Monday, July 18, 2011

Can Catholics and Orthodox Pray Directly to the Father?

I stumbled upon a Presbyterian blog which reminded me once more of how much work needs to be done in making sure people have some idea what Catholics believe - and don't.  The blogger, Benjamin Glaser, remarking on 1 Timothy 2, said:
Nothing separates us more from our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters (excepting of course JBFA [Justification by Faith Alone]) than the idea that we who have been born-again in Christ now have been given the ability to speak directly to God the Father through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
What? Catholics and Orthodox don't believe that we can speak directly to God the Father through the Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus?  This claim briefly left me speechless.  It's hard to know even where to begin.

I. The Wrong View of Christ's Mediation

Let me begin with a common view of Christ's Mediation which I've heard from Protestants.  While I'm calling it "the Protestant view," it's not one that all Protestants would agree upon; but it is surprisingly common.  It goes something like this: prior to Christ's Death on the Cross, the Jews couldn't go directly to God.  They had to go through a priest instead.  But with Christ's Death on the Cross, the veil in the Temple was torn (Mark 15:38), and now we can go to the Father directly, through Christ.  As Hebrews 4:15-16 says,
For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have One who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the Throne of Grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
So we don't need priests anymore!  We have Jesus, the High Priest, and we can go to the Father directly through Him.  But somehow, Eastern Orthodox and Catholics didn't get the memo.  We've kept the priests, and so we can't go directly to the Father. When we want something, we have to ask the priests to ask the Father for it.  As a variation, I've also heard that we'll ask Mary or the the Saints to go to the Father for it, but aren't able to go ourselves.

II. Why that View is Wrong

As you can see, there are some Scriptural passages which seem to support the view I outlined above. But it's not hard to debunk it, if you're familiar with the actual beliefs of the Old Testament Jewish people, or of Catholics and Orthodox.

1. Jews Prayed (and Pray) Directly to the Father

Let's start with the first premise: that prior to the Incarnation, Jews couldn't go directly to the Father. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament proves this false.  Old Testament Jews pray directly to God all the time, and did so even when they had the Levitical priesthood in place.  To take a single example, in Judges 3:15 we hear that:
Again the Israelites cried out to the LORD, and he gave them a deliverer—Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab.”
Sure, the Israelites would frequently go to Moses for intercession (e.g., Numbers 21:7), but they would also pray directly to God themselves.  It wasn't an either-or sort of thing.  This ability to go directly to God was never lost.  Look at how Jesus begins the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke 18:10:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
So everyone, from the tax collectors down to the  Pharisees, already knew that they could go to God.  So this should be the first clue that the Protestant view is wrong.  If the Jews were already able to go to God directly, and did so frequently, then the tearing of the Temple Veil and Christ's High Priestly function doesn't mean what the Protestant view thinks it means.

In fact, in the parable I just quoted, it's the Pharisee who goes before the Throne with an (unfounded) confidence, praying God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). In contrast, it's the tax collector who stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Luke 18:13).  And Jesus points to the tax collector as the one with the appropriate posture before God (Luke 18:14).  If Jesus' mission was to try and convince people that it was okay to go directly to God, this certainly seems like an odd way to do it.


2. Catholics and Orthodox Pray Directly to the Father

Likewise, contrary to Glaser, Catholics and Orthodox pray directly to the Father all the time as well.  Let me take a few Catholic-specific examples (the same could be done for Eastern Orthodoxy).  Start with the Mass: at the beginning of Mass, we confess our sinfulness, saying, “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters...”;  after which, the priest and people each pray, “Lord, have mercy / Christ, have mercy / Lord, have mercy.” That's a confession by the people, both directly to God and to everyone else, and then a prayer by the people, directly to Christ, our Judge.  We see the same thing throughout the Mass.  We offer up intentions to God, and the people proclaim, “Lord, hear our prayer.” There's the Lord's Prayer, also known as the “Our Father” in which we pray directly to the Father in the words of Christ.  And so on, and so on.

