Beyond the Grave

Anglicanism is known as the via media – the middle route between the radical reformation and medieval catholicism.  The fact that we celebrate All Saints Day is very much from the catholic side of our heritage, but nevertheless it is part of our via media heritage.  Traditionally, there are two holidays here: All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd; Anglicanism usually lumps them together.

Key in the midst of this sort of discussion is the definition of saint.  There are two levels of meaning at work in Christian language.  A saint, first of all, is a Christian.  Throughout the New Testament the term “saints” (or “holy ones” in some translations) is used to refer to the entire Christian gathering.  Secondly, though, there is an intensification of that basic definition: a Saint more specifically is a Christian who has reached some greater level of sanctification such that he or she is worthy of being held up as a good role model for others, a good example, and deserves to be remembered by others after death.  There are a few biblical examples of the word saint being used in such a way, especially in reference to faithful men and women of God who have since died.

All Saints & All Souls primarily celebrates those who have died, so here’s my basic walk-through of what this is all about.

What is death?

Bottom line: death is unnatural.  Humans were created to live forever; death and dying is a result of Adam’s sin in the garden.  Perhaps the simplest way to define death from this perspective is that death occurs when a person’s body and soul are separated.  This yields us two types of death:

  1. The body is living, but the soul is not.  That’s spiritual death, which Paul describes as being dead in our sins.
  2. The soul is living, but the body is not.  That’s the physical death that we normally think of as death.

Bodily death is a weird thing.  Not only was it not originally designed to happen, but it will also be undone.  When Jesus returns to complete the perfection of the new creation, all things will be put right – and bodily resurrection from the dead is part of that!  But before that resurrection, while the body is dead, the soul is still out there somewhere…

Where do the dead go?

This is not a clearly-answered question in the Bible.  The Old Testament gives a number of descriptive terms for it: the grave, sheol, hades, hell.  All they really mean, though, is “the place of the dead.”  Writings like Wisdom 3 assure us that the souls of the righteous are in God’s hands – that even when we die God will still look after us.  It was a scary place, judging by how it’s often described in the Old Testament, and that makes sense, because death is not something God originally intended for us.  But when Jesus died, this got really shaken up.

As we say in the creed, Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, and descended into hell (or to the dead).  For the first time ever, God is in the place of the dead.  What a party for those who’ve been awaiting the Messiah!  No wonder Jesus told the thief on the cross “today you will be with me in paradise.”  On the flip side, what a terror for those who’d rejected God in life!

To this day, that’s still essentially all we know about the place of the dead: it’s a paradise for those who are in Christ, and a terror for those who aren’t, but it’s not the final heaven or hell that are opened up at the last judgment.  It’s like a waiting room, with a foretaste of the final judgment, hence St. Paul was able to say “to die is gain.”

What do the dead do?

The Old Testament reveals minimal insight into the activity of the dead, reflecting mostly a concern that the dead will not be able to worship God. That makes sense – before Christ went there.  Since then, though, as the book of Revelation beautifully describes, the dead are worshiping and praising God along with the angelic hosts!  And twice in that book there are hints that their worship and our worship on earth are linked.  The Elders (humans) and the angels are described as offering the prayers of the saints as incense before God’s throne.  How you define “saint” here yields different results.

  1. If “the saints” here are us – the living Christians on earth at any given moment – then the departed are offering our prayers before God.
  2. If “the saints” here are the departed saints who were especially holy people, then they are definitely still praying for others, just as they were in life.

Granted, these are two very different possible results, but they hold one thing in common: the departed are still interacting with our prayers in some way or another!

What do we do about it?

When St. Augustine of Hippo’s mother (St. Monica) died, she asked only one thing of him: that he pray for her at the altar (probably mainly at the celebration of the Eucharist).  That was the only “monument” she wanted – nothing to raise up her fame, only that the loving bond of prayer continue.  This story illustrates the basic thought behind prayers for and from the dead.

But this also begs the question, what practical use is there in us praying for the departed?  Medieval Catholicism over time developed a fairly intricate doctrine of purgatory which pigeon-holed prayers for the dead to simply “getting out of purgatory,” so naturally, early Anglicans had a bit of a struggle trying to restore the proper meaning of prayers for the dead.  Consider these examples:

1549 BCP:We commend unto thy mercy all other thy servants, which are departed hence from us, with the sign of faith, and now do rest in the sleep of peace:
Grant unto them, we beseech thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace, and that at the day of the general resurrection, we and all they which be of the mystical body of thy Son, may altogether be set on his right hand…
1662 BCP:And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear, beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.

Note here that in the original Prayer Book, the state of the dead is more defined: they’re awaiting the day of resurrection, and thus are still growing in love and holiness just like we are.  In later editions of the Prayer Book, the departed are simply sources of good examples for us to follow.  So Anglicanism does have a measure of caution when it comes to praying for the departed.  Worshiping with the departed, though, is unquestionably present, as every Eucharistic liturgy attests:

Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name…

Through history, different movements have encouraged the 1549 BCP style prayer for the dead to return.  While the Anglo-Catholic revival known as the Oxford Movement was taking place in England, one Eastern Orthodox saint observed, “The Church in the British Isles will only begin to grow when She begins to again venerate Her own Saints.”  The thinking behind this sort of statement is that the Church, as the Body of Christ, is healthiest when it works as one single body.  Too many churches ignore the departed altogether, and thus lose their valuable voices in the present age.  We live as though the Church is only what we can see here and now, and in so doing we very easily separate ourselves from nearly two thousand years of Christian witness.  If we want to be truly whole and united as a Church, we have to look back at those who came before us as well as across at those who stand before us today.

After the First World War, prayers for the departed starting making more prominent appearances in Anglican tradition around the world.  The American Prayer Book of 1928 is a prime example of this movement.

You pray for me, I’ll pray for you.

If we re-separate these two traditional holidays (as some quite reasonably argue we ought to do), All Saints Day and All Souls Day fit into a sort of dual dynamic.  All Saints Day is a celebration of the faithful departed who are praying for us, and are worshiping with us in this beautiful earthly-heavenly crossover that we call the Eucharist.  It’s a joyous occasion!  All Souls Day is more of a commemoration than a celebration.  It’s not so much a party as it is a funeral.  The same bond of love that causes us to rejoice with our departed brethren also causes us to weep for them – they have died and are no longer with us, and we won’t see them again until we, too, die.  All Souls Day is a moment of real grief in the face of the reality that death actually still happens, even though we know it will be put to an end eventually.

But in the end, all this is not a universally agreed-upon issue.  Anglicanism is cautious at best about Medieval theology, and much more concerned about honoring the Patristic thought and practice.  That is what it means to be a Reformation Church – we re-formed our practice around how it used to be in a period of history that we can be most confident in.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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