Thought for the week - 15 November
Dear friends in Christ,
I sit to write this article as we continue in November, the Month of the Holy Souls. This inevitably leads to thinking about the subject of death, and of resurrection – of our own mortality too. It also leads me to think about funerals, since this is the most common time for me to come into direct contact with what might be described as the ‘common view of death.’ This is a re-write of an article I wrote a few years ago.
The questions raised for me by the attitudes of others fall into two broad categories:
What is a funeral for?
Should we pray for the dead?
More and more often these days, funerals are described not as just that a funeral, but rather a ‘Thanksgiving for the life of …….. or Celebration of the life of ….’
Fr Steven Jones, Vicar of Carnforth and a former curate of this parish, wrote recently
'A celebration of the life of...'speaks to me of the secular understanding of death as the complete negation of what 'life' is about, and of the way in which death remains a kind of taboo subject in modern western culture. For Christians, though, death is understood as a part of life and as the gateway to the ultimate fulfilment of life. This doesn't mean, of course, that there is no place for sorrow when a loved one dies; but it does throw the emphasis upon the virtue of hope in the midst of sorrow, loss and death. Happily, it is nearly always the case that there is a place for thanksgiving (to God) for the life of a person who has died, and this should and must find a place in the funeral rites. But there is a lot more to a Christian funeral service than this. To describe such a service as a celebration of the life of a person is reductive in the extreme, and a tendency that all Christian priests, ministers and people should resist.’
The principle purpose of a funeral is to pray for the soul of the deceased. But why do we do that?
Groucho Marx once famously resigned from a prestigious country club. He gave as the reason that he could not bring himself to belong to a club that would have him as a member!
Please excuse this levity, but it does quite aptly describe why we pray for the dead. For myself, I know that I am not perfect. If Heaven is the place of perfection and nothing unclean can enter there (Revelation 21:27)
So, if I die today can I go straight to that place of perfection. I think not! How about you?
Some Protestants believe that a man or woman who has accepted Christ dies totally and has to wait until the final resurrection to live again. Others believe that he remains in a kind of sleep. Some people seem to believe that there is no possibility of any change after death, and therefore no room for any purification, after physical death. In that case then, it is useless to pray for the dead.
But the practice of praying for the dead is very ancient. It goes back to Judaism and is mentioned in the second book of Maccabees (2 Mac. 12,43-46). The author tells how a number of Jews, who had fallen in battle, were found with idolatrous amulets, forbidden by the law, and how Judas Maccabeus took up a collection and sent the money to Jerusalem to have a sacrifice offered for their sin.
The writer praises his faith in the resurrection and his action; "If he had not expected the fallen to rise again it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead, whereas if he had in view the splendid recompense reserved for those who make a pious end, the thought was holy and devout. This was why he had this atonement sacrifice offered for the dead, so that they might be released from their sin."
Protestants do not accept the books of Maccabees as Scripture, but even so it bears witness to the faith of pious Jews.
No doubt the Apostles, pious Jews most of them, shared this faith — especially Saint Paul, who posed as a Pharisee and a champion of the resurrection (Acts 23,6). In the New Testament itself, there is only one allusion to some kind of purification after death (1 Cor. 3,11-15), and another reference to some of pious practice in favor of the dead (1 Cor. 15,29). But we have abundant evidence of faith in a state of purification after death in the earliest ages of the Church.
True, the Bible does not mention Purgatory directly – it isn't ‘in’ the Bible in that sense. But if the doctrine of Purgatory is rejected solely because the word Purgatory isn’t in the Bible, than we must also reject the Trinity. This may surprise some of you but the word Trinity isn't in the Bible. Yet the doctrine of the Trinity is accepted by most claiming to be Christian.
There are sepulchral inscriptions in the Catacombs, some of which are themselves prayers for the dead while others ask for prayers for them. There are also prayers for the faithful departed in the most ancient liturgies and there are many texts in the Fathers on the value of these prayers and on the necessity of a perfect purification in order to enter into heaven.
The doctrine of Purgatory and of a purification after death appears at first sight most reasonable. Once I was explaining it to a good Protestant, who much later became a Catholic and who is an old friend of mine, and he remarked: "To me it sounds quite reasonable. Of all the people I know, I don't see many who are good enough to go to heaven, and yet they are not bad enough to go to hell."
Years later I came across a quotation from a Protestant theologian, a Dr. Hase, who wrote almost the same thing:
"Most people when they die are probably too good for hell, yet surely too bad for heaven."
Catholic theology is not content with just this common sense judgement. It explains that, even when sin has been regretted and forgiven some of its consequences remain — the so-called temporal punishments due to sin, which must be expiated either in this world or in the next.
So if someone dies without having made satisfaction for his sins, he has to make that satisfaction after his death before entering heaven. This post-mortem expiation is what we call purgatory.
