Liturgical Christian churches have practices built into the liturgy and church year that connect living Christians with the dead, from simple moments in the regular liturgies to special days in the church calendar. In considering these practices it becomes clear that Christianity is a religion that challenges linear time, and that redemption is not merely a moment but an ongoing reality for Christians.
The Christian community, as it gathers, includes all the saints, all the faithful departed across time. Prayers for the dead are offered in the regular prayers of the people each Sunday in many liturgical traditions, and congregants as well as leaders in worship may name specific people aloud in their prayers. Having been raised Evangelical I found it strange, at first, to pray for the dead when I joined the Episcopal Church. Over time I began to see that to pray that the will of God ‘may be fulfilled’ for those who are already dead was not a desperate post-mortem wish that the person had been truly saved, but was to pray in a way that challenges linear time.
What is the will of God for the Christian? I think of the mission statement of the Evangelical church in which I was raised: “to know Christ and make Christ known.” When applying this to those who are dead it strikes me that knowing Christ is something that the souls of the departed must be doing continually after physical death. And the dead may also continue to make Christ known through the process of being remembered. It is important that prayer leaders give ample time for names to be said aloud and for silent contemplation of our departed brothers and sisters in Christ. Though dead in body, the dead are not dead in Christ, we pray so that their lives may illumine our own, thus continuing to glorify God and make God known.
To pray for the dead is not to obsess over whether they have been “saved” or not, or to try to drum up forgiveness for those departed who may have harmed us in our lives, but instead to recognize that God, and likewise the Church, is not bound by space or time. Remembering the dead in worship allows individuals who struggle with past traumas or social rejections a safe place to remember that Christ too was an innocent victim, and to be buoyed up by the communion of saints as they bring their ghosts with them. Understanding that the dead in Christ are with us is to experience the body of Christ as a mighty body gathered across divisions and across time, a body that is stronger than any body that has done or wishes to do us harm. The body of Christ is not a mere affinity group, a subculture, or a specific congregation, but a profound cosmic existence that finds its true nature and purpose as it gathers with the recognition that it is not limited by walls or years.
When Christians remember specific saints we make this extended family present for us. We do not worship the saints as mini-deities, but instead we remember that our ancestors in faith were normal people like us who did extraordinary things by faith. As stories are shared, Christians can take inspiration from the saints, whose lives and situations may have resonance with our own. The saints reveal Christ and give courage to the weary who realize that the rough road they are on has been traveled before. This cosmic companionship strengthens resolve and helps the faithful face whatever end may come. To remember the saints is to help the will of God for their lives to be continued.
While we have special days for named saints, we also remember “All Saints” and “All Souls.” Without going into the finer distinguishing historic meanings of these days, which fall on November 1st and 2nd respectively, suffice it to say that having days each year to remember the dead who have not been celebrated on a special day but who meant something to us and to our communities likewise strengthens the community. As names of the dead buried in the church yard are read each year in the parish I attend, I am drawn into active compassion for friends who have lost children, spouses and parents. The annual communal remembrance of these ordinary people and babies who did not survive is a small but significant way that the bereaved experience companionship in their loss and grief. The Roman Catholic Church has intentionally incorporated various indigenous cultural ways of remembering and honoring the departed into the celebrations of All Saints and All Souls as a natural extension of the process called “inculturation.” This adaptation of the gospel into a cultural context recognizes that mere translations of scripture and liturgy are not enough. Learning about various cultural traditions and thoughtfully incorporating them in parishes where there are people of various ethnic backgrounds can also be a way to welcome and understand the people with whom we share the pews.
Finally, there are the days of preparation for Easter: six weeks of Lent, beginning with the admonition: “Remember you are dust…” which we will explore more fully in the next part, and Holy Week, in which we remember most potently Christ’s own death. As we have seen, this holy death colors all that we do and are as members of the body of Christ. Surely the holy days of the week leading up to Easter, and practices such as “The Way of the Cross,” in which Christians remember specific moments in the final days and hours leading to the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, are not to be missed. I know of several parishes that have highlighted the timeless and unifying nature of this practice by charting a path through their community streets, carrying a large cross and stopping at various landmarks – the courthouse, local churches of other denominations, immigrant owned businesses, non-profit organizations – to read the passages that tell the narrative of Jesus’ journey to the grave.
All of these practices, whether small parts of our regular liturgies or special days, with a distinct focus, highlight the nature of the church as one that is bounded neither by time, race, social status, or anything other than devotion to the body of Christ. This body is revealed to us in the stories of the body of Jesus as he lived his earthly life and the bodies of our fellow companions, whether they be our contemporaries or not. To give greater focus to these practices is to participate more fully into the redemptive work of God, making Christ known and chipping away those things which divide the body.