Prayers for the Dead

Last Thursday night at Our Lady of Lourdes, we had a truly beautiful Mass for the bereaved. The whole community came together to offer prayers for those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith (1 Thess. 4:13, 14). Of course "Mass is the highest form of prayer we can say", to quote Pope Pius X. It is the whole of salvation history acted out for us, and in which we partake, audibly in prayer and joining in with the hymns, spiritually through our attention during the liturgy of the Word and the private prayers of our heart we make at the liturgy of the Eucharist, and silently through our actions, our demeanour and the little acts of love we make during Mass to show God how much we care: genuflections, anointing ourselves with the sign of the Cross, etc.

For some Mass goers today, the Bible is something unfamiliar and sadly, not an every day part of their faith. I wonder then, whether many would recognise the extent to which the Mass is soaked in Sacred Scripture? It is inherently Biblical and going to Mass is like having your Bible open in front of you: the priest solemnly intones one line from Isaiah, relates it to the next line which is from Pslams, and then a line from St. Paul.

To go to Mass is to go to Heaven, where "God Himself...will wipe away every tear" (Rev 21:3—4).
To go to Mass is to renew our Covenant with God, as at a marriage feast—for the Mass is the marriage supper of the Lamb.
To go to Mass is to receive the fullness of grace, the very life of the Trinity, to truly journey into God.

Mass has been like a bridge for me; an opportunity to commune with what G.K. Chesterton referred to as the democracy of the dead; all the Saints, those who have walked our path of faith before us and gone to their eternal reward. There is nowhere I have felt closer to Ruth than at Mass, especially at Communion, and I always make a point of considering those eternal and metaphysical dimensions when I am at Mass.

How appropriate then, that in this month of November, when we especially remember the Holy Souls, the means by which we remember them is by going to Mass.

The Scripture reading was from 2 Maccabees 12 as follows:
So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honourably, taking account of the resurrection.  For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.
I found this a very powerful exposition of the pre-Christian roots of praying for the dead. The Mass was very moving, with the children's choir, and an opportunity for those recently bereaved, to come up and light a votive candle before the altar. The names of those loved ones were read out, and the choir sang a prayer, asking that the angels might escort them to their rest. We were all in tears!

It is not often spoken about these days and our Mass led to a conversation about it with my oldest son, Will, who was serving and said that he was choking back tears on the altar as he lit the candles for the grieving. Afterwards, Will told me that he doesn't often think about death. Of course not. he is 16 and despite the deaths of relatives, and even his sister, death seems like a far off thing to any 16 year old.

I said that death is something we all know we must face, and this is one of the reasons it is important that we know what we think about it. What we know about death comes from our experiences of people who we have loved passing through the shadowy veil. My clearest insight is the difference between the person and the corpse, where the person has fled. When you see a dead body, I think this is the most obvious thing you can say about it, but it is a metaphysical reality, not so much anything scientific. 

Another insight of mine concerns love. Love, that is agape in the proper sense (unconditional love, such as we have for a child) is something reciprocal. When you love someone you share this sort of bond with, my experience is that the reciprocation continues.

These insights lead me to conclude that what we are taught in Sacred Scripture is coherent with my experience. We are more than the sum of our parts, and when the electrical activity ceases in our brain, all that we are does not cease, snuffed out like a candle. Instead it continues in some way. The energy that was transformed through our lives does not end with our last breath.

What happens afterwards I cannot say, but I can look to the wisdom and record of Sacred Scripture for clues. The last things are a fundamental tenet of Catholic doctrine. Death, judgement, the resurrection of the body, purgatory, heaven and hell. A study of these doctrines can lead us to understand a wealth of information revealed to us and gathered over the centuries about what happens to us after death.

The reading cited above from the Book of Maccabees is probably not in your friend’s Bible. This is because it was originally written in Greek. During Jesus’ lifetime, many Jewish people regarded these books as inspired by God.

