Praying for the Dead

Homily at St John Lloyd for All Souls’ Day 2012


  • II Macc 12:43-45 – the offering made for the dead.
  • Rom 6:3-9 – if in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in his resurrection.
  • Luke 12:32-48 – give alms. Be ready for action. The punishment of an unready servant.

“You’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead!”

When I was an undergraduate, the bursar at my college decided to carry out an unscheduled fire drill – at 6 o’clock in the morning! Bleary-eyed students pulled on dressing gowns and coats, and made for the exit. As soon as the statutory 2 minutes for evacuation was up, the bursar stood opposite the main doors and greeted each exiting student with a wagging finger and the unsettling words that they were dead!

It was a powerful reminder for all the residents that mortal peril can come at an hour we do not expect – powerful enough that the memory is still with me clearly after 20 years! In the Gospel, Jesus uses an equally dramatic image to remind us that our immortal souls will also be judged at an hour we do not expect. Many of us attending this Mass will die peacefully in our old age, but any one of us could suffer from a road accident, stroke, heart attack or other cause of sudden death, and find ourself face to face with God – and then what will happen?

St Paul knows something about this. We might imagine him facing a congregation of Christians with a twinkle in his eye and a knowing smile on his lips, glancing lovingly at each one and saying gently: “You’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead! And you’re dead!” Because St Paul knows that each member of his congregation, because they’ve been baptised, has already died with Christ. This is also true for us here today. When each one of us was baptised, our first life ended: in God’s eyes we died. For the early Christians, a rectangular walk-in font reminded them of the tomb of Christ, and the minister baptising them would have held their head under the water so they felt like they were drowning. When we emerged from the water of baptism, our eternal life, joined to Jesus Christ, had begun.

When our earthly bodies expire, our souls will continue their eternal life by meeting God. The Gospel uses the image of a Master returning unexpectedly to inspect the work of his household servants. And Jesus – our Saviour Jesus, our loving and caring Jesus – chooses a very strong image, and one we might not expect to hear on his lips: the servant who did not do what the Master required is punished by the strokes of a whip! The one given clear instructions receives a severe beating, but even the one who didn’t know what the Master wanted receives a beating, though less severe. What are we to make of this?

When any human soul stands in God’s presence at the end of earthly life, it can clearly see the perfect love which is God’s nature. It judges itself against this pure love and becomes painfully aware of its own failures to love unselfishly throughout its life on earth. And for those souls who were Christians, who heard God’s message preached in church, who read it themselves in the pages of the Bible, the pain is even greater, for they become fully conscious of having ignored, at least in part, the pleas of their loving and heavenly Father.

This pain is real, and the Bible uses different ways to describe it. Here Jesus uses the image of a beating; elsewhere he speaks of the soul which is “put into prison until it has paid the last penny”. St Paul has written of our life’s work being “tested by fire”. But we should not interpret any of this as God being vindictive or wanting to punish His children; rather, these disturbing images are the best way God can express in human language the experience of a soul entering heaven. For in heaven can dwell only that which is good and perfect and true, and the soul entering must come to terms with the gap between the life which it has lived on earth, and  the pure life which it is now called to live in heaven.

We can help! In fact, this is the whole point of the observance which the Catholic Church keeps today, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. God’s followers have long asked themselves what happens to the souls of those who have died, and whether the prayers of the living can offer them any support. We can sense this conversation going on in the time of Judas Maccabeus, a Jewish leader who lived 200 years before Jesus.

Many Jewish people had been killed when they revolted against their Greek rulers. Some of the community said that there was no point offering prayers for the dead, but Judas disagreed. He sent money from the community to the Temple in Jerusalem to have prayers and sacrifices made for the dead. In a roundabout way, the writer of the history we now call the Second Book of Maccabees says that this is a good thing.

There is no clear statement about praying for the dead in the pages of the New Testament, but the Tradition of the church shows us that from very early times, when Christians gathered for Mass, they often dedicated it for the soul of one who had died. St Monica, mother of the great bishop St Augustine of Hippo, made only one request of her son when she was dying: that he remember her at God’s altar.

It seems to me that when we remember our dead by praying for them, this adds to the love which they experience when they meet God face to face – for they encounter not only God’s perfect love, but the freely given love of we on earth who pause to remember them. The more intense the love focussed upon that soul, the more quickly the pain passes, leaving the soul free to enter the happiness of heaven. It is, as the author of II Maccabees says, “a holy and devout thought to pray for the dead”.

On this one day of the year, therefore, we remember in a special way all those souls who have gone into God’s hands; we invite them to be present to us as we pray. And as we remember each one in prayer we declare: “You are loved! And you are loved! And you are loved! And you are loved!” – and in this way the prayer of the living makes shorter, yet sharper, the purification of those who have died, that they may quickly enter the eternal joys of heaven.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.