Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep [dead] . . . .”
The Church, beloved, provides us ample opportunities throughout the liturgical cycles to remember the dead. Indeed, within the Divine Liturgy itself we commemorate each time it is served
the blessed and ever-memorable holy Orthodox patriarchs; and . . . the blessed and ever-memorable founders of this holy church; and . . . all our fathers and brethren, the Orthodox departed this life before us, who here and in all the world lie asleep in the Lord (Augmented Litany).
And, on other days, except for Sundays and feast days per the rubrics, we will pray especially the Litany for the Departed, which we will offer here momentarily for all those departed loved ones whose names have been provided. This the Church has done since her inception, and before. The author of the Old Testament Septuagint book of 2 Maccabees speaks of the “noble Judas [Maccabeus]” who prayed for his fallen soldiers, especially those who had died in battle because of a grave sin they had committed, offering up to the Lord on their behalf sin offerings, imploring the Lord to completely blot out the sins committed. Indeed, the writer goes on to note that “if [Judas Maccabeus] were not looking for the resurrection of those fallen, it would have been utterly foolish to pray for the departed.” He goes on to say,
But since he was looking to the reward of splendor laid up for those who repose in godliness, it was a holy and godly purpose. Thus he made atonement for the fallen so as to set them free from their transgression (2 Mc. 12:38-45).
We see here in this Old Testament Scripture the proper and accepted practice of remembering or praying for the dead, even offering up alms on their behalf. In a way, the dead bless the living when their loved ones give alms in their remembrance, and, in turn, the living bless the dead by these great spiritual works of mercy. The Old Testament writer of the Septuagint book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach counsels the reader, “Let the kindness of giving be shown in the presence of all the living, and do not withhold kindness from the dead” (Sr. 7:33). How can we extend such kindness to our departed, except to bury them with the honor due to them (Sr. 38:16), and to pray for them that the Lord may have mercy on their souls and to do good in remembrance of them?
It has long been deemed a great corporal work of mercy to bury the dead, which is to say, it is something the Church is called to do to relieve the burden of death and to bless the dying. Again, the author of Sirach says, “My son, let your tears fall for the dead, and as one suffering grievously, begin the lament. With honor due him, wrap his body and take care of his burial.” No one should die alone, and so the Church is called to come alongside the dead (and those who are bereaved), and to mourn their death, to grieve on their behalf, but not in hopelessness or in dire severity. “For grief,” says Sirach, “is a cause of death.” Yes, one can die of a broken, grief-stricken, inconsolable heart.
[A] grief-stricken heart will sap your strength. . . . Do not give your heart [over] to grief; drive it away, remembering the end of life. . . . [You] cannot help the dead man by grieving; but will only injure yourself. Remember my end, since yours is also like it: ‘Mine yesterday, yours today’ (Sr. 38:16-23).
The dead who die in Christ remain participants in the life of the Church because, as our Lord once told some Sadducees who do not believe in angels or the Resurrection, the God of their Fathers is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, not was. “’He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living, for all live to Him,’” says our Lord. “In this ‘you are . . . greatly mistaken’” (Mt. 22:23-33; Mk. 12:18-27; Lk.20:27-40).
St. Paul, writing to Bishop Timothy, commemorated his beloved compatriot, Onesiphorus, departed this life, asking that “the Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day . . . .” because Onesiphorus “often refreshed” the Apostle and was not ashamed of Paul’s chains, even zealously and unashamedly seeking Paul out upon his arrival in Rome (2 Tm. 1:16-18). How could the Apostle, then, simply forget his beloved friend and the myriad kindnesses bestowed upon him by Onesiphorus? How could Paul neglect his friend in death if he didn’t do so in life? He couldn’t! He commemorated him in death as he did in life because the departed continue in the mutual love of the brethren (1 Th. 4:9). We pray for them and they intercede on our behalf.
Does prayer for the dead do any good? Can we prove that it doesn’t? I, for one, believe it does do good. To what extent, I don’t know. That’s up to God. There are no Scriptural injunctions against it. And, if, some time it is revealed that such prayer was fruitless for the dead, it would not be fruitless for us who pray. Why? Because anytime we draw near to God in prayer is time well spent and ripe for spiritual harvest. And, if perchance, it is revealed that our prayers for the dead do matter and have effect, why in the world would we not rejoice in that? Why would we be so greedy as to begrudge God having mercy in response to the prayers of His righteous ones in the Church (Mt. 20:1-16; Jm. 5:16)?
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so will God bring with Him those who are asleep in Jesus.
Because the Resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ is a historical fact with eschatological ramifications for us all – departed this life as well as “we who are alive and remain” – the Church dares to pray for her dead that the Lord may have mercy on that Last Day when all the dead shall be raised up and all the living “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Apart from the Resurrection, all of this would be utter foolishness (2 Mc. 12:44). And so, I pray you, holy brethren, that at my death you do not withhold from me your kindness, but pray for this sinner continually who stands in need of the great mercy of God before Whose dread Judgment Seat we all must stand at the Last Day. As Sirach wisely counsels us all, “remember the time you will die, and you will never sin” (Sr. 7:36; 8:7). “Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Th. 4:18).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God,
have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
1 Th. 4:13-17