by -Kuriakos Tharakan Thottupuram, Ph.D., D.D.
Metropolitan Barnabas of Orthodox Syrian Church of the East in America officiated at a funeral in Chicago a few years ago, which this writer had the opportunity to participate in. Often, Metropolitan Barnabas is misunderstood as a speaker who is relatively unintelligible. But this funeral sermon was quite an exception. This writer keenly attended the contents of his oration which was specifically aimed at dispelling doubts of many Protestant participants at the funeral regarding the efficacy of praying for the dead. Therefore, we thought it would be definitely helpful for many of our own orthodox readers who might be looking for a cogent and convincing doctrinal position in favor of prayers for the dead. Along with the thoughts of Metropolitan Barnabas this writer has incorporated many of the traditional ideas regarding this topic currently disseminated within Holy Orthodoxy in order to render more muscle to the body of this article.
“The Departed” is the phrase we Christians generally call those who have died. It is because we do not believe that they are dead. To be dead means to cease to exist. The Orthodox position is that our beloved ones who die after their course on earth do not cease to exist; on the other hand death is only a threshold to enter another life which is relatively eternal. Death merely changes the address of human beings, unlike that of irrational animals. Hence it is only right and just that we call them “departed”.
The Departed Continue to Adore and Pray to God
The Protestant position is that the dead are “silent” until the last judgment. This means that they are not active souls, in a way they are in their perennial sleep until Jesus comes and wakes them up! But Metropolitan Barnabas emphatically denies this position without doubt, and proves the contrary from the Holy Scriptures. He goes to the Book of Apocalypsis (Revelation) to prove his point. Referring to the departed the Holy Apostle John the Divine testifies based on his vision:
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple (emphasis mine). And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe way every tear from their eyes” (Revelation: 7:15- 17).
If we read the earlier verses of this chapter we understand that this group of departed persons is “a multitude from all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues” (7: 9). This multitude contains those “who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 4). The traditional Orthodox exegesis points to the fact that these souls were the martyrs who died for Christ during the great persecution that John himself witnessed. It is the consensus among Orthodox biblical scholars that John decided to narrate his vision in the Book of Apocalypsis to strengthen the suffering Christians of his time. According to Orthodox biblical scholarship, this group not only includes those that are baptized (in the blood of the Lamb – Christ, i.e., martyrs), but also those righteous from all nations who were not officially members of the Church. Of course the Fathers generally identify the latter group as members of the Old Covenant. Some scholars are liberal enough to stretch this also to include the righteous outside the Judeo-Christian fold.
This biblical passage clearly indicates that the departed are not silent or sleeping, but are serving God day and night. In plain words, they adore God, even after their passage from this terrestrial perceptible world.
This passage also strikes at the root of the Roman heresy of “Purgatory”, where the people of God have to spend years and years in suffering in order to pay for the debts accumulated through their sins! We wonder what Christ was doing on the Cross with His unimaginable suffering and why He was uttering His last words: “It is finished (accomplished)”! If we have to suffer later in a purgatory, His suffering and cross were pointless. O Christ, Your passion and cross were fruitless if we have to suffer and be purified in the fire of purgatory again! What kind of redemption was it?! In order to build the Vatican Palace and the St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, this dogma was indeed a money making tool with which the Pope sold innumerable indulgences to collect funds for the completion of St. Peter’s and other projects. These indulgences granted them complete emancipation or partial emancipation from purgatory. The pope even attached certain number of years of liberation from purgatory that every donor would get as compensation for the amounts the innocent faithful had donated as price for indulgences. According to the dogma of the Roman Church, everyone, except the saints, has to go through the purifying fire of purgatory before achieving salvation. It is said that some of the medieval saints had the vision of torture and burning fire in purgatory! In recent times, the Lady of Fatima is said to have referred to the suffering in purgatory undergone by one of the friends of Lucy, Jacinta and Francisco! All sinners who have repented with a contrite heart have to go through this intermediary stage in purgatory, because they have not paid the debts of their sins!
The truth is that the Holy Scriptures and the Sacred Traditions of the Church do not talk about a purgatory, which literally means a purifying place. Purgatory was an invention of medieval monks, who got their imaginations so wild, which are very graphically narrated in the meditations of the Monthly Devotion books of the Roman Church designating every month of the year for the veneration of St. Mary, or the Sacred Heart, or for a particular saint, or for the souls in purgatory. Actually they were scare tactics fabricated by Roman monks during the middle ages during which time millions of women were sacrificed in the process of witch-hunting and thousands of innocent men were burned at stake as heretics after the mockery of inquisition. Now Roman prayer books do not highlight much about the number of days of indulgences; however, the Roman Church still clings to the dogma of purgatory as a divinely revealed article of faith (particularly highlighted in the Tridentine Synod which initiated a counter reformation within the Roman Church against the Protestant Reformation). Definitely it is a very identifiable wall of separation between the East and West, and will be a strong obstacle for reunion between these two churches.
The Spirit of God Helps Every Christian to Pray.
There is a beautiful verse in the letter of St. Paul to the Romans:
“Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8: 26).
Here Paul insists that it is the Holy Spirit who empowers our weaknesses. The most important power we receive from the Spirit is strength to make a genuine prayer, to conduct a genuine worship. We always pray for others. The most significant way a person is helped by God is by sending His Holy Spirit upon him. Once the Spirit is with us, we receive all the power we need in our spiritual and temporal life. What kind of theological justification there is for denying the help of the Holy Spirit for a departed person who is praying to and adoring God? He is also in need of the Spirit to strengthen him and to help him to pray better, to worship God as He deserves to be worshipped. As we pray for our brethren on earth, we should also pray for the departed who stand in need of the help of the Spirit, which is the most crucial help one can give his diseased parents, brothers, and sisters.
In Orthodox ascetic theology prayer in the spirit is called prayer without words. It is the most sublime form of prayer, which can never be done without help from the Holy Spirit. Orthodox theology talks about three stages in prayer. The first one is reciting the words of prayer. This is what we usually do. The Second stage refers to reciting words of prayer with full understanding of the meaning of the words and with full concentration. This is what we ought to do in prayer when we conduct our earthly worship. The third stage is the prayer without words. This is done only when we are filled with the Holy Spirit. At this stage the believer is in union with God, and words do not make much sense, they are inadequate. This stage leads a Christian to mysticism. If a believer is still in his earthly life, this mystical experience is a foreshadow of what he would experience after his passage from this terrestrial life. In fact, the departed are in this stage of worship of God. They definitely need our prayers in order for the Holy Spirit to uphold them and sustain them in worshipping God while they are closer to Him. This help from their Church is the most crucial for them; and it is the greatest good that the Church can render them.
St. James in his general letter to the Church says: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James: 4:17). In other words, having clearly known that our prayers are beneficial for the departed, it is a great sin to forget them in our prayers. Metropolitan Barnabas suggests that it is a sin of omission when we do not pray for our departed; it is our Christian duty.