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Dead and gone?

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Cross-posted at Shreds and Patches

I promised that I’d say something about what is misleadingly termed “prayers for the dead.” This was an uncontroversial issue until the Reformation, although it is true to say that the emphasis strayed in late medieval times from a consciousness of our continued relationship with, communion with, the departed, and often assumed rather crude attempts to saddle notable figures from the past with specific tasks such as finding lost thimbles or guarding oyster fishers. I suppose there was not much harm in thinking that trade associations had patron saints.

The problem which developed was of a different order. It became believed that a departed saint might have some influence in determining whether one’s stay in an intermediate state would be brief or long, or indeed whether one was going to hell. The Reformers believed that such prayers detracted from our Lord’s unique salvific role. In reaction the churches of the Reformation, to one degree or another, erected a ceiling between those on earth and those in heaven. The departed were indeed dead and gone, and our relationship with them would be interrupted until we joined them after we too died.

In creating in the imagination of the faithful this stark separation, the Reformers did away with a concept as old as the church itself, and expressed in its earliest liturgical prayers. Oddly, at least in Lutheran and Anglican worship, what is called the sursum corda, the narrative beginning with “Lift up your hearts,” the concept of our union with the departed at the altar was retained without alteration or amendment.

We continued to worship with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven even while our earthly life continued. Anglicans retained saints’ days, drastically pruned to mention only New Testament characters and of course King Charles the Martyr, but retained nevertheless, usually with discreet collects and lessons for their days. Parish churches retained their saintly patrons, and while the English liturgy, unlike that of Scotland, was purged of prayers mentioning the departed (except rather gingerly in the Burial Office) the concept of “the communion of saints,” and article of the Creed, popped up fairly regularly in theological writing. The Tractarians restored the idea of our companionship with the departed, and nowadays it’s not uncommon to hear even Protestant pastors asking God to receive and bless departed people.

Our concept of communion with the departed is anchored in our theology of Baptism. Baptism begins eternal life. Whether we can abandon this heritage isn’t my issue today. In enjoying eternal life, by adoption and grace, we join with all those who have similarly been adopted in Christ, by virtue of his coming, dying, rising and ascending. No living or “dead” person, however exalted, can “save” us.

Our union with each other, through baptism, carries with it an obligation to love one another, to be concerned about one another, and to offer ourselves for each other. Love never fails. Not even death can destroy its power. To suggest that our departed loved ones do not continue to love us, and thus be concerned for us, and to offer themselves for us, all components of genuine love, would be to limit the word love to make it eventually meaningless. Yes, that love is in Christ, for our identity is always in Christ.

I believe with all my heart that I enjoy “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” Communion is just that, a union between us, with our departed loved ones here and there.

Prayer is much wider and larger than merely asking for something for ourselves or others. Prayer is the means of communion, the means of contact, the way we express our love and care for others and they for us. Living in awareness that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (life-givers) enriches our lives and reminds us that we are never alone as we run the race that is set before us. The departed always look and point to Jesus, and in their fellowship we follow their gaze and join them in worshiping the “Lamb that was slain.”

One Response to “Dead and gone?”

  1. Zack Guiliano says:

    At the same time, I guess I wonder if you would be willing to comment on what you think is the efficacy or purpose of prayers *for* the dead, as well as the efficacy or purpose of the prayers *of* the dead. Largely, the focus of your post skirts this issue, perhaps on purpose. But I think any continuing practice of intercession for the dead, which is what is in the background here, assumes that our prayers have some sort of end in mind beyond only communion. The same might be said of those prayers of the dead for us.

    In which case, the question must be asked: what do our prayers do and what do their prayers do? Simply establish communion or other things? And at what point does an affirmation of the efficacy of prayer for or of the dead slip into a dangerous zone?

    I would say that, since I began the practice, I have engaged in intercession for the dead and ask for the prayers of the saints in a relatively unselfconscious manner. Mainly because I don’t view it as such a huge issue. And I wonder what others think about this, imagining an array of positions exist amongst those on this list.

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