It is important to understand as Christians that we are called to respond to the Lord rather than just react to “faulty teachings” and/or the misconceptions of others. The historical record shows that the practice of remembering the deceased took place among the ancient Hebrews. During the Maccabean revolt (2nd century BC) the Israelites (of those who believed in the future resurrection) pray for their fallen comrades as “atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (II Maccabees 12: 39 – 45). Death is the result of sin, an anomaly as we were created to be a psycho-physical whole (rather than a “soul” contained in a body). By a few hundred years before Christ, most Jews looked toward an eventual resurrection of their bodies at the end of time
For Christians, as with the Israelites, Death is the last enemy to be vanquished (e.g. I Corinthians 15: 26, 54; Revelation 21: 4). All Hebrew worship and ritual find their fulfillment and meaning in the death and resurrection of Jesus who “trampled down death by His death.” Christ’s bodily resurrection is the pattern and goal for all humans (e.g. Romans 6: 3 – 5; 8: 11; I Cor. 15: 13 22). Salvation is the process of perpetual healing union with God whose goal is the Parousia where Christ appears “coming to judge the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed), rather than some place where we exist as “disembodied spirits.” The Parousia completes the Resurrection of humanity and the restoration of all creation inaugurated by Christ with His rising at Pascha. St Paul mentions the unusual practice of the Corinthians who “baptized on behalf of the dead” (I Corinthians 15: 29). While not promoting the practice, in light of his Hebrew heritage, he understands it as affirming belief in the completion of the physical resurrection of humanity at the Parousia and as of some benefit to those who have died. One Onesiphorus helped St Paul at his arrival in Rome. His aid causes the Apostle, suffering for the Christ “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel” (II Timothy 1: 10), to pray a blessing that “the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day” (i.e. the final Judgment-II Tim. 1: 18). Scholars point out that the language of the prayer is reflective of the Jewish memorial services and, while not impossible, a little unusual if indeed Onesiphorus is still alive.
Confirming this practice are the prayers for the deceased found among the early Christians. Requests for prayer found on inscriptions on Christian graves were common among those in the catacombs. For example, on the tomb of a Christian named Abercius (late 2nd century AD) it is written, “Let every friend who sees this pray for me.” The practice of corporate prayers for the deceased during the Eucharist, as an already existing practice, were noted by Tertullian (+220) in his treatise on The Crown as done “on the anniversary of their birth (into eternal life).” In discussing Monogamy (10, 1), he writes of a widow praying for the soul of her husband, “that he may, while waiting (for the Parousia), find rest…that he may share in the first resurrection (of the righteous).” And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers “(prayers/offerings) the Sacrifice (Eucharist).” St Cyprian of Carthage (+258) directed avoiding publicly praying for a deceased layperson “who deliberately did his best to keep clergy from the altar.”
So why commemorations and prayers for the dead?
Death is a result of the fall of humanity from communion with God and each other. It is unnatural. We were created to be a “psycho-physical whole.” Personally and relationally we were meant to be together with each other. Death separates us from our loved ones as well as from our bodies.
Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection have “broken down the walls” that divided us from God and each other (Ephesians 2: 14). This is seen in Jesus’ Transfiguration that not only unveils His divinity as the eternal Son of God but also His (and therefore our) humanity transformed by participation in the divine life (Matt. 17: 1 – 8; Mk 9: 2 – 8; Lk 9: 28 – 36). Here Peter, James and John, with Christ participate (see & hear) in this communion with Moses and Elijah (who are deceased). The crucifixion and resurrection have inaugurated the eschatological (final) Kingdom “on earth as in heaven.” In the Lord’s crucifixion “the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt 27: 52). Communion between the members of Christ body organically exists as one Church, both in this world and the next, expressed in corporate prayer for each other. The Apostolic idea of “remembrance” (Greek -“anamnasis”) transcends cerebral thought (like thinking about where my keys are). It is to “become personally present” to the other and them “be present” to/with us. When the thief on the cross asks Jesus to “remember him” in His Kingdom, the Lord’s response, “This Day you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23: 43) is not “sentimentally” thinking about him, but confirms that he will indeed be with Him. This is consistent with the sacramental nature of the Church.
Scripture also understands salvation as a process and that, while we may be “tasting” of and in the “groove” toward our final reward now and upon death. It is incomplete until the Parousia and final Judgment. Until the Parousia/completion of the general resurrection, the deceased feel “something missing” in terms of the physical self and the lack of full communion with those “left behind.” We pray for them to refresh and express our communion with those continuing in the process of growth and healing in anticipation of the final Judgment that has begun in Jesus. In the meantime, we grow in terms of knowledge and healing (e.g. the martyrs under the Altar asking/praying with agitation “when” the judgment will be to complete the destruction of evil and redeem all of creation (Rev. 6: 9 – 11). Physical death does not mean our personalities magically change. Salvation means healing and that, even in Christ we may be in denial about many issues that cause us to enter the next life with some brokenness (e.g. Matt 5: 30). We pray for their final and complete peace and refreshment as they must pray for ours.
Corporate prayers for the deceased are for those of us, the survivors “in this world” as well as for them. Praying for the dead reminds us of our own mortality and total dependence on God and the need to try to deal with our sins and issues beforehand (an unhealthy unborn child will not be magically born healthy). We do not deny the reality of death and the sense of separation we experience – it is the final enemy overcome at the Parousia. But, that awareness can bring spiritual sobriety to pursuing repentance and living the Christian life. We do grieve, but not “as those who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4: 13). Study in patterns of mourning show the intuitive sense of the Church where it recommends memorial services are at significant points and facilitate the path of healthy grieving for the survivors. The liturgical/sacramental expressions of remembering our deceased uncovers the reality of death, indeed all the realities of this life, as being framed in and invaded by the Reality of Jesus, crucified and risen. In Him not only is this world temporary, but so is the death that follows it.
The Judgment is simultaneously “already and not yet” – as Christians we participate in both aspects. We pray that none of us be in denial of the issues that keep us from appropriating the healing and merciful love of God at the Parousia of Christ. Since the time of the Apostles and their Communities, prayers for those who preceded us in this life were and are the normal pattern. As Christians striving to be in continuity with all of the Apostolic mindset and practices, we continue to pray for those who have “fallen asleep in the LORD” anticipating the full communion of God in His Son by the Spirit that includes them and those who are yet to come who will follow us. We do not deny the reality of death and the pain inflicted by it. Rather we embrace the realties of life and death in this world because they have collided with the Realty of God in Christ crucified and risen. God’s design and goal for us is not to live as some kind of bodiless, “ecto-plasmic being,” but to rise healed by and as Christ Himself. The life inaugurated at the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus will come to fruition in us at the Parousia that we look forward to expectantly. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (I John 3: 3).