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On Prayers for the DeadAugust 17, 2010 By Fr. Moses SamaanIn the Orthodox Church, it is common to hear litanies and prayers for the dead. In these prayers, the Church as the Body of Christ existing in time manifests the relationship between our temporal life in this world and our eternal life to come. There is no distinction between the Church here in the world and the Church in the next life; they are in perfect communion and harmony with each other.“For this reason, those of us in this world benefit from the prayers and intercessions of the saints and the righteous who have preceded us. The reverse is true, as well: those who have preceded us into the next life may benefit from our prayers in this world.St. Athanasius of Alexandria spoke about this saying, “As it happens with wine inside a barrel which, when the vineyard blooms in the field, senses it and the wine itself blossoms together with it, so it is with the souls of sinners. They receive some relief from the Bloodless Sacrifice offered for them and from charity. So, when we offer Divine Liturgies and charitable deeds in the name of those who have departed, their souls rejoice if they were righteous and receive some relief if they were wicked.
Why does the Orthodox Church encourage its members to pray for the dead? Some would say that such a practice is at best superstitious, and perhaps even heretical.The Scriptures very strictly forbid any attempt to summon the spirits of the dead, or to try to engage them in conversation (see for example Leviticus 19:31 and 20:6, as well as 1 Samuel 28). But knowing that our Christian parents, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, and friends live on with Christ after they die, and remembering the great unity that we still have with them as fellow-members of Christ's Body, the Church finds nothing in the Scriptures that would prohibit Christians from expressing love for and maintaining a sense of fellowship with those who have died. And what better way do we have to express our love than to pray for them?4 Someone might object, "If they are already in heaven, how can they possibly need our prayers? Their eternal destiny is already settled!" Very true! One's eternal destiny-whether one spends eternity in heaven or in hell-is determined by how one believes and lives in this life. The Orthodox Church does not claim that prayers for someone who died in opposition to God can save that soul from hell, since the Scriptures clearly teach that there is no chance for repentance after death (Luke 16:19-31, Hebrews 9:27, etc.). While firmly believing this, the Church still teaches that prayer for the dead in Christ is helpful to them. Why? Because in the Orthodox view, sanctification is seen not as a point-in-time occurrence, but as a process which never ends. As Saint Paul says, "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18, RSV). And in 1 Corinthians 1:18, which the King James Version translates as "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God", the phrase "which are saved" in the original Greek is sozomenois, which means literally, "who are being saved". For this reason, Orthodox Christians look upon salvation itself as a dynamic process, a continual growth in holiness, purity, and closeness with God which continues even in heaven. Since we are created beings, and God alone is Uncreated, how can we imagine that men and women will ever fully comprehend God or be totally filled with His Holiness, His Uncreated Life? He is infinite Love and infinite Holiness: those with Him in heaven are blessed to grow in this Love and Holiness infinitely. There is another aspect to this ongoing process of sanctification. Christians of all ages have realized, in their struggle against the sinful impulses of the flesh and the temptations of the devil, that when we commit sin, we inflict wounds upon ourselves: "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Of course, Orthodoxy also considers sins to be the breaking of God's commands, which requires repentance and asking His forgiveness. But the Church realizes, from long pastoral experience, that serious sin cripples and deadens our souls, and distorts the image of God in us. Sin can leave long-lasting scars even after God's forgiveness is granted and accepted. The effects of sustained sin-our own, and that of others-do not simply vanish when we accept God's forgiveness, though this remission of our guilt is certainly the crucial first step towards total healing. Only through an ongoing life of faith in Christ do we gradually become cleansed and healed, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, from these wounds of sin. This happens as we gradually become more and more suffused with God's light and love-as we ever more completely partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Just as this process is never completed in anyone's life while on earth-no one becomes sinless-it is the Orthodox understanding that sanctification continues on, in some way, into the world beyond-especially in the beginning stages of the next life. The Church believes that our prayers for the departed can help them in this process of healing and purification. There is yet another dimension to this question. Not only do our prayers help the departed, but praying for them helps us as well. It keeps their remembrance alive in us, helping our hearts to stay warm and full of love towards them. It gives us a way to experience a sense of their presence, since prayer is far more than simply the making of requests. It keeps them before our eyes as living examples of Christian faith for us to emulate. Prayer for the departed also gives us another way to continue in the awesome privilege of participating in God's ongoing work of the salvation, sanctification, and glorification of every soul whom He draws to Himself (Ephesians 6:19; Colossians 1:3-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:11,12). And a vivid remembrance of those living with Christ in heaven can more thoroughly and deeply assure us that there truly is life after death, which can help diminish any fear of death which we may have. We can see, then, that our prayers for the departed help preserve and increase the unity between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven-which helps both aspects of the Church. As a contemporary British Orthodox theologian, Bishop Kallistos Ware, says, "lust as Orthodox Christians here on earth pray for one another and ask for one another's prayers, so they pray also for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray for them. Death cannot sever the bond of mutual love which links the members of the Church together".5