By Fr George Adimike
Because it heralds the end of the Christian liturgical year, November has come to be associated with the end in the Christian theological imagination. At face value, it is a month that commemorates the dead, but in actuality it commemorates the living―those alive in the Lord, both living and dead. In other words, it is a month during which the Church celebrates the communion of saints. The Church on earth celebrates her mystery as a communion of the holy souls on earth and in heaven, and those in the process of spiritual beautification for the eternal banquet. This November, like others, presents an opportunity to reflect on and interrogate the praxis of praying for the dead and the mystery of the communion of souls. A question is raised: Why pray for the dead since there is no repentance in the grave? An adequate understanding of human reality connects praying for the dead to the multiple religious rationales.
The practice of praying for the dead is primarily an affirmation of the immortality of souls and the spiritual communion between the living and the dead; an expression of faith in the eternal nature of God’s mercy―it is not limited by space, time, death or existential condition because it is of God’s being (cf. Psalm 106:1; Psalm 107:1; Psalm 136:1 – 26); an asseveration of the gratuitous and responsible nature of salvation and hope in this mysterious project; a continuation of our love relationship with our loved ones and cultivation of the never-ending natural bond of solidarity with them expressed supernaturally; and a profession that even in death, relationship with God and others subsists, for love never ends. The communion of saints, hence, is everlasting. Finally, it is a proclamation that God’s mercy endures forever, even beyond death, notwithstanding that there is no repentance in the grave. It is infinite. As such, a prayer for the dead affirms faith and expresses love. It is an active hope that the ever-merciful God will integrate mercy with justice while pronouncing His final verdict on Christians.
The impact of this hope is such that though there is no repentance in the grave, the practice of praying for the dead enjoys universal unanimity. The culture of wishing a loved one a peaceful repose is widespread. Humans of different religious and cultural persuasions pray for their dead loved ones when they say, ‘Rest in peace’ (RIP). This praxis has proved an active hope that liquidates the dreadful and helpless sentiments associated with death.
A mystery that defies human solution, death remains one of the few existential realities that prove beyond human mastery. Even with the incredible progress in health and science and technology, it still exposes man’s forlornness and impotence, and provokes an acute sense of dread and abandonment in helplessness, which often feeds and is fed by hopelessness. Various religions and cultures have myths that attempt an explanation of the origin, reality and purpose of death. For the Christian people, Christ’s resurrection serves as an eloquent answer to this question, yet the mystery is not fully resolved.
Undeniably, religions provide a window through which we glimpse the unknown future, especially after death. But what happens with the relationship forged while on this side of eternity? Do these relationships end here? Do humans enter the realm of nothingness, non-being, extinction, and anonymity after earthly existence?
Through the Christian faith, we peek through the curtain of the future to find answers to fundamental questions relative to life and death. It offers us the knowledge of the communion of saints, which speaks to the fundamental truth about humans, namely that we live in an irredeemable network of relationships that transcend materiality and temporality. No one is a Christian alone, for our life is implicated in the lives of others. We are a family by the in-personification of the Holy Spirit, the Hypostatic Communion of all believers and are intrinsically bonded. By implication, the Christian faith is both communal and personal in which individual lives, prayers and benefits of good works mutually spill into others. Being recipients and residencies of the Holy Spirit, who in-persons each Christian, we are intimately connected in the Spirit and form one body of Christ. This one body, the Church of God from Abel, as the whole or corporate Christ―Christ and members―gathers in all the children of God and deploys the salvific grace. Christ saves his body, and no one is saved alone. As a result, our actions in favour of others have substantial value relative to their reception of salvation. Through prayer for the dead, Christians deploy purifying and healing graces to our beloved ones, owing to the communion of souls in Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit for God.
Therefore, praying for one another is of a fundamental Christian character. More so, it is a mark of ardent charity when we do not foresee any material reward, as in the case of the souls in purgatorial experience. Christians, moved by love, hope and faith, pray for their relatives and friends who have crossed the Rubicon of life in the hope that God’s mercy will not elude them. At death, choices made by the individual cannot be undone because the human will becomes definitively fixed without the possibility of any further change. At that point there is no more possibility for repentance and then comes judgement. Each stands justified or accused before the eternal judge.
On the contrary, God, being free and sovereign (cf. Psalm 115:3; Psalm 135:6; Isaiah 46:10; Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15), expresses His might in mercy, even in death (cf. Hosea 11:9, Wisdom 11:22-24). As such, it is preposterous and arrogant to claim to know what God will do in each particular case and how He will express His being relative to each of us. While God is the validity of revelation, He cannot be exhaustively equated with His revelation. The economy of God is His ontology. Yet this economy does not exhaust His being. God’s revelation does not exhaust Godhood, for He is always greater than human thought and knowledge. So it will be a mistake to imprison God in the Scriptures. Though the Bible is complete and exhaustive relative to our salvation, it is not exhaustive of the being of God.
The reception of the truth for the salvation of humanity passes through the Church’s active faith experience in an openness to the Spirit and attentiveness to the faith memory of all times led by the Magisterium. Against this backdrop, the Church of Christ appreciates that God’s mercy reaches all His creation from both sides of eternity except those who reject God’s love. In their rejection of God, they stand opposed to Him; hence, they are in hell. But all who loved God and neighbours with different degrees of imperfection undergo a preparatory and purificatory experience before the wedding feast of the Lamb in heaven. Hell is living in rejection of God, while heaven is savouring the holiness and goodness of God. Purgatory is, therefore, the purification of the individual for the banquet.
The combined mystery of the eternity of God’s mercy and the communion of souls should spur every Christian to pray for the faithful departed, especially this month of November. Saint Paul was a good example. He prayed for his friend and benefactor Onesiphorus (cf. 2 Timothy 1:15-19) to receive mercy and forgiveness before the Eternal Judge and consolation and comfort for Onesiphorus’ family. Judas Maccabees called for prayers for forgiveness and mercy on the souls of the slain colleagues who wore amulets to the battle, thereby violating the law of Deuteronomy. Many other passages in the Scriptures allude to the value of praying for the dead and the mystery of purgatory: (cf. 1 John 5:17; Rev. 21:27; 1 Cor. 3: 11-15; 2 Maccabees 12: 39-45). In saying that sins against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven both in this world and the world to come, one can infer the possibility of forgiveness even beyond death (cf. Matthew 12:32). Nothing can limit God’s mercy because it is His essence. Denying the eternal nature of the mercy of God is a denial of His being. Some will be saved through grace by passing through ‘fire’. As the Church comes to an end and the civil year inches to the end, the Church wants us to remember the end and the living dead, the holy souls in a mystery of the communion of saints, and raise our prayers for the souls in purgatory.
• Fr Adimike writes from Onitsha, Anambra State