Scriptures prohibit praying to the dead? And why do Catholics worship saints like Mary?
Answer: Some important distinctions should be made. Leviticus 19:26 warns against using spiritualists and mediums to conjure up the dead. However, the ancient Christian Catholic practice of making prayers known to the saints is not unlawful or idolatrous. We follow the example of Jesus Himself, who spoke with Moses and Elijah (Mt. 17:1-3).
Invoking the angels and saints, and asking for their intercession means not so much praying to them as it does praying with them to God. We venerate "the spirits made perfect" (Heb. 12:23), particularly Mary, because they emulate the one, true God. But God alone, Catholics believe, is worthy of the worship of adoration.
Few matters have been as controversial as the subject of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This stems from the Catholic belief that God's Word is revealed to us, not only in the Bible, but in an authoritative Tradition handed down by the apostles (2 Thes. 2:15). Because Protestants consider the Bible as the only authority, they cannot understand why Catholics adhere to tenets of faith not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. Putting to one side the authority issue, we will examine how the Marian doctrines are in complete harmony with the Bible.
2. Mary's Immaculate Conception.Catholics believe God saved Mary in a special way, preserving her from sin, because of her extraordinary role and proximity to God the Son and to the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:35). The angel Gabriel called Mary "full of grace" (Lk. 1:28). The Greek word, kecharitomene, means "completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace." On this and other grounds, Catholics hold that she was free of sin from conception and throughout her lifetime.
3. Ark, Tabernacle, Temple and Mary.The closer one gets to God, the holier one must be (e.g., Ex. 3:5, Deut. 23:13-15). Because of this, the Jewish high priest could enter the sanctuary in the Tabernacle or Temple only once each year, under threat of death (Lev. 16:2-4, 13). God's presence also imparts holiness (1 Cor. 3:13-17, 1 Jn. 3:3-9). The Ark of the Covenant was so holy that only a few could touch it (Num. 4:15, 2 Sam. 6:2-7). Scripture compares Mary to the Ark (Lk. 1:35 & Ex. 40:34-38 / Luk. 1:44 & 2 Sam. 6:14-16 / Lk. 1:43 & 2 Sam. 6:9). If mere inanimate objects can be so holy, how much more so Mary, who bore the Son of God?
4. The Blessed Virgin Mary.All the Protestant founders firmly believed in Mary's Perpetual Virginity, but some Protestants more recently have claimed that Jesus had siblings. They cite as evidence the biblical use of the term "brothers" of Christ. But the Greek word here, adelphos, can and does mean many things in Scripture: nationality (Acts 3:17, 22), neighbor (Mt. 7:3, 23:8), even all mankind (Mt. 25:40). Moreover, nowhere in the Bible are these brethren referred to as sons and daughters of Mary.
5. Mary's Assumption.The Assumption is not an arbitrary presumption; it follows from Mary's sinlessness. Since bodily death and decay result from sin (Ps. 16:10, Gen. 3:19), the absence of sin would allow for instant bodily resurrection at death, or even corporal immortality. Scripture speaks of Christ's triple victory over the ancient serpent (Heb. 2:14-15). As foretold in the Bible (Gen. 3:15), Mary shared in her Divine Son's threefold triumph: over sin by her Immaculate Conception, over sexual desire by her virginal motherhood, and over death by her glorious Assumption into heaven.
6. Mary our Mother and Intercessor.The idea of Mary as our Spiritual Mother is derived most directly from Jn. 19:26-27, where Jesus tells St. John from the Cross to "behold thy mother." But she is venerated as one especially blessed by God, not worshipped like God. Mary is also Mother and symbol of the Church in Rev. 12:1, 5, 17. Catholics believe that they greatly benefit from Mary's intercession because of her sinlessness (Jas. 5:16). Since Mary is incomparably more holy and alive than we are (Mk. 12:26-27), to ask for her prayers (Rev. 5:8, 6:9-10) makes good biblically-based spiritual sense.