|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
November 2, 2017
All Souls’ Day
Why Pray for the Dead: All Souls’ Requiem
We didn’t always pray for the dead. It may seem so natural now, given that we do it each and every week in our liturgy, and our service tonight is essentially one long prayer for the dead, but Anglicans didn’t always pray for the dead. For nearly 400 years, from the time of the Reformation until the early 20th century, the belief was that the dead were, well, dead, and whatever was going to happen to them was beyond our control. They were in the hands of God, to quote the writer of Wisdom, and therefore beyond our accessibility or influence.
The big change in attitudes about this happened, as is often the case, when a massive trauma called into question the things we previously believed. In this case, it was the horror of World War I, the “War to End All Wars,” when 18 million people died, or about 1 out of every 9 soldiers who fought on all sides. All of a sudden, praying for the dead was something Anglicans once again desperately needed to do. They needed to pray for their sons and brothers who died in the trenches and whose bodies were never recovered. They needed to pray for people who they didn’t get to bury in their little village churchyard, and whose grave they couldn’t visit to pay respects. They needed to pray for all the young men they loved so desperately, who never really reached adulthood, a giant swath of an entire generation, who they would never see again. And so, in the 1928 edition of The Book of Common Prayer, we began to pray new words that probably seem deeply familiar to many of us today: that the dead may “have perpetual growth in [God’s] love” and go “from strength to strength in the life of perfect service.”
Oh, and it just so happens that Maurice Durufle wrote his Requiem during World War II, another time that the whole of the Christian Church was battered by crisis and catastrophe and yearned for ways to pray our beloved dead.
I often hear that funerals are for the living, not the dead. The idea behind this sentiment being, presumably, that the deceased won’t be there to hear the readings or music or prayers, so choices should be made with the family in mind, rather than the one being buried. I suppose this same idea is connected to the now commonplace request for “memorial” services instead of funerals…services that are joyful and upbeat and happy, instead of funerals that are perceived to be solemn and sad. People want attendees at their funeral to not be sad, as though some how we can force people to be happy at our funeral if we just sing cheerful hymns and tell enough funny stories in the eulogy.
Well, the truth of the matter is that grief includes sadness, whether we like it or not. And the additional truth is that we don’t believe funerals are exclusively for the living. What we as Christians re-learned back in the 1920s is that we need to pray for the dead, that it is holy and good for us who mourn, and also that we believe that it actually means something. We pray for the dead because we believe that, somehow, we are still connected to them. They are dead but not destroyed. They are gone from us, but they are not forgotten. And though we may see them no longer, they are still seen and known and loved by God. And so we pray.
We pray for them with all our hearts, trusting that God is working out in them good purposes, and that God’s grace and mercy and love are so irresistible that even in death they are able to draw us closer to his own heart. We pray in the confidence that this world we see is not the limit of God’s dominion, that God is able to love and forgive and call us to himself through Christ even when we no longer walk the earth. We pray in trust that the victory won by Jesus Christ over death reverberates throughout the reaches of space and time, far beyond the limits of what we know or understand.
God is love, and so when we pray from out of our love, even for those who have left this mortal life, God listens and hears and responds. It is a mystery, as the Apostle Paul rightly puts it, just what exactly is happening and will happen to our beloved dead. It is a mystery we cannot fully comprehend. But it is a mystery worth hoping for, worth praying for, worth believing in. It is a mystery rooted and grounded in faith in a God who made all things and loves all things and promises to bring all things to their perfection.
So pray, my dear friends, pray for those who have died. Pray that they will continue to be seen known by God. Pray for them as they await their ultimate fulfillment in the resurrection that will happen at the last day, when Christ returns, and the dead are raised, and all mortal things put on the fullness of immortality.