Praying for the Living and the Dead
- Instructing the ignorant
- Counseling the doubtful
- Admonishing sinners
- Bearing wrongs patiently
- Forgiving offenses
- Comforting the afflicted
- Pray for the Living and the Dead
In the crypts and upon some of the reliquaries found in many of the churches and basilicas that my wife and I visited throughout Europe when we lived in Austria, we encountered a curiously macabre proverb: “As you are, I once was. As I am, you will be.” Sometimes it appeared under the image of a skeleton holding a scythe, sometimes under the image of a skull. The saying held, no intended pun, rather an undying truth that is witness to the universal human experience. No one is set loose from death’s inevitability nor excused from the responsibilities that burden the living. If the saying was interpreted within a certain context, it might yield a meaning that endorsed carpe diem, the philosophy of life to “seize the day” and put no thought into the future.
As God revealed more of himself and his plan of salvation, the Israelites came to understand that only God is eternal, not death.
Yet the context, given the setting, obviously related to Christian beliefs. Hence, the message turns in another direction. It does not endorse the urge to live for the moment, forgetting all future consequences and present responsibilities. Rather, it means to fill each moment with the future’s backward glance that casts off the casualness of a life lived without purpose, commitment, or accountability, a life lived only for self. The spiritual work of mercy— praying for the living and the dead—emerges from the tension between two moments of human import represented by this proverb—the present moment and a moment hidden in the mystery of God’s plan of salvation.
Through the proverb, even the dead speak to us from the grave, witnessing to us about the inevitable. Liturgically speaking, this message is celebrated every year on Ash Wednesday. We are dust and to dust we shall return but for one person, but for one human act full of divine presence, and but for one event that remains to eternity. At the end of those forty days of penance, a living voice speaks to us, not the metaphorical voice of the dead as in the proverb. Rather, a living person transformed by the Father’s glory calls out to each of us: Death is not the end. I am the life you seek both now and to eternity.
Praying for the dead, according to 2 Maccabees, may have developed as a practice due to a newly emerging belief in the afterlife and the resurrection of the dead. As God revealed more of himself and his plan of salvation, the Israelites came to understand that only God is eternal, not death. During the Maccabean revolt, Judas and his warriors went out to meet the army of Idumea. A few of his soldiers fell in battle. Judas responded in a way not yet seen in the biblical tradition by urging prayers and offering sacrifice for the dead in view of the resurrection.
“On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his companions went to gather up the bodies of the fallen and bury them with their kindred in their ancestral tombs. But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out….He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in an excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:39–41, 43–46).
In the proverb cited at the beginning of this article, the dead witness to the living about the inevitability of death and the responsibility of the living. In the passage from 2 Maccabees, the living pray for the dead in view of the resurrection and the certitude of God’s mercy.
In the New Testament, we find most of the exhortations about intercessory prayer in the epistles. Most of these have to do with praying for the living, although 2 Timothy 1:18 is arguably an example of prayer for the dead. The Gospels do not present us with much in the way of exhortation from Jesus to offer intercessory prayer for others. Rather, Jesus exhorts prayer that should characterize one’s relationship with the Father, just as Jesus retires to pray alone from time to time.