Maccabees is a historical book that tells of the Jewish struggle for religious and political freedom from the Greek empire of the Seleucid kings who had inherited the world from Alexander the Great. The Maccabees are a Jewish family chosen by God to stand up against the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes, who persecuted the Jews and desecrated the Temple.

2 Maccabees contains teaching on the resurrection of the dead (6:26; 7:9; 12:41-46; 14:46) and on the intercessory prayers of the saints in Heaven )15:12-16) where Jeremiah the prophet is seen praying in Heaven for Judas Maccabeus on earth. The Church Militant on earth and the Church Triumphant in Heaven are one. In prayer they have real contact with each other. Death no more destroys or even separates God's people, the Church, the New Israel, than it could destroy or separate ancient Israel. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (Heb 12:1).

Despite this wealth of inspired information however, about 60 years after Jesus’ death, rabbis at Jamnia in Palestine drew up the list (canon) of the Scriptures used by Jewish people to this day. That shorter list includes only works composed in Hebrew, excluding the two Books of Maccabees, five other books and parts of the Books of Daniel and Esther.

This has always struck me as a travesty, because there is so much of great import in the deutero-canon that it seems ridiculous to exclude it merely based on the language it was written in. Take today's reading from the book of Wisdom for example:
For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
and night in its swift course was now half gone,
your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne,
into the midst of the land that was doomed,
a stern warrior
carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command,
and stood and filled all things with death,
and touched heaven while standing on the earth.
For the whole creation in its nature was fashioned anew,
complying with your commands,
so that your children might be kept unharmed.
The cloud was seen overshadowing the camp,
and dry land emerging where water had stood before,
an unhindered way out of the Red Sea,
and a grassy plain out of the raging waves,
where those protected by your hand passed through as one nation,
after gazing on marvelous wonders.
For they ranged like horses,
and leaped like lambs,
praising you, O Lord, who delivered them.
Wisdom 18:14-16; 19:6-9
How clearly we see Jesus, the eternal Word of God (John 1) who brings the sword of truth to enlighten us all, who is the ultimate revelation of the Father, in this reading? Was this why the rabbis wanted the deutero-canon removed from the TaNaK, the Hebrew Bible?

Irrespective of their decision, both Eastern and Western Christians accepted as inspired the longer list for centuries. But when Martin Luther translated the Bible, he used the shorter list. Sometimes, these seven books are printed in Protestant Bibles as “Deutero-canonical” or “Apocrypha.”

We don't just rely on Maccabees for Scriptural references to Purgatory however, the New Testament and early Christian writings offer some evidence for purgatory. In 2 Timothy 1:18, St. Paul prays for Onesiphorus, who has died. The earliest mention of prayers for the dead in public Christian worship is by the writer Tertullian in 211 A.D. So like most things in Catholic teaching, it's not just Scripture, but Sacred Tradition, that is, what the Church has always done, and handed down to us through the centuries.

The question of purgatory and praying for the dead was a major issue between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) issued a decree about purgatory reaffirming its existence and the usefulness of prayers for the deceased, yet it cautioned against “a certain kind of curiosity or superstition...” about it.

The Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory reflects its understanding of the communion of saints. We are connected to the saints in heaven, the saints-in-waiting in purgatory and other believers here on earth. Prayers for the deceased are not a means of buying their way out of purgatory.

The Catholic Church’s teaching about purgatory (see CCC 1030-32) says that all sin, unfortunately, has a life of its own and may have bad effects even after the sinner repents. Sincere repentance includes a desire to repair the damage done by one’s sins. That may or may not be complete before the person dies.

When the world ends at the Final Judgment, there will be only two possibilities: heaven and hell. We who celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection over sin and death look forward to sharing in that victory, and we pray that our beloved dead may do the same.

We tend to put off thinking about the consequences of our actions in life, even though there are inevitably and always consequences. This is especially true when we do something self-serving or that we know if wrong. We ignore our conscience because we want something and we turn away from God, just like Adam and Eve hiding in Eden.

This November, why not take a moment to really think about what will happen when you die. Take a moment to say a prayer for those who have died, the souls in Purgatory, and maybe get to confession and Mass!


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