Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stump the Priests: Patron Saints

Question: "Why do the Orthodox have patron saints?"

The Scriptures make clear how important names are, as Fr, Josiah Trenham eloquently lays out in his article: "Christian Names & Patron Saints." But not only are the names of men in Scripture of great significance, but the name of God is so important that in the Ten Commandments were are forbidden to use it in vain. The name that God revealed to Moses was "Yahweh", which means "the One Who Is." God is self existent being, and the ground of all being. The name of Jesus is derived from Yahweh, and means "Yahweh Saves." We are told by St. Paul that the Father has given Christ "a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11).Proverbs 18:10  tells us that "The name of the LORD is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe." And Again, St. Paul says that "whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Romans 10:13. So names are not just meaningless labels, but are extremely important.

Names tell us a lot about a person, and a change of name is also very significant in Scripture. For example, the patriarch Jacob's name means "usurper", because he was born grabbing the heal of his twin brother who was the first born. He went on to usurp his brothers birthright by deception, but then endured many hard years of labor for his uncle Laban in which he himself was deceived by Laban. When he came back to Canaan, and was about to face the brother whom he had wronged he has an encounter, in which he wrestles with an Angel, and is given a new name -- Israel, which means "a prince with God" or "one who prevails with God," signifying his spiritual transformation.

In the early Church, when pagans came into the Church, they usually had pagan names which had pagan meanings. They were given new names upon being baptized, to signify the new life they had received. These names were not always the names of Old Testament or New Testament saints, but often people were named for things like Christian virtues: "Faith," "Hope," "Love," "Patience," etc. People also often took on the names of feasts, like "Theophan" for Theophany, "Evangelia" for Annunciation, or "Anastasios" for the Resurrection, or Pascha. But the more common practice developed of naming those who were baptized after saints. Also, in many cases, though a saint had been given a Christian name at baptism, they continued to be known by their pagan name, and so their pagan name became a Christian name, as is the case with saints such as the Great Martyr Demetrius, St. Vladimir the Great, and his grandmother, St. Olga.

The Serbs have a unique practice. Instead of each individual having the name of a patron saint, each family has a family "Slava" or patron. The nice thing about this custom is that on the feast of a family Slava, the entire family joins in a common celebration.

Even in secular culture, people often name their children after people that they admire, and hope that their children will emulate. Christians name their children after saints because they hope that their children will emulate the virtue of the saints whose names they bear. And they also hope that their children will feel a close spiritual connection with that saint. I know an Orthodox family from a Pentecostal background, and when their children (who were still attending a Pentecostal School) were asked about their patron saints, they were told by their parents to say that they were their heavenly prayer partners... which puts it in a way Protestants can understand, but it is also pretty much on target. We especially ask our patron saints to pray for us to God.

Having a patron Saint also gives us a responsibility to especially preserve the memory of that Saint. As such, we should mark their feasts with prayer and pious celebration. This true of individuals, and it is also true of parishes that are named for saints. This is why the celebration of the Patronal Feast of a parish is considered to be a second Pascha, and should be treated as such by each member of that parish.

The Church in heaven and the Church on earth are all part of the One Church. We are united by our faith in Christ, and by prayer. We have patron saints so that we do not think of the Saints in heaven as some undefined mass of nameless faces, but as a great choir of saints who were flesh and blood, just as we are, and who help us by their prayers on the path of salvation so that we may one day join them.