And that's just the Mass.  In the Rosary, we pray the  “Our Father” at least six times. In Confession, in the Act of Contrition, we pray directly to God for forgiveness of our sins.  And of course, Catholics pray on their own, using both form prayers like the ones described here, and/or free-form prayers, where they just tell God whatever's on their hearts.  And of course, in the sign of the Cross, we offer up all of our prayers “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, boldly invoking the name of each Person of the Trinity as we go before the Throne.  That's the precise thing which Glaser (the Presbyterian I quoted) claimed we didn't or couldn't do.

This morning, in fact, I was reading part of St. Josemaria's Christ is Passing By, in which he says:
What security should be ours in considering the mercy of the Lord! "He has but to cry for redress, and I, the ever merciful, will listen to him." It is an invitation, a promise that He will not fail to fulfil. "Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the Throne of Grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need." The enemies of our sanctification will be rendered powerless if the mercy of God goes before us. And if through our own fault and human weakness we should fall, the Lord comes to our aid and raises us up.
So every part of the Protestant view I outlined above is wrong.  Jews had a priesthood and yet freely went directly to the Father.  Catholics and Orthodox have a priesthood, and yet freely go directly to the Father.  Without even getting these basics right, the Protestant view is irremediably lost at sea.  They're criticizing Jews, Catholics, and Orthodox, without having the slightest clue what any of us believe.

3. Why Bother with a Priesthood, then?

If we can (and should, and do) go directly to the Father, why bother with priests or intercessors at all?  A couple of reasons.  First, because the Bible says to. 1 Timothy 2:1-2, part of the same passage that Glaser is quoting, tells us to intercede on behalf of all people.  And the early Christians were constantly going to others to pray for them (Paul does it in places like Romans 15:31, Ephesians 6:20, and Colossians 4:4, for example).  And second, because it's more powerful (see James 5:16).  After all, even Glaser talks about the ability to speak directly to God the Father through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.” Now, speaking to the Father through Christ, ironically, is seemingly less direct than what the Old Testament Jews were doing (speaking directly to the Father). But there's no question that it's more powerful.  While we can, and should, and do go before the Throne, we also can, and should, and do get others to go before the Throne with us -- particularly when the One going with us is our Lord, Jesus Christ.

III. Conclusion

Go back to the Presbyterian I quoted above, who claimed that virtually nothing separates Reformed Protestants from Catholics and Orthodox more “than the idea that we who have been born-again in Christ now have been given the ability to speak directly to God the Father through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.”  In reality, perhaps nothing separates us more from each other than this deep and painful ignorance. That's not all bad news, of course. It suggests that a lot of people who reject Catholicism do it out of a much deeper ignorance than we might imagine: that they reject what they think the Catholic Faith is, rather than the actual Faith.  It's also a reminder of the importance of Catholic evangelization: we need to drive the darkness of ignorance away, so that people can accept or reject the actual Faith. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15; Isaiah 52:7).

9 comments:

  1. You make a really good argument here and I agree with your conclusions. I had never seen the symbolism of the torn curtain as having so much to do with prayer as with atonement. The High Priest was the only member of the Israelite community who could enter the Holy of Holies to make atonement for sin each year. I had always assumed that the symbolism here was that our atonement would now come through Christ as the perfect sacrifice.

    Since I'm a Protestant and only slowly learning more about Catholicism and Orthodoxy, let me ask you this: do you see a major difference in perspective on this symbol of atonement from the view I just described?

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  2. Thanks for your comment - I appreciated it. As to your question, I think that your view is right on. This is about the Atonement, the ability to be cleansed of our sins, not about Intercession. It seems to me that Hebrews 10:19-22 is actually really clear in spelling out what the tearing of the Temple Veil represents:

    "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the Blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the Curtain, that is, His Body, and since we have a great Priest over the House of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water."

    So it's not that we couldn't go to God before. It's that now, we do so knowing that His Son has paid the Ransom for our sins in full. It's precisely because we're not going to Him by ourselves that we have confidence. We go to Him with the Blood of Christ. I think that on this, Catholics and most Protestants probably see eye-to-eye.