However, these "temporal punishments" must be explained, lest God appear as vindictive and unforgiving, and also to show why they are a necessary consequence of sin.
We must remember that man has been created to love God first and second to love everyone for the love of God. This is not confined to our earthly life. This love must continue forever in heaven and is in fact the condition and measure of happiness in the world above.
Heaven is nothing else but an ecstasy of love given and received.
Not all the saints, however, will love with the same intensity. Each will love with the capacity for love that he received and developed during his life on earth, each will receive love in return and be happy in proportion to his degree of love.
But while all the saints in heaven do not love with the same intensity, they all love with the same purity. Nothing impure can enter into heaven (Apo. 21,22) or share in divine wisdom (Wis. 2,25); therefore, the love of the saints must be perfectly pure.
Since the love of created things, even when it is not sinful, defiles the soul, as Saint John of the Cross explains at length (Ascent, Bk.1, Ch.6-12,) perfect purity means perfect detachment from self and from all created things.
It means that one never seeks one's own satisfaction; never acts for a purely natural motive, but seeks only, always, and in all things to do God's will and to please him.
All sins, mortal or venial, proceed from an excessive attachment. Even when they are regretted and forgiven, this increased attachment remains, and the soul must be purified from it.
God uses suffering to purify the soul and to detach it from created things. Scripture more than once repeats the comparison: as gold or silver is purified by fire, so also the soul of the just is purified by tribulation (Ps. 66,10; Prov. 12,3; Wis. 3,6, EccL 2,5; Pet. 1,2).
It is easy enough to understand how suffering purifies the soul. It is impossible to love suffering, humanly speaking. It can be accepted only out of love for God. If, therefore, we have not reached that pure love of God before death, our love for God must be purified by suffering after death.
Coming back to the subject of praying for the dead, Metropolitan Antony Bloom helpfully writes:
"Many are dismayed at the thought of praying for the dead. Can the destiny of the dead be changed if one prays for them?"
If you believe that prayers for the living are a help to them, why should you not pray for the dead? Life is one, for as St. Luke says: "He is not the God of the dead but of the living"(20:38). Death is not the end but a stage in the destiny of man, and this destiny is not petrified at the moment of death. The love which our prayer expresses cannot be in vain; if love had power on earth and had no power after death it would tragically contradict the word of scripture that love is as strong as death (Song 8:6) and the experience of the Church that love is more powerful than death, because Christ has defeated death in his love for mankind.
It is an error to think that man s connection with love on earth ends with his death. In the course of one’s life one sows seeds. These seeds develop in the souls of other men and affect their destiny. The words written or spoken that change a human life or the destiny of mankind, as the words of preachers, philosophers, poets, or politicians, remain their authors responsibility, not only for evil but also for good; the authors destiny is bound to be affected by the way they have influenced those living after them. The life of every person continues to have repercussions until the last judgment, and man’s eternal and final destiny is determined not only by the short space of time he has lived on this earth but also by the results of his life by its good or evil consequences. Those who have received seed sown as in fertile ground, can influence the destiny of the departed by prayerfully beseeching God to bless the man who has transformed their lives, given a meaning to their existence. In turning to God in an act of enduring love, faithfulness and gratitude, they enter this eternal kingdom which transcends the limits of time, and they can influence the destiny and the situation of the departed. We do ask him merely to forgive a man in spite of what he has done but to bless him BECAUSE OF THE GOOD HE HAS DONE, to which other lives bear witness. (From ‘Living Prayer)
None of us likes to think too much about our death. But only one thing is certain – it will come sooner or later!
For Christians, death, though of course sad, should be seen as a normal part of our life’s journey, a journey to a closer life with our Heavenly Father.
Our loved ones may not share our Christian beliefs.
Every Parish priest knows only too well the heartbreak of a regular, faithful, communicant member of his congregation, whose family, largely through ignorance consign them to a ‘simple do at the crem’, because Mum wouldn’t like fuss.’
To have a dignified Christian funeral with a celebration of the central act of Christian worship, the Eucharist (or Mass), is not ‘a fuss’. It is simply what most Anglo Catholic Christians in the tradition of S. Stephen’s would consider to be the norm. The Mass is the service par excellence where we celebrate Jesus’ victory over death and a promise of eternal life for all who share the Bread of Life. After all, Jesus said ‘Unless you eat my body and drink my blood you have no life in you’. (John 6; 53).
The Funeral Mass unites the whole Christian community, on earth and in heaven. As the priest says at every mass ‘with Angels and Archangels and the whole company of heaven ….
This then is the proper Thanksgiving for the life of the deceased, and within it we pray for the soul of our departed loved one.
As a piece of scripture often used at funerals reminds us:
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him
(1 Thess 4; 13)
As John Betjeman said in his poem House of rest.
The veil between her and her dead Dissolves and shows them clear, The Consecration prayer is said And all of them are near