Praying for the Departed
Recently a friend of mine sent a link to an article in a Scottish newspaper about a Church of Scotland parish that was still receiving a grant of money originally authorised by King Robert the Bruce (he of the spider fame) to pray for the soul of his dead wife, one Elizabeth de Burgh.
The first thing that fascinated me was that this money was still being paid after 700 years (although what was originally Five Scottish Pounds is now down to £2.10). It was being paid to this kirk, not by the heirs of Robert the Bruce-whoever they are-but by the local council as an annual bequest. Now I have often seen mention of families who have paid for churches and monasteries to sing a requiem or a mass for the souls of departed family members and I have often wondered if these people are still being prayed for as many of the requests were “in perpetuity”. Over the past five hundred years or so, monasteries have largely disappeared from our landscape and Church attendance sadly diminishing, with church choirs, as a consequence, not being so popular.
The second thing that interested me was that this kirk actually had had a service in which they prayed for this late Queen of Scotland, and also a long list of other people connected with the church who had also died. I myself was brought up Congregationalist-which in Village England in the 1950s and 60s was the nearest thing you had to a Presbyterian Church-my mother was actually Presbyterian as were her parents who had both hailed from Aberdeen. But I cannot recall anyone suggesting that we have a prayer service for those who had died. We might have a commemoration service to honour those who had died in the war, but we never, as I recall, prayed for their souls.
As a student of Early Church History and as someone who enjoys the services of the Ancient Church, I was pleased to hear that even the Presbyterian Church-anti-episcopalian fruit of The Reformation, that movement which split the Western Church into a thousand and more pieces in the sixteenth century-and indeed still continues to do so-should have begun to take on practices of the Church of the First Millennium. As an advocate of Ancient Church practices, I have to admit to a degree of smugness-may God forgive me.
But why did the Early Church pray for those who had departed this life? And, I wonder why has that practice stopped (at least in Western Church)? CS Lewis, in his great book “The Screwtape Letters” (if you haven’t read it, please rush out and beg, borrow, steal or buy a copy (well may be not “steal”-you know what I mean)), says that “The Church is like a mighty army in battle through space and time.” If that is true, and I suspect it is, then the Church does not just consist of those who are on Earth but also those who have departed this life. And we need to pray for each other.
“Hang on a moment”, I hear you cry, “doesn’t Holy Scripture say that it is given unto man once to die and after this The Judgement?”, Yes it does, it is Hebrews chapter 9 v 27. But, it is an assumption that Death and The Judgement happen, straight on, one after the other-after all God lives in eternity, where there is no time and there are a couple of interesting references in Holy Scripture that God may have more things for us to do after we have (to quote the Bard of Avon) “shuffled of this mortal coil”.
The first is in the Old Testament, it is 2 Maccabees 12 v 42, 46 where it is said that Judas Maccabeus “sent to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering” saying at the same time “that it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin.”
“Whoa!!” I hear my Protestant Readers say, “1, 2, 3 Maccabees are not part of the Old Testament.” Well actually they are not part of Western Old Testament, but they are part of the Orthodox Old Testament. The Old Testament used by the Western Church is based on the Hebrew Massoretic Text, whilst the Orthodox Church uses the Greek Septuagint for its Old Testament. The Septuagint has several other books not included in the Hebrew text-the Books of Maccabees being three of them.
The other verse is in the New Testament and the words come from the lips of Jesus Himself. Matthew 12 v 32:
|Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.
will not be forgiven him…….in the age to come.
So it would appear that even in the Age to Come there is a necessity for seeking forgiveness.
There is a story of the Abba Macarius who said, ‘Walking in the desert one day, I found the skull of a dead man, lying on the ground. As I was moving it with my stick, the skull spoke to me. I said to it, “Who are you?” The skull replied, “I was high priest of the idols and of the pagans who dwelt in this place; but you are Macarius, the Spirit-bearer. Whenever you take pity on those who are in torments, and pray for them, they feel a little respite.” The old man said to him, “What is this alleviation, and what is this torment?” He said to him, “As far as the sky is removed from the earth, so great is the fire beneath us; we are ourselves standing in the midst of the fire, from the feet up to the head. It is not possible to see anyone face to face, but the face of one is fixed to the back of another. Yet when you pray for us, each of us can see the other’s face a little. Such is our respite.” The old man in tears said, “Alas the day when that man was born!” He said to the skull, “Are there punishments which are more painful than this?” The skull said to him, “There is a more grievous punishment down below us.” The old man said, “Who are the people down there?” The skull said to him: “We have received a little mercy since we did not know God, but those who know God and denied Him are down below us.” Then, picking up the skull, the old man buried it. (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection:Macarius the Great, 38. )
Clearly then it is the teaching of Holy Scripture and the Teaching of Holy Church that not only are there consequences for actions after we leave this earth, but also that we on earth are able to influence by our prayers the situation not only of those who live on earth now but also those who reposed.
As a young Christian I was encouraged to “keep short accounts with God”, when I discovered the sacrament of confession, that “keeping of short accounts” became simultaneously easier and also harder. Easier because I could arrange confession on a regular basis, harder because now I had to confess to God in the presence of a priest. Prior to this my confession had been a few words muttered into my pillow before sleep overtook me. Now, as I spoke to God, a man was listening who had been there the last time I had confessed and he could check that the things that I had confessed of last time, I had truly repented of.
But what happens if a person dies without a confession of sin? The Beloved Disciple tells us that
|If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 Jn 1 v 9
The implication is that if we do not confess our sins they will remain unforgiven-hence the need for a regular confession.
The Church Prayers for the Separation of Body and Soul deal with this, asking God to forgive any sins the person has committed-including those that they were too embarrassed to mention in Confession. But, the reality is that whilst many people do die in their beds-we regularly pray that God will “give us a Christian end to our lives and a good answer before the Judgement Seat of Christ”, sadly there are many who do not.
Hence the need to pray for them, that God in His Mercy will have mercy on them and forgive them all their sins and to quote the Orthodox Service of Memorial for the Departed (The Panakida)
“Give rest O God to Thy servants and establish them in Paradise, where The Choirs of The Saints and The Righteous shine like the stars. Give rest O Lord, to Thy servants who have fallen asleep and, and overlook all their offences.”