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May We Pray for the Departed?

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  • Christopher Orr
    May We Pray for the Departed? Written by the Very Rev. John Breck September 2009, Article #1 Back in the early 1960s I attended a Protestant theological
    Message 1 of 2 , Sep 1, 2009
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      May We Pray for the Departed?
      Written by the Very Rev. John Breck

      September 2009, Article #1

      Back in the early 1960s I attended a Protestant theological seminary that at
      the time was relatively mainstream. One day, in a seminar on Paul's letter
      to the Romans, we got on the subject of death. The teacher was a young
      visiting professor of a conservative bent, who didn't hesitate to affirm his
      belief in the virgin birth of Christ. At some point in the discussion, I
      happened to mention that my beloved grandfather had recently died. Then I
      added that my immediate instinct was to pray for him, to ask God to bless,
      forgive, save and preserve him to eternal life. The heads of everyone around
      the table turned towards me. There was a moment of awkward silence, then the
      teacher, with a somewhat disdainful look, asked me (rhetorically): "Don't
      you think that was rather superstitious?"

      In that world, still marked by an unconscious reaction against medieval
      Catholicism, prayer for the dead was considered naïve, foolish, pointless.
      Once a person dies, I was paternalistically reminded, they are in God's
      hands, and we have no more to do with them. I felt embarrassed and
      humiliated. I had violated a fundamental rule in that environment: never say
      anything that sounds naïve or overly pious (just as later on, when I began
      graduate work in a German university, a young assistant warned me: *"Sag'
      niemals, Das weiß ich nicht!" --* "In seminar, never admit you don't

      May we pray for the dead? Indeed *can* we pray for them? The ringing "no!"
      thrust at me by my Protestant friends was based in large part on their
      conviction that there is no mention of such prayer in the Bible. In matters
      of faith and practice, the divine imperative is "sola scriptura."

      But what in fact does Scripture say about prayer for the departed? This is a
      crucial issue for Orthodox and Catholic Christians, who are often challenged
      by well-meaning but misguided polemics coming from Protestant friends and

      There is no doubt that Jews of the intertestamental period offered prayers
      for those who had passed on before them. The most significant passage is
      probably 2 Maccabees 12. There Judas Maccabeus offers prayer for his fallen
      warriors who had adopted certain idolatrous practices. He and other
      survivors "turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been
      committed might be wholly blotted out." The narrator comments: "If he
      (Judas) were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it
      would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was
      looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in
      godliness [we might add: even for those who die in sin, as did the
      Maccabbean warriors], it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made
      atonement for the dead, so they might be delivered from their sin" (vv.

      Here prayer for the dead and belief in the resurrection go hand in hand. It
      confirms the fact that in Pharisaic circles, from at least the first century
      before Christ, intercession for the departed was an integral part of Jewish

      Evidence from the catacombs shows that a similar pairing of these themes,
      prayer for the dead and belief in final resurrection, occurred from the very
      earliest period of Christian history. But is there any direct evidence in
      the New Testament that prayers can and should be offered for those who have

      The only really clear allusion to such prayer is found in the Second Letter
      of St Paul to Timothy, 1:18. Whether or not the letter was penned by the
      apostle himself, or by one of his disciples, the message is clear. Paul's
      friend and companion Onesiphorus is mentioned only in this letter. A
      disciple from Ephesus, Onesiphorus sought out Paul in Rome and extended to
      him a welcome hand and warm friendship. In 2 Tim 1:16, we read: "May the
      Lord show mercy to Onesiphorus' household." Then in verse 18, "May the Lord
      grant him (Onesiphorus) to find mercy from the Lord on that day," meaning
      the day of judgment. A final reference occurs in 4:19. Here Paul sends
      personal greetings to Prisca, Aquila and "to Onesiphorus's household." The
      passage then ends with the naming of other of Paul's co-workers and

      All of this leads to the conclusion that Onesiphorus was no longer alive but
      rather had died before the letter was written. Yet Paul indisputably prays
      for him as he looks forward to the general resurrection and final judgment.

      Many of those who reject prayer for the departed would argue that this is
      meager evidence at best. This would be especially the case with those who
      prefer to select a "canon within the canon," meaning usually the "genuine"
      letters of Paul, restricted by the most radical to Romans, 1-2 Corinthians,
      Galatians, and perhaps 1 Thessalonians and Philippians. That kind of
      reductionism, however, wholly ignores *--* or rejects *--* the idea of
      biblical inspiration, particularly the patristic notion that Scripture is
      uniformly inspired by the Holy Spirit such that the entire canon is an
      authoritative and dependable witness to God's self-revelation.

      There is, in other words, a trajectory that leads from the prophecy of
      Daniel, through Maccabean tradition, and into 1 Corinthians and the Pastoral
      Epistles, which confirms that in Judaism and early Christianity prayer for
      the dead was an accepted and integral part of worship, as well as an
      appropriate preparation for the coming resurrection. It is a practice that
      continued without interruption through the first Christian generations, and
      gradually it took specific liturgical form in funeral services and memorials
      for the departed. Prayer for the dead is in fact presupposed as a foundation
      for the entire cult of saints, those who *--* by their own righteousness but
      also through intercession by the living offered for them *--* are recognized
      by the Church as having attained an exceptional degree of sanctity. There
      are multitudes of "saints" who have never been formally recognized as such
      (of course, all are "called to be saints," 1 Cor 1:2). Some of them are
      friends and members of our own households. And we continue to pray for them,
      convinced that they intercede on our behalf before the throne of grace.

      Prayer transcends both time and space. As the work of the Holy Spirit within
      us, prayer unites us in a transcendent, eternal communion with the Holy
      Trinity and with all the faithful who have preceded us through death and
      into life beyond. We can and we must pray for them, for their salvation and
      for our own. We pray for them and request their intercession for the same
      reason the Church has always offered that prayer: because even now we are
      united with them in the eternal bond we know as "the communion of saints."

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • DonPedroGordo
      Hei!  Tschüß!  ¡Hola!  Oi!  Ciao!  Hi!         If memory serves, most confessional Lutherans sweep under the carpet what the Book of Concord
      Message 2 of 2 , Sep 2, 2009
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        Hei!  Tschüß!  ¡Hola!  Oi!  Ciao!  Hi! 
             If memory serves, most confessional Lutherans sweep under the carpet what the Book of Concord notes: [the Lutherans] do not forbid prayers for the departed, nor do they consider them useless. 

        --- On Tue, 9/1/09, Christopher Orr <xcjorr@...> wrote:

        May We Pray for the Departed?
        Written by the Very Rev. John 

        [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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