Prayers for the Dead

April 25, 2011


I am reformed by birth. Born into the Christian Reformed Church, educated in CSI schools during my formative years, defining myself in opposition to the norm of my evangelical/baptist high school, I am Reformed. The determined intellectual approach of that tradition is deeply embedded in my bones. The world is fallen, the gospel offers grace and we, as believers are called to redeem all things – all areas of life are open to Christian work and intervention. This work is the stuff of our earthly life, which we strive to do as best we can, and which is completed upon the moment of our death. For at death we face judgment; at death, our life’s work is complete; at death, the door to redemption closes and our position on either side of that door frame is set.For this is the Reformed way and is also the understanding of many others who would label themselves Protestant but not reformed. This is one of the many legacies of the Reformation – the rejection of purgatory and the growing insistence that the dead are dead. They are no longer aware of us, for either their salvation is complete and they are absorbed in worship of God or their rejection of God is complete, and there is no hope. Our hope is to be reunited upon our death or the return of Christ, but while we live and they do not, our existences are closed to one another.

So I thought. And then I took a course on Eastern Orthodoxy. Just three week in January, but my whole understanding of Christianity began to change. As in the Catholic church, saints play an ongoing and vital role in the lives of the living. However, for this sort of practice to work, those saints must in some way be aware of and care about the lives of the living. And perhaps, just perhaps, the process of becoming like God does not end at the point of death. Perhaps that process continues in whatever that life is beyond the grave. Radical thoughts to my reformed mind, thought that required examining my assumptions about salvation, about death, about the community of Saints.

During the Pascal Vigil on Saturday at the Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church we attend, while renewing our baptismal vows and reconsecrating the baptismal waters, we, the entire congregation, invoked the prayers of the saint, both the major saints of the entire catholic church, and those saints more local to the Anglican communion. And as we asked the prayers of saint after saint, we became ever more part of that “holy, catholic, and apostolic” church that we confess in the creeds. These saints, living through the death and life of the Christ, which we commemorated that evening, are a part of our lives. The church is not just our church – it is theirs as well. The community of believers is more than those gathered in a particular space at a particular time – it transcends space and time and comes to be united, to be catholic, through worship. It is a community that defies death.

A dear friend experienced the passing of a grandfather this weekend. Two years ago, again near Easter, we said goodbye to my husband’s mentor. And in prayer on Easter, I was able to pray for them, for their journeys are not over. Not merely to thank God for their lives, though that is most certainly is true, but to pray for them. For if we believe as we profess that reality extends beyond the confines of this time and materiality, then our lives are still very much connected with those who have died. This is the hope of Easter. This is the reality of the liturgy. This is the mystery of faith.

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