WHY DO ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS PRAY FOR THE DEPARTED
REV. FR. DR. JACOB KURIAN
Principal, St. Thomas Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam
Prayer for the faithful departed and the invocation of saints have been long cherished beliefs and practices of the Christian Church. It was only by the 16th century or afterwards that any significant objection to these practices was raised. In fact, among the early Protestants, the ground of such objection was not mainly doctrinal, but historical. It was true that many superstitious and immoral tendencies had crept in the Roman Church in connection with these practices –for example, sale of indulgences even for the dead and the abuses in the veneration of the relics of saints. Hence, it was necessary to check such dangerous tendencies. There was only one criterion for the Reformers to test the validity of any belief and practice, and that was the Bible. Anything not explicitly commanded in the Bible, was thus rejected. As a result, even without a thorough investigation to the Biblical and theological basis, the practices of praying for the departed and the innovation of saints were thrown out. Reformers failed to understand that these were not just rituals, but expressions of the Christian faith, well founded on the Bible and the Christian tradition. Generally speaking, while the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox (both Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox) consider these as fundamental to the life of the Church, the Protestants (excluding a number of Anglicans and Marthomites) reject them. Let us try to discuss briefly, why the Protestants reject them, and why we uphold them.
Mainly there are two objections to the prayer for the departed. The stated of the departed is such that they will not be benefited by any prayer. They are in a state of “silence”, awaiting the last Judgment. At the last Judgment, the only criterion will be the life on earth. Hence, they are not going to be benefited by our prayer. There is no scriptural basis for this practice.
Regarding the state of the departed, we disagree with them. The faithful departed are not entering to an “eternal rest”, or “a peaceful sleep”, but into “an active life in a wider horizon beyond time and space. Let us see the Biblical references that support this fact.
John 11: 25, 26 -”Jesus said to her (Martha), “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” A believer in Christ shall never die. He still lives in Christ, even if departed from this earthly life.
Philippians 1:23 – “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” St. Paul here prefers a departed! life with Christ to a bodily life here on earth. In 1 :21 he says “to die is gain”. This naturally implies that St. Paul was hoping for a rejoicing life with Christ, not an inactive sleep, after departure.
All the references to the Church in the Bible testify that the Church includes not only the living but also the departed. (According to Ephesians 1 :23, 4:4, and Colossians 1 :18,24,3:15, Church is the Body of Christ. According to Ephe. 5:22-27, Church of the Bride of Christ. According to Ephe. 2:19-22, 1 Cor. 3:16-17, 6:19, Mathew.16:18 and John 14:2, Church is the Temple of God. Church is not a spatio temporal institution. If Christ lives beyond time and space, His body and Bride, the Church, also must live beyond time and space. All the faithful are thus united to Church and Christ, beyond time and space. Hence the ordinary death separates from Christ or from the Church no believer. The faithful departed are still in the Church. In the Eucharist service and on the other occasions of Church’s worship, the departed are also worshiping with us.
According to Ephe. 2:20-22, the Church is being built up “on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets.” Apostles and prophets are no more on the earth. But they are still the foundation, being alive in the Church.
Hebrew 12:22-24, narrates the blessed state of the members of the Church. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel”
The presence of the Spirits of just men assures us the continuing active presence of the departed in the Church, the worshiping community. Also, the references to such presence are further seen in Hebrews 12:1, Revelation 7:13-17.
In Rom. 8:38, 51. Paul says that death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This could be considered as a hint to the continuation of life in the love in Christ, even if departed from this world.
According to Rom. 12:4-5 and 1 Cor. 12:12-26, life in the Church is similar to the life of the organs of one body. Since death does not cancel Church membership, it also does not prevent the mutual responsibility to pray for each other.
In Luke 1 6 we find the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. One of the implications of this parable is that if the departed ones are in a state of life and loving concern, how much more; the faithful departed would have it!
A believer’s (baptized person’s) life should be in ‘the newness of life’, unhindered by any departure from the world. That is why, 51. Paul again assures the Christians that they have passed death and now they are alive to God: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”Rom. 6:11.
Hence, to a baptized Christian, according to the Bible, the departure from the world makes not much difference, and it means no hindrance to the newness of life. Let us see what 51. Paul means by “those who are asleep.” 1 Thess. 4:13, Also see Jn.11:11; 1 Cor. 15:51. Does it mean an inactive state of the departed? “Wake” and “sleep” were two terms used by 51. Paul has to signify the state of the living and the departed respectively. But in both the stages Paul clearly envisaged a life with Christ for a Christian … “that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him” 1 Thess. 5:10. Hence “sleep” (death) is also meant to live with Jesus. Moreover, we know from ordinary experience that even in ordinary experience that even in ordinary sleep, we are ‘active’ in many respects: our physiological systems are functioning and we may be seeing dreams – Hence in no way, sleep signifies a silence or inactive state. The word “rest” Rev. 6:11, 14:13 is also to be taken in this sense.
In 1 Cor.15: 36, 37 St. Paul compares death and resurrection with the death and sprouting of the grain of wheat. Here also, the death and transformation of wheat in the soil is a very vital process. Hence, this image also supports the vitality and transformation of the faithful departed.
In 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6, Peter speaks about the preaching of our Lord to the departed souls. This clearly testifies to the fact that the departed souls are in such a state that they have the chance and possibility of correction.
Luke 23:43 Jesus says to the repented thief: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” after the departure from the body. This is to be considered as nothing but an active state.