    We do respond to this truth somewhat differently, however, For example, one of the ways we Catholics approach the Throne is at Mass, by offering up the Eucharist, pointing the Father to the Body and Blood of His Son. For example, Eucharistic Prayer IV says:

    "Father, we now celebrate this Memorial of our Redemption. We recall Christ's Death, His descent among the dead, His Resurrection, and His Ascension to Your Right Hand; and, looking forward to His Coming in Glory, we offer You His Body and Blood, the acceptable Sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world."

    To my ears, that sounds like it could have come from the Book of Hebrews. Christ is the High Priest and the Sacrificial Victim, the only Victim worth offering. And we go to the Father through the Curtain, the Body of Christ, approaching with the confidence that we possess the cleansing Blood of Jesus.

    I'm thrilled that you're coming to learn more about Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and I'm eager to do anything I can to help you. What denomination of Protestant are you? God bless,

    Joe

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  3. I've gotten similar comments from Protestant relatives, but it's noting reference to prayer itself but to Confession of sins. In fact, this Lent when I was preparing to make my first confession a close relative made the comment that Catholics are wrong because we don't need to go through a priest to get forgiveness from God. I did my best to explain it, but the idea that your sins have any bearing on the community at large and that the relationship between you and God as well as you and the body of Christ needs to be repaired was so foreign that I don't think it did much good. And the conversation took a turn for the worst when the concept of a priest standing in the place of Christ came up.

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  4. Sorry to hear that. James 5:16 is awfully clear that we're required to "confess our sins to one another."

    While that verse doesn't require confession to a priest, it does invalidate the idea that some sort of confession is unnecessary. As for why we confess to priests as opposed to anyone else, it's because they're the ones who carry the Apostolic power to forgive sins (John 20:21-23).

    And St. Paul described his own journey in Acts 26:20:
    "But to them first that are at Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and unto all the country of Judea, and to the Gentiles did I preach, that they should do penance, and turn to God, doing works worthy of penance."

    So we Catholics are just taking the plain language of Scripture literally: we think we're literally supposed to confess our sins, that our religious fathers actually have the power to forgive sins, and that it really is fitting for them to proscribe acts of penance as a sign of our contrition.

    This was how the early Church understood Penance, and I don't see any reason to suggest that Jesus or the Apostles meant something other than what they said. God bless,

    Joe

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  5. Why can't all of those Protestants say Pray for Me instead of Rest in Peace?

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  6. It never ceases to amaze me at how ignorant protestants can be concerning that which they are claiming to protest against. This ignorance alone is the situation that is brought on by the error of sola scriptura among other protestant beliefs that are often innocently fostered by their pastors in too many cases I see. Still, there is no excuse for ignorance today or any other time. Most all of the protestants I have had conversations with have terrible ideas about the Church, Her teachings and Her practices. The media in many ways also brings these about, but their damage seems rather intentional in many ways for very obvious reasons. The real jaw-dropper for me is that I have yet to find one who really knows what the Eucharist is--many believe it is a statue that we pray to! This should not be happening, but it does. It never seems that the work is done.

    Given these sad realities today, we as Catholics have a great deal of work to do. The proper resources are available to correct errors and it is both a privilege and sacred duty for us to do so when we can. The real job involved is to make sure that the protestant is reading (and hopefully learning something extremely important about the whole plan of salvation, not just a part of it) from a reliable source, and not some site or publication that fosters confusion rather than an introduction to the truth. It seems the "truth" is what they seek, yet deny the very ones that are found in the Church. This is a factor that will always perplex me, as it seems to defy all logic itself.

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  7. @Joe,

    I agree with you, obviously. But I think that a lot of Protestants, ironically, either don't take the book of James very seriously or just skip over it altogether. It's been my experience that the Pauline epistles are (subconsciously, I think) elevated to a much higher status amongst a lot of Protestant denominations.

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  8. Nice catch, but you posted your response on his old Blog, his new blog is: http://benjaminpglaser.wordpress.com/

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  9. Thanks for your reply. Sorry mine is coming so late! I'm a member of an independent Bible church. It's part of that American phenomenon, the "non-denominational" church. But basically, we're Baptists without any conference. Thanks for your comments. I found them interesting and helpful!

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