While the language is difficult to interpret, there is much we can learn about the role of the saints and intercession from the Book of Revelation. The saints render prayers to God that rise up like the smoke from incense.
“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. They sang a new hymn: ‘Worthy are you to receive the scroll and to break open its seals, for you were slain and with your blood you purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth’” (Revelation 5: 8-10).
The apocalyptic vision reveals both the centrality of Christ as the one who saves us through his blood, and also something of about the constitution of the Church. The elders may be likened to the apostles and their successors. This celestial activity is sacramentally realized in the Mass. Note that in the opening prayer, the celebrating priest collects all the intentions and prayers of “the holy ones,” which is often translated as “saints.” This Communion of the Saints is identified with the Church that we know in earthly pilgrimage, in transitional purgation and in heavenly glory. It includes both Jews and Gentiles as the great commission has gone out to the entire world. Prophesy is fulfilled as we have become through our baptism a nation of priests. We offer back to the Father the one who offers himself, Jesus Christ.
“I looked again and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders. They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: ‘To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.’ The four living creatures answered, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshiped” (Revelation 5: 11-14).
The four living creatures are regarded many authorities as angelic cherubim although Catholic iconography often identifies them with the four evangelists of the Gospels: Mark (the lion), Luke (the calf), Matthew (the man) and John (the eagle). In any case, they signify how the whole created order is called to join the angels in the worship almighty God. The angels are counted among the Communion of the Saints. The eternal operation of heaven is the praise and adoration of God. Jesus as the Lamb of God is the one who makes possible this reconciliation with a world that was fallen and estranged. The one on the throne who sits at the right hand of the Father is our Savior. He is worshiped because in Jesus, the invisible God is made visible and saves his people.
The divine will mysteriously works with human freedom. We have been chosen and the saints of God are such because of divine election.
“I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the Israelites . . . . After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb’” (Revelation 7: 4, 9-10).
Do not take too literally the number of the elect given in the text. Indeed, we should focus on the “great multitude.”
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).
When it comes to the Day of Judgment we read:
“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 along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with burning coals from the altar, and hurled it down to the earth. There were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Revelation 8:3-5).
The angels of God are often imagined as both messengers and as bearers of divine gifts. Indeed the Roman Canon of the Mass makes mention of an angel when the consecrated oblation is offered to the heavenly Father. “In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.” We literally offer what we have been given. Similarly, our prayers and worship are received or given efficacy through our union with Christ and his oblation. A distinction is made between the smoke of the incense and the prayers of the saints. It is as if the incense or divine intervention makes possible the reception of our prayers and offering. Apart from the Lord, we would have nothing to offer. Our prayers have value because in Jesus Christ, God’s promise is fulfilled and our prayers are heard.
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