“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”
All Souls November 2, 2017
1 Peter 1:3-9
PRAYING FOR THE DEAD
Every year we gather at this time to remember before God those who lived and have died before us. Tonight we pray for the dead: both those who in life were near to us, those to we whom we are indebted here as a church family, as well as those countless souls who have lived on earth and now only God remembers.
Historically, and in some corners still today, there has been controversy surrounding this practise of praying for the dead. It is one of those practises of faith that has tended to separate the “catholic” traditions from the more Protestant, especially evangelical traditions. “No one should entertain the illusion that someone may be able to pray for him, affecting some beneficial result, after he is dead,” is the argument. Only the living are able to choose that conversion of life which leads to salvation. Once a person has died and met his or her judgment, the case is closed; God can do nothing more for them; they have either passed the trial or failed it. As one Evangelical argued the case,
In the parable of the virgins (Mt. 25:1ff), there is the clear lesson that after those ‘virgins’ went to ‘sleep’ there was no further opportunity for preparation; the “door was shut” v. 10. The lesson is . . . that only those who had made adequate, personal preparation would meet the “bridegroom” . . . How, therefore, could prayers from the living alter the destiny of the lost?1
Now, the Protestant reformers of old were right in contesting the abuses of the Medieval Church and its practise of hawking ‘indulgences,’ essentially “get out of jail free” cards, which people could purchase for deceased loved ones. But some of the contemporary followers of those reformers, like the one I quoted above, short-change the reach of grace and the power of his love. If Christ is as we believe, “the resurrection and the life,” how can the dead have passed beyond the mercy of God? Our hope must be as far-reaching as the love of the one who brought us into life and will raise us from death. Hope of this kind is not for something we can see or expect as a natural possibility: I can hope it will not rain tomorrow; I can hope I will get a promotion at work; I can hope that my child will choose to go to university – but these hopes are not the same kind of hope that Christ offers to us. The kind of hope that Christ offers is, in the wonderful words of St Paul, “hope against hope” (Romans 4:18). Hope, that is, when every natural or possible possibility has died. Hope when our natural hope for life has died.
Today, we pray in the name of this kind of resurrection hope. We pray in the name of this hope against hope for God’s continued blessing on those who have died, the self-same blessing as he bestowed upon them in life. I wonder if the crossing from life to death must appear for us monumentally greater, more frightening, more sublime, than it appears for God. For both the living and the dead are held in the mind and memory of God. Though generations may pass and though faces and names are obliterated from the earth, God does not forget. And just as at one time God loved us from nothingness into being, so God shall love us again from the nothingness of death into the new being of the Resurrection. Not even death is strong or final enough to cut us off from his memory or the reach of his mercy.
When we say the ‘Kyrie eleison’ at the beginning of each Mass, “Lord have mercy/ Christ have mercy/ Lord have mercy,” in my mind I translate those words in this way: “Lord, turn thy face toward us/ Christ turn thy face toward us/ Lord turn thy face toward us.” Turning the light of his face toward us, God loves us from non-being into being, from nothingness into life – as indeed Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: “God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). I am certain that these words are just as much about forgiveness as they are about Resurrection, for the two go inseparably hand in hand. Wherever and however death touches us: in our suffering, in our loneliness and loss, in our confusion and anxiety, in our pride and self-centredness and sin, when Christ turns his face toward us, he calls us from the darkness of death and non-being into the light of being, into the resurrection and the life. And when we pray for the dead, we are asking God to shine his mercy upon them according to exactly the same pattern and by exactly the same Word: to love them from the darkness of non-being into the light of the new being we have been promised in Christ.
So we pray for the dead as an act of love and in the belief that nothing separates us from the love of God that we have in Christ Jesus – not even death. Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. Whether we are saints or sinners, faithful or forgetful, thankful or grasping, we all are in the hand of God. So let us pray in faith and hope and love for those who have gone before us, just as we pray for those still with us, ever with this word on our lips: “Lord, have mercy.” Thy will be done.
1 Wayne Jackson, “Praying for the Dead” (www.christiancourier.com/articles/408-praying-for-the-dead).