On the Mount of transfiguration, Moses and Elijah conversed with Jesus. Mathew 17:3 regarding His death at Jerusalem. This implies that the departed Moses and Elijah were in such a state where there was the possibility for an active involvement in the incarnation mission.
Some people use 17th verse to object to the practice of praying for the departed. This reads, “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence.” Actually here the term ‘the dead’ is used to signify the gentile nations mentioned in verse 2. The Psalmist is comparing them with believers along with him in verses 17 and 18. Verse 18 reads: “but we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.” Compared to the gentiles who are dead spiritually, people of Israel are praising the Lord ‘forever’ (even if departed from this world). Also we should bear in mind that our belief in the living state of the departed is not based on the O.T. but on the N.T. more specifically on the death and resurrection of our Lord and on the experience of the Church. Of course, O.T. does give signs and suggestions to the N.T. faith, as is seen in Ps. 115:17, 18.
To sum up, the Biblical references are numerous to support the active state of the faithful departed in the Church. If they are in the Church, as members of the Church, what should be our mutual responsibility? It is first and foremost our mutual prayer. Hence, we are obliged to pray for the faithful departed. Consider the following facts also.
In Ephe. 6:18 and 1 Tim.2:1 St. Paul is reminding of the necessity of prayer for the whole faithful. Can we say that St. Paul exempted the departed from “the faithful”?
2 Tim. 1:16-18, is a solemn remembrance of a departed Christian named Onesiphorus. In Verse 18, St. Paul is praying for him, “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day.” The prayer form is clearer in the Greek original.
The ancient Christian practice of receiving baptism on behalf of the departed 1 Cor. 15:29, Hermas Sim.IX) is also justifying the fact that our prayerful actions on their behalf are not in vain.
According to Philippians 1 :4, 1 Cor. 1 :8, 1 Thess.5:23, the faithful are in the process of growth and purification till the day of Judgement. The criterion for the last Judgment will not be the life on earth alone, but the entire life till the Judgment. Hence there is the relevance for our prayer on behalf of them while they are also praying for themselves and us.
There are many references in the O.T. to serve as the symbolic representation of the prayer for the departed.
(a) Ruth 2:20: “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead”
(b) 1 Sam. 28: Saul consults the departed Samuel. Specially1. Sam. 28:19 is reminiscent of the living state of the departed.
(c) Deuteronomy (Dt). 34:8 and Number 20:29 speak about the mourning for the dead.
(d) Exodus 28:21 speak about Aaron’s breastplate with the names of the twelve sons of Jacob. This breastplate was also a means of remembrance of the heads of the twelve tribes.
(e) 2 Maccabees 12:45 - mentions about the atonement for the sins of the departed.
(f) Dt. 26:14, refers to an offering to the dead.
(g) Prayer for the departed is seen in many deuterocanonical books. Eg. Ecclesiastics XlVI. 11, Baruck III.iv. Enoch CIII iv etc.
The evidences from the Catacombs (burial place of early Christian martyrs) and the ancient Christian epitaphs support the practice of praying for the faithful departed, in the ancient days itself. After scrutinizing many evidences and arguments in relation to the practice of praying for the departed, an impartial writer makes the following conclusion.”From at least the second century A.D., the monumental inscriptions in the catacombs, the great Fathers of the Church and the earliest surviving Liturgies of all parts of the Church, agree with one voice in sanctioning and teaching the duty of intercession on the part of the living for the departed. Even the earliest allusions to this practice speak of it as an undisputed matter.” (s.c. Gayford. The Future State, Rivingtons, London, 1903, p. 57).
To the objection that this practice is not ordered to be observed in the N.T., we would answer that, this practice is approved by so many references in the N.T., (already seen). For many practices in the Church, we won’t find and “order” or a “commandment” in the N.T. Also, are all the practices among the Protestants, explicitly commanded in the N.T. Where is the commandment for carrying a Bible to the Prayer meeting? Nowhere. But nobody would object to this practice since the Bible indirectly approves it and since it is not against the Biblical faith. The same is the justification that we give for many of the noble practices in the Church.
Invocation of Saints
i. We have already seen that the departed are still in the Church with loving concern for those who are in the earth. Also, as members of the Church, they and we should pray for each other. The departed saints are also participating in this responsibility of prayer and intercession. Their prayer would be more benefited for “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and His ears toward their cry” Psalm 34:15.
ii. There is a difference between their mediator-ship and that of Jesus Christ who is the only mediator between God and men 1 Tim 2:5. The departed saints are mediators between Christ and men. They would not in any way affect Christ’s unique mediator-ship. Jesus has already approved the value of the intercessions of the disciples Jn 14:13. He gives an authority and appointment to the apostles.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” John 15:16. This special grace and right was a charisma for the building up of the Church. Hence, can we deny such a grace, to those who lived a righteous life close to Christ, and to those who were appointed by him for the leadership in the Church? “The prayer of the righteous man has great power in its effects” James 5:16 (b). Since the departed saints are still in the Church, would they stop praying for us? Not at all. Rev. 7:15
iii. If such a mediation of the saints is unbiblical, we would have to say that even the mutual prayer of the believers is unbiblical, because a certain ‘mediation’ is involved there too. The invocation value of the saints does not in any way limit our possibility and responsibility to pray directly. Also, we never teach that the saints are perfect and do not require our prayer. Actually, they also need our prayer, and as a Church, we are praying for them at every occasion of worship.
iv. In the early Church, there was the practice of reverently remembering the death of the saintly leaders. This is supported by such passages as Heb. 13:7and by such early documents as “Martyrdom of Polycarp.” The death anniversary of the saints became special occasion for the prayer through them and for them.