Praying for the Dead
The Orthodox pray for the departed. The most pressing prayer within the liturgies appointed for this purpose is for God to forgive their sins. We say, “For no one lives and does not sin, for You only are without sin….” This is easily misunderstood, but it goes to the very heart of the mystery of our relationship with God.
The same sentiment, interestingly, is offered in the prayers for the living. The priest says:
Again we pray for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, and visitation for the servants of God [especially ______], and for the pardon and remission of their sins.
This can sometimes create a jarring moment. For example, I always include the names of the women who are pregnant in my parish (there always seem to be a bunch of them). Thus, “for Susan and the child she carries,” only to be followed by “and for the pardon and remission of their sins.” So every one of the living whom we pray for is under this concern “for the pardon and remission of their sin.”
All of this is complicated by our culture’s confusion about sin. When a contemporary person hears the term “sin,” they immediately think in legal terms. We think, “They must have done something wrong and now they need to be forgiven.” So, recently on Mothers’ Day, I intoned, “for our mothers living this day…and for the pardon and remission of their sins.” Some mothers might indeed look at us, their offspring, and think that perhaps they sinned by bringing us into the world! But this is not at all the meaning of the prayer.
Sin is not a legal problem. It is not a breaking of the rules for which we now deserve punishment. When we ask for God to forgive someone’s sins, we are not asking God to “let them off the hook,” or some such thing. Sin and forgiveness have to do with our broken communion with God and others. It is a state of being out-of-communion or in which our communion with God and others is somehow impaired.
God is Life. He is the Lord and Giver of Life. He is the only source of life for everything that exists. Our broken and impaired communion with Him results in death. St. Paul said, “The wages of sin is death.” It’s the natural outcome of broken communion. The only way to “forgive” such a broken communion is to restore it. That restoration of communion is the very essence of what we mean when we say “forgiveness.” To be forgiven is to be made whole, beginning with our communion with God.
Thus, when we pray for the living, the very heart of our prayer is for the forgiveness of their sins. Not because we’re aware of some rules which they have broken, but because the forgiveness of sin, the restoration of communion with God, is the source of every good thing, without which nothing can be good or well.
When we pray for those who have died and the forgiveness of their sins, we are asking the same thing, for their communion with God, whether broken or impaired, to be made whole. Of course, we enter mysterious ground in all of this. The Orthodox Church has very little to say in a definitive manner about prayers for the departed. The doctrine of purgatory is a development with Western Catholicism and plays no part in Orthodoxy. Officially, the Church says that our prayers for the departed are “of benefit.” They help.
Some teachers in the Tradition hold that once we die, there is nothing that we can do for ourselves. But these same teachers hold that the prayers of the living do wonderful things for us. Others hold that we can indeed do things for ourselves after death, but also acknowledge the benefit of the prayers of the living.
What is essential in this is something that runs very counter to our contemporary minds, formed as they are by the false assumptions of modernity. Salvation, the full and complete restoration of communion with God and our complete healing, is not a private matter. We are not saved alone, for “alone” is the very antithesis of salvation.
Communion is how we exist. Neither can we have communion with God without communion with our neighbour (1 John 4:20-21). Our contemporary culture imagines that we are self-existing, that life is merely a matter of biology. However, true existence, both in this life and the next, is marked by communion, both with God and with others.
This is the very heart of our salvation. That the Church prays for those who have died is the abiding confession that death does not destroy our communion with one another. That our prayers are of “benefit” for those who have died is the abiding confession that our communion is real and effective. That we ask the prayers of the saints is the abiding confession that those who have finished the course are of benefit to us.
The teaching of the Church is that the prayers of the Divine Liturgy are the most effective prayers of all. For it is in the Holy Eucharist that the whole Church, on earth and in heaven, united supremely in Christ, its life in union with His sacrifice, is offered to the Father. Here the Son presents the Kingdom to the Father, that God might be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
It is indeed tragic that contemporary Christianity has lost this ancient understanding of the faith. With the radical individualism of the modern world, the mystery of communion and true participation (koinonia) have been forgotten, and with them, whole passages of Scripture have ceased to have their true meaning. Even the word koinonia, which has the Greek meaning of “commonality” or “participation,” is rendered in English translations as “fellowship.” Instead, Scripture tells us that we are in Christ and that Christ is in us, that we are members of one single Body, that we have communion with the sufferings of Christ, that His death becomes our death and our death becomes His, etc. This most fundamental element of the grammar of Christianity has ceased to be spoken by most of the contemporary world.
This same tragedy has deepened modern grieving and created the tragically feeble efforts now known as “celebrations of life” as substitutes for true Christian funerals. Memory, made as pleasant as possible, becomes the repository of those whom we now have truly “lost.” All communion is severed, and the dead pass out of our lives. But, in reality, they do not. The mind, bereft of true communion wanders about, seeking a solace that can only be imagined. Grief therapists seek to create psychological moments of healing with no basis outside of the mind and the emotions, places where dogs chase their tales in circles that can never be resolved. “Time heals all wounds,” becomes the modern panacea, so long as time promises a sad forgetfulness.
Many people are staggered the first time they attend an Orthodox funeral. The frankness with which death is addressed and acknowledged disturbs our modern sensibilities. Some of the ancient hymns that are traditionally sung by the choir are laments sung from the point-of-view of the departed:
As you see me set before you mute and without breath, weep for me, my brethren, family, and all who know me, for I spoke with you only yesterday, and suddenly the fearful hour of death came upon me. Come, all those who love me and give me the last kiss, for never again shall I journey or talk with you until the end of time. For I go to a Judge Who is impartial, where servant and master stand side by side. King and soldier, rich and poor, are held in equal esteem. For each will be glorified by his own deeds or will be put to shame. But I ask and implore you all to pray without ceasing for me to Christ our God, that I may not be put into the place of torment because of my sins, but that He may appoint me to a place where there is the light of life. now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The funeral marks only the beginning of a new communion. In Orthodox practice, prayers are offered on the third, ninth and fortieth days after death, and every year on the anniversary of our parting. Funeral services conclude with the ancient hymn, “Memory eternal!” In which the Church prays that God will forever remember the departed. To be remembered by God is nothing less than life eternal.
The faithful are urged to give alms in the name of the departed. In traditional Orthodox practice, those alms were a way of asking for the poor to remember the soul of the one who had died. Candles are lit in memory and the prayers of the Eucharist are offered repeatedly. In Orthodox practice, the priest offers a service of prayers for each of the first forty days after death. Annual visits are made to the graves of the departed where prayers are offered yet again.
In all of these things, the reality of our eternal participation in one another and together in the life of God is foremost. All of these customs face an uphill battle in the dead-and-gone emptiness of the modern world. We have forgotten our ancestors and can only expect to be forgotten ourselves.
Christ gives us a greater hope:
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth and will run like sparks through the stubble. (Wisdom 3:1-7)