The idea of venerating our ancestors is one very difficult to stomach in the West, because our society has turned against all things old. We have reduced the Founding Fathers of our countries to self-interested, wealthy white men looking to simply displace the even richer, wealthier whiter men. Our traditional morals and laws are simply the result of a misogynistic patriarchy, a relic of a chauvinistic past. Our parents, grandparents, and so on were simply just regular people, living regular lives within a chaotic planet orbitting around the sun that is in a galaxy arbitrarily expanding in all given directions.
It would seem that the only thing good and meaningful is the individual and her/his own self-actualization. Looking to the past, let along actually holding it in great esteem, merely prevents one from fulfilling one’s own greatness.
What I just described was obviously a caricatured and exaggerated description of the sorry state of contemporary Western thought. Nevertheless, I think any of us can concede that the zeitgeist of the day is “out with the old, in with the new.” Nothing that is old is considered any good.
I believe this is a decidedly Western idea that pervades the Western consciousness. Westerners send their parents and grandparents away to asylums to be medicated and demoralized to the point they die, while even well-to-do Easterners live in multi-generational households. The West hates the past and looks to the future. The East jealously clings to their past.
Ultimately, this Western zeitgeist has led to great upheaval and change. Democracy, Capitalism, Communism, and all new things arose in the West–not in the traditional societies of the East. Even to this day, observers of Japanese business practices will say that their great esteem for tradition and hierarchy stifles their own innovation.
All of this being said, imagine how hard it is for anyone reading this blog, who is fully imbibed in the Western consciousness, to even begin understanding veneration of the saints. It is completely antithetical to what makes us tick as a society.
That being said, I think it should not strike us as a surprise that this is not what it has always been like. We are well aware that in the recent past, it was not like this.
Pardon me to lob another gross stereotype, but I conjecture that this is all the result of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant approach to Christianity (“Here I stand, so help me God”) ultimately places authority in the hands of each individual in the hope that a man can, by his own studies and brilliance, reconstruct what Christianity originally was. This methodology helps “reform” Christian practice to fit the theoretically more ancient mold.
Such a man-centered approach to reconstructing the past is ultimately one that emphasizes study, brilliance, and ingenuity. This is why Western and Protestant countries were the originators of pretty much every philosophical, political, economic, and technological advancements that the rest of the world has been taking centuries to assimilate.
In short, the Protestant, Western way of thinking leads to ingenuity. The veneration of men and women in the past, leads to the opposite.
Yet, the Western way of thinking has altered the way we read the Scriptures. Most Protestants would read the following passage and not even realize that ancestor veneration is explicitly being referred to:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’” (Matt 23:29-30; see also Acts 2:29 and John 4:6).
While we must be careful to say Jesus is not explicitly endorsing the Jewish practices described here (nor is He rejecting them), this much we do know: the Jews were building tombs and monuments for the saints.
This literally eviscerates the common Protestant stereotype that ancestor veneration is something that arose from Romans “paganizing” Christianity over the centuries.
Early Rabbinic Judaism preserves for us a plethora of examples of ancient Jews believing that the saints prayed for the living. A Jewish source records the following for us:
With the prophetic verse Jer. 31:15-16 serving as locus classicus, “A cry is heard in Ramah, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeps for her children, she refuses to be comforted…,” the Sages of Talmudic times believed that their ancestors were aware of what transpired on earth and would plead before God on behalf of their descendants (Ta’anit 16a; Men. 53b). Midrash Lamentations Rabbah includes a description of Biblical figures like Abraham, Moses, and Rachel interceding before the Divine Throne when God’s judgment is being pronounced against Israel (Lam. R. 24). In time this idea of the positive influence of the beneficent dead expanded into the doctrine of zechut avot (the merit of the ancestors), which became canonized in the daily liturgy with the Avot prayer (“You remember the faithfulness of our ancestors and therefore bring redemption to their children’s children…”). Sefer Chasidim describes how the dead pray for the living (452). As late as the Zohar, we find the theme of being reunified with one’s relatives is still a prominent expectation of the afterlife (Va-yehi, 218b).
The same Jewish source also records for us the fact that ancient and medieval Jews asked saints for prayers and actively venerated the saints in…
…a more direct veneration of the meritorious dead, with practices such as praying to them for their intercession in personal matters. The purported graves of many luminaries – Biblical (Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem), Rabbinic (Simon bar Yochai in Meron), Medieval (Meir Baal Nes in Tiberia), and modern (Nachman of Bratzlav) – have become the focus of pilgrimages and prayers for divine intervention among the Ultra-Orthodox. Even the tombs of Jews who would have scoffed at such behavior, like Maimonides, have become destinations for Jewish pilgrims and supplicants.
Another Jewish source notes:
[T]he gradual disappearance of the laws of purity and impurity enabled the people to begin to visit graves and solicit the help of the deceased. This practice is first related by Rava in Babylon [early fourth century], according to whom the spies went up to Hebron to prostrate themselves on the graves of the patriarchs (BT Sot 34b). Similarly, one of the Palestinian Amoraim of the third century believed in visiting cemeteries on fast days, ‘so that the dead shall plead for mercy on us’ (BT Taan 16a).
Lacking a cross-disciplinary approach, the author speculates that the Jewish practice evolved thanks to Muslim and Christian influence. However, if he read Matthew 23:29-30, he would realize that Jewish veneration and pilgrimages predate the existence of Apostolic Christianity itself.
We live in quite interesting times. Thanks to ingenuity, that has been rise to by our intellectual inheritance (thanks to Protestantism,) we have much information at our fingertips. What used to take years to learn can now be accessed in seconds.
Hence, I as a Christian layman can nearly instantly find out about ancient Jewish religious practices–something only Jewish rabbis with extensive libraries would have known about. On the other side of the coin, Jews now have access to Christian sources that they would have been able to get their hands on, but without careful study, would lack a familiarity with–such as the Gospel passage cited here.
Thanks to a little bit of ingenuity, we instantly have the context of the Jewish sources (that their ancestor veneration predates Talmudic times) and Christian sources (that the veneration of the saints was something organized within historic Judaism and that it is extremely similar to the ancestor veneration we see in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism today).
Access to so much information may shed light upon the limitations of Protestant thought. And, with the death of Protestantism (which is occurring before our eyes), we may ultimately see a return to the Eastern mode of thought that venerates tradition again. We shall see.
In a personal note, I find cross-disciplinary studies in history fascinating. I am published in a peer-reviewed journal thanks to a cross-disciplinary approach I took in studying the Neo-Platonist “chain of being” doctrine. In short, I was lucky to have read both Pico della Mirandola and Al Ghazali. I realized that the former was borrowing from the latter. It is my opinion that no one discovered this before myself simply because those who read Al Ghazali never read Pico della Mirandola, and vice versa. A lowly student, who randomly read both, instantly made the connection. Now, thanks to scholars who actually are learned and can read the original languages, my speculations are being born out by manuscript evidence. Research on this has not yet been published yet, but I have reviewed it and am pleased in the direction scholarship is taking.