Thursday, September 3, 2009

Praying for the dead

I see dead people.

Actually, no, it's the other way around. I see live people. Or dead people see me. Or...heck, I don't know. It's hard to explain.

One need only visit an Orthodox parish for a few weeks to notice a behavior we Orthodox exhibit. We pray for the departed. It seems quite odd to anyone who grew up in a Protestant context. Why bother? What's done is done, right?

Sort of. It's all bundled into our view on death. Bluntly, we uphold that the dead...aren't. It's a strict adherence to the credal statement that "I believe in the resurrection of the body," which is, of course, not talking about Christ's resurrection. That's already referred to in an earlier section of the creed. Once you reach the last paragraph, you've departed the christology portion and found anthropology. (Want me to diagram it for you in a subsequent post? I'll do it. Go ahead; twist my arm. Alright, fine.)

There's this phrase that totally used to weird me out when I was first attending Eastern Orthodox worship. Memory eternal. Or sometimes, more fully, "May your memory be eternal." It struck me a bit as hero worship. Like, literally. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, even though it was being repeated every Liturgy.

You know that song that says, "You're nobody 'til somebody loves you?"

I'm not entirely sure that it's an encouraging song to start with. But every once in a while, my convoluted brain accidentally gets the converse stuck in my head. You're somebody 'til nobody loves you. Sobering, really.

It's in this vein that the thief on one of the crosses adjacent to Jesus implores him, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom." (And we make it a point to repeat that line at every Liturgy, associating it with Communion.) Or, to quote another (perhaps only slightly less memorable) song, "Don't you forget about me. I'll be alone..."

It's a sad thought to be forgotten by God (or, to put it in colloquial terms, to be "godforsaken"). The thief knew this. He wasn't spouting out a liturgical formula. He was begging for legitimacy and significance. He apparently realized something religiously important about the intensity of the character dying next to him. Jesus' response is more than reassuring. It's downright monumental (although must have sounded a bit laughable when it was first uttered). "Truly you will be with me today in paradise." Odd thing for a Guy to say as His guts are being distended and He's fighting for final breaths through waves of pain, yeah. But, taken at face value, it was exactly the grace the thief needed to hear from exactly the Person he knew he needed to hear it from. To be forgotten by God is the pinnacle of hopelessness. No wonder that we pray that God would remember our loved ones forever. To be remembered by God is to continue to have at least a chance at being blessed.

So, couple the Orthodox insistence on the transience of death with the hunger to be remembered by God, and you have the liturgical practice of remembering the dead. But there's one more piece. There's the notion that such a remembrance is efficacious. It accomplishes something.

But how can this be? I grew up thinking that your spiritual status is pretty much set in concrete at your moment of death. Isn't that it?

Yeah, maybe sorta. I don't think the God Who moves stones away is stymied too much by having a status set in concrete. What's concrete to Him? If He wants to continue developing things, well, I'm not sure it's really my place to point out that He should hold Himself to the anthropology I was limited to in my upbringing.

There's a distinctive in Orthodoxy that maintains that growth is an ongoing process throughout eternity. Let me boldly state that the goal of spiritual development is to bring us to the point where the only difference between us and God is that we are not God. We are partakers in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). The unity of the divine and the human in the person of Christ confirms that the human was designed to be a container for this sort of perfection.

God may be unchanging, but as long as we are not like God, we are constantly changing. And since we will never be God, that change must be constant for eternity. And eternity's a long time, of course. We get to enjoy the fruits of growth forever. That rocks!

So we maintain that the same departed but still living and spiritually active folks who pray for us desire our prayers for them as well. Why bother? Because we all keep growing.

The bad news is that we never quite get there. The good news is that we get to keep enjoying the ongoing growth in others and in ourselves.

Memory eternal? Sounds good to me.


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