Today – All Souls – we are invited to share the care and love of the Church for the deceased. There are, of course, people who pray for children not yet born – their parents naturally and others too. And the Church prays for those waiting to be born into eternal life. Such is “catholic” charity, extending to those not yet born and those already passed. And we join with that prayer, especially today and through this month of the Holy Souls.
“Do not hinder a kindness for the dead”, says the Book of Sirach (7:33). And in another late book of the Old Testament (2nd Maccabees), we hear that it is a “holy and pious thought” to pray for the dead. Judas Maccabeus, leader of the Jewish army against the forces set on crushing the people of Israel, arranged for sacrifice to be offered in the Temple for the Jewish soldiers who had fallen in battle. He even sent a stipend! The prayer was that they “might be delivered from their sin”, and this in view of hope in the Resurrection (cf. 2 Macc 12: 39-45). And so already before the time of Christ prayer for the dead was part of Jewish tradition. And it still is. Here is one prayer: “God, filled with mercy, dwelling in the heavens’ heights, bring proper rest beneath the wings of your Shechinah, amid the ranks of the holy and the pure, illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the souls of our beloved and our blameless who went to their eternal place of rest. May You who are the source of mercy shelter them beneath Your wings eternally, and bind their souls among the living, that they may rest in peace. And let us say: Amen.”
It is clear from remarks of the Fathers of the Church, from inscriptions on the tombs of departed Christians, and from the ancient Eucharistic Prayers, that Christians have always prayed for the departed. “We pray you, too, for all who are asleep and whose names we call to mind. Make all these souls holy, you know them all. Sanctify all the souls that are sleeping in the Lord, include them in the number of your powers [the angels] and give them a place to live in your kingdom” (Euchologium of Serapion). In our own ancient Roman Canon, we pray that the departed may experience refreshment, light and peace. And we pray similarly in the other Eucharistic Prayers as well. Famous are the words of the dying St Monica, mother of St Augustine, who told her sons that she did not mind she was buried (be it Africa or Europe), as long as she was regularly remembered at the altar of God.
There is a tide of compassionate prayer here. It flows from the compassion of Christ when, as in today’s Gospel, he raised the widow’s son, and on other occasions, the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus, and Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. Prayer for the dead, which is a form of prayer for peace, belongs to Christ’s victory over sin and death, which is the heart of our faith. When, as the Creed says, “he descended to the underworld”, it was to gather the dead around him and give them a share in the victory of his Ascension. When someone we love dies, we are not always left simply with a sense of completion. There will be sorrow; there can be bitterness, regret; the sense of our own failures in love or wounds from the lack of love shown us. But prayer for the dead can help ease all this. It entrusts the healing and completion to Christ. Of his own free will, he entered into the tragedy of death and changed it from within. He broke the iron bars, as the Easter Exsultet says.
And we do this, like Judas Maccabeus, “taking account of the resurrection” (2 Macc 12:43). Every last intercession of the Church’s Evening Prayer is for the departed and often makes mention of the hope of rising again. We look to the lifting of the mourning veil that covers all peoples and the banquet of life prepared on God’s mountain.
Life and death, what a tangle they make, how entwined they are. I am grateful to the Church for teaching us, in a motherly way, how to live and how to die, and how we navigate both, part as we are of the one Body, fighting on earth, suffering in purification, rejoicing in heaven. And I am grateful to the Lord who embraced both life and death, and so we know that whether we live or die, we are his and he is ours.
St Mary’s Cathedral, 2 November 2022