“Let light perpetual shine upon them.”

After church on Sunday I was asked an intriguing question: “Why do we pray for the dead?” Sadly, in the midst of the post-church hustle and bustle, I was unable to respond fully and properly. I shall try to answer this question here on this blog, knowing full well that many may find my answers inadequate, brief, and yes, even wrong.

So why do we pray for the dead? Is it because we believe in purgatory, and the saints of God need our prayers to make their way to heaven? Is it simply a form of ancestor worship, or some spiritual connection to the dead? Are we asking the saints for protection in this earthly life? Or, is it just a nice thing to do?

Well, first of all, Christianity is not always “nice.” I find nothing particularly nice about our Lord being tortured to death in a public execution. And our prayers for the dead aren’t because we need to worship or find favor with our ancestors – our worship belongs to the Most High. And Anglicans, of course, regard the doctrine of purgatory as a “fond thing, vainly invented.” [1]

So then, why do we pray for the dead? The answer is a long one, but one that reveals a good bit of what we believe and how we behave as Christians.

Sadly, in common American religious thought, when a person dies, we often think that their soul immediately flies up to heaven or is cast into hell. But this is not the vision of the New Testament, of the early church, or indeed of the Anglican tradition. The vision presented to us in the New Testament is much richer and deeper than that.

World War One Resurrection Altar

Rather than thinking that our souls are trapped in our bodies, and at our death they will fly away, we ought to think of our souls and bodies meshed together or interwoven. Then, at the general resurrection (“in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” I Corinthians 15:52), both our souls and our bodies will be made remade and recreated. This is what happened to Jesus. He died on Good Friday, and was resurrected on Easter. His soul didn’t fly off to heaven – his whole being, flesh and spirit, were gloriously remade.

Jesus’ resurrection was the foretaste, the forerunner of what we hope will happen for the entire world; that one day, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we too will be resurrected, remade gloriously in flesh and spirit. And since this has yet to happen, and all the saints of God wait expectantly for this magnificent dawn, we continue to offer our prayers for those who have died, for they too are waiting expectantly. Remember, death has not the power to divide the Church between the living and the dead. The Church is constituted of all those in every generation (including ours) that have professed Jesus as Lord.

This hope, the hope of resurrected life in Christ, is much grander, much lovelier, than some silly notion of flying off to heaven.

So why do we pray for the dead? Because everybody needs prayers as we wait expectantly for the remaking of all things.

(Follow this link for one of my sermons on this very subject.)

[1] See Book of Common Prayer, 872, Article XXII: “The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the word of God.”

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One thought on ““Let light perpetual shine upon them.”

  1. This is so beautiful and comforting, Jimmy. I happen to be grieving the loss of two very dear and long time friends that passed away recently. One on New year’s eve morning, and the other a couple of weeks before Christmas. So I have been going through some memories of the heart and some emotions too, of course. i find it comforting when we say these prayers, and always there are saints that come to mind during this prayer time. But now my prayers will be deeper and richer, as I pray for all of us that are expectantly waiting for all things to be made new – now and for eternity.

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