Sunday, 15 November 2015
Praying for the Dead, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
This past year 22 practicing members of our congregation have passed away. As a community, we feel their loss in many ways: in empty seats around us, that once were filled; and most of all, obviously, by the absence of their physical presence among us. The month of November is the month of the year when the Church particularly focuses us on the dead. I want, today, to remind us of how we should face death, and what we should think about the dead, and do for them.
Our first reading and gospel text both focus us on future hope, a hope that our Catholic Faith holds for those who have died. The gospel spoke of the return of the Lord Jesus in glory at the end of time, “coming in the clouds with great power and glory… to gather His chosen”(Mk 13:26-27). The prophet Daniel similarly spoke of the end of time, “Of those who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth many will awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace”(Dan 12:2). These are two of many texts that remind us that when we think of the dead we should be thinking of a FUTURE for them, not just a past. In our atheistic society it is popular to have “remembrance” services to remember the dead, but a Christian holds to more that just remembrance –we also hold a future hope. And when we hold to such a future hope we grieve in a different way: grieving with hope is not the same as grieving without hope.
Let me focus this more practically and note that there are two “works of mercy” that we are called upon to offer for the dead. The first is the “corporal [bodily] work of mercy” of “burying the dead”. Our Christian religion values the body, believes that we will be resurrected to glorious bodies at the end of time, and so we honour the bodies of those who have died in our burial services. (Thus the Church calls on us to bury the ashes of those who have died if we have a cremation.)
But there is a long-term work of mercy we are called upon to offer: the “spiritual work of mercy” of “praying for the dead”.
As our first reading reminded us, some will be punished in the final judgment rather than rewarded. Our hope thus calls on us to pray that our loved ones with receive MERCY in the judgement. This is an important and on-going thing to pray for.
When I die I hope that people won't say, “Oh, he was a good priest, he doesn't need us to pray for him”. NO! If people love me I hope they will PRAY for me, rather than just presume I'll be OK. And I hope they'll CONTINUE to pray for me, the same way I continue to pray for my grandma who died nearly 20 years ago –I still love her, and still pray for her.
Such prayer does not imply distress or anxiety, but rather a simple awareness that our prayers do good for those who have died. And if we love those who have died then we should naturally want to work for their good, to pray for them.
Our prayers also do something else for the dead: they assist them in the purifications of Purgatory. Heaven is a place of perfection, and apart from a few exceptional saints, almost all of the dead must be purified in order to be ready for heaven. The prayers of the living assist with this purification. Tradition teaches that this happens in two ways: both by offering CONSOLATION to the dead while they are engaging the the difficult purifications; and, by SPEEDING this process of purification.
In praying for the dead we follow the practice of the Early Christians, and the practice of the Jews who lived at the time our Lord. As the second book of Maccabees puts it, we pray “that they might be released from their sins”(2 Macc 12:46). And, we do all of this out of our HOPE in the resurrection. As Maccabees also says, explaining WHY someone prayed for the dead, “if he had not hoped that the dead should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. But because… of the great grace laid up for them it is therefore a holy and pious thought to pray for the dead”(2 Macc 12:44-46).
So, to sum that up, let us not forget those who have died. If we love them, let us continue to do good for them: let us pray for them. Such prayer helps US by keeping our hope for them alive in their hearts. And such prayer helps THEM, that “those who lie sleeping in the dust… will awake to everlasting life”(Dan 12:2).