A Jewel of our Faith
In the first confirmation class I ever led, there was a remarkable young woman who had come to the Episcopal Church from a fundamentalist background. Seeing our Church through her eyes was enlightening and formative for me. She helped me appreciate some of the more refined aspects of our tradition, and opened my eyes to some of the more puzzling parts, which I, as a lifelong Episcopalian, had always taken for granted. One example of the latter, she was curious, in fact almost anxious, about why we pray for the dead. The idea that our salvation might still be on the line even after we die was frightening to her, and she had trouble reconciling that idea with the Gospel message she had found elsewhere in the Episcopal Church.
I’m so grateful that this young woman called on me to explore and put into words why prayers for the dead are so important in our tradition. And I will tell you, it has nothing to do with purgatory. If you’re interested in what the Anglican tradition has to say about purgatory, I highly recommend the Articles of Religion, which are conveniently printed in the back of your Prayer Book. Our prayers for the dead are not an intercession for salvation, because salvation has already been secured for all people on the cross.
Instead, our prayers for the dead cover a multitude of rich and complex facets of our faith. First, we pray for the dead in thanksgiving for their lives and their witness to God’s love, whether it be a beloved grandmother who taught you everything you know about gardening, or a more widely-known, canonized saint like St. Peter, who devoted his life to the church in Rome and paid the ultimate price for it. Our personal spiritual lives and our common life together are strengthened by the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and continue to show us how to live as Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Writing about All Saints Day, Frederich Buechner said that “the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else’s, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them.” On All Saints, we truly do give thanks for all the saints.
We pray for the dead that we, too, might share with them in the heavenly banquet when our time comes. These prayers are an expression of thanks that we will be reunited with loved ones we have lost, and an expression of hope for what is to come. In our prayers for the dead we are affirming our trust in the Gospel message that death is not an end but the beginning of new life in union with God, for ourselves, for our loved ones, and even for those we struggle to love.
We pray for the dead in hope that Christ will uphold his promise of resurrection for all. Although we read about eternal life in our scriptures, we cannot know what happens to us when we die until it happens, and our hesitance to trust in things we cannot see and know is a hallmark of our humanity. And so, we pray for the dead, not in hopes of persuading God, but to strengthen our own faith in the radical Gospel message that on the cross, Christ secured salvation and resurrection for all of us. In this light, our prayers for the dead, and our celebration of All Saints Day, truly are jewels of our faith.
They’re also an ancient part of our faith, as our passage from Isaiah shows us. Isaiah eloquently imagines the banquet prepared for us at the end of time, in which our mourning of death will cease: a feast of rich food filled with marrow, when he will swallow up death forever. Isaiah was one of the most widely known and distributed Hebrew scriptures in Jesus’ time, and one of the books that Jesus references in his teaching. It is lovely to imagine that Mary and Martha might have found comfort in these words from Isaiah at the loss of their brother, just like we do. Our mortality has a special way of uniting us as humans, past, present and yet to come.
But as Kate so beautifully described on Thursday night, what Christ does with Lazarus changes how we articulate our faith, including our prayers for the dead. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ sensational acts are not called miracles, they’re called signs, because they all point to something even greater. When Jesus brings Lazarus back from the grave he shows us that resurrection is not just something that happens when we die or when the world ends, it’s something that happens here and now, in this world, all around us. We no longer have to pray in hope that Christ will uphold his promise of resurrection, because we are already living it. Our prayers for the dead become a lifting up of our collective voice in praise for the God who holds all of his children, living and dead, together in eternal resurrection.
And so our observance of All Saints, though at times mournful, is at its heart a celebration of life, both that of our loved ones who have died and the life of resurrection we live in Christ. The fear of death, or as our scriptures call it, the sting of death has been taken away and this is cause for beautiful music, for bright white altar hangings, for gathering together with our worshiping community to remember and to look forward in hope.
Leaning into the beauty of these prayers and this time of remembrance, Frederich Buechner closes his passage about All Saints Day with these words. “The Holy Spirit has been called ‘the Lord, the giver of life’ and, drawing their power from that source, saints are essentially life-givers. To be with them is to become more alive.” Amen.