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|Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky|
Orthodox dogmatic theology
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Prayers for the dead.
“Pray one for another” (James 5:16).
“Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8).
“Love never faileth” (1 Cor. 13:8).
“Whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may
be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).
In God all are alive. Church life is penetrated by a living awareness and feeling that our dead
ones continue to live after death, only in a different form than on earth, and that they are not deprived
of spiritual nearness to those who remain on earth.
Therefore, the bond of prayer with them on the part of the pilgrim Church (on earth) does
not cease. “Neither death nor life... shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in
Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38). The departed need only one kind of he1p from their brethren:
prayer and petition for the remission of their sins.
“And this is the confidence that we have in Him (the Son of God), that, if we ask anything
according to His will, He heareth us. And we if we know that He hear us, whatsoever we ask, we
know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him. And if any man see his brother sin a sin
which is not unto death, he shall ask and He shall give him life, for them that sin not unto death.
There is a sin unto death; I do not say that he shall pray for it” (1 John 5:14-16).
Corresponding to this instruction of the Apostle, the Church prays for all its children who
have died with true repentance. Praying for them as for those who are alive, the Church follows
the words of the Apostle; “Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lords. For to this end
Christ both died and rose, and revived, that He might be Lord both of the dead and living”
(Rom. 14:8-9). Those, however, who have died with unrepented sins, outside the communion of
the Church, are not even vouchsafed prayers, as follows from the above-mentioned words of the
Apostle John: “I do not say that he should pray for it,” for such prayers would be without purpose.
In the Old Testament Church also there existed the custom of praying for the dead. Concerning
this there is the testimony of sacred history. Thus, in the days of the pious leader of the Jews,
Judas Maccabeus, when after an inspection of those who had fallen on the field of battle, there
was found in their garments plunder from the gifts offered to idols, all the Jews “blessed theways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, Who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to
prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out.” And Judas
Maccabeus himself sent to Jerusalem to “provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted
very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection” (2 Mac. 12:39-46).
That the remission of sins for those who have sinned not unto death can be given both in the
present life and after death is naturally to be concluded from the words of the Lord Himself:
“Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him, but whosoever
speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the
world to come” (Matt. 12:32). Similarly, from the word of God we know that the Lord Jesus has
“the keys of hell and of death” (Rev. 1:18); consequently, He has power to open the gates of hell
by the prayers of the Church and by power of the propitiatory Bloodless Sacrifice which is offered
for the dead.
In the Christian Church all the ancient liturgies, both of East and West, testify to the
church's remembrance in prayer of the dead. Such liturgies are known under the names of the
Holy Apostle James, the brother of the Lord, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostorn, and St.
Gregory the Dialogist. Similar references are to be found in the Roman, Spanish and Gallican
liturgies, and finally, in the ancient liturgies of the groups that separated from Orthodoxy: the
Jacobites, Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians, Syrians, and others. For all their numbers, there is not a
single one of these liturgies where there is no prayer for the dead. The testimony of the Fathers
and Teachers of the Church speaks of the same thing.
Concerning the good effect of prayerful communion in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ
between those living on earth and the dead, Ephraim the Syrian, for example, reasons thus: “For
the dead, the remembrance performed by the saints during their lifetime is beneficial. We see an
example of this in a number of the works of God. For example, in a vineyard there are the ripening
grapes in the field, and the wine already squeezed out into vessels; when the grapes ripen on
the grapevine, then the wine which stands unmoving in the house begins to froth and be agitated,
as if desiring to escape. The same thing happens, it seems, with another plant, the onion; for as
soon as the onion which has been sown in the field begins to ripen, the onion which is in the
house also begins to give sprouts. And so, if even growing things have between themselves such
a fellow-feeling, will not the petitions of prayer be all the more felt by the dead? And when you
will sensibly agree that this occurs in accordance with the nature of creatures, then just imagine
that you are the first of the creatures of God.”
In praying for the dead, the Church intercedes for them just as for the living, not in its own
name, but in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:13-14), and by the power of His Sacrifice
on the Cross, which was offered for the deliverance of all. These fervent prayers help the
seeds of new life which our departed ones have taken with them — if these seeds have been unable
to open up sufficiently here on earth — to gradually open up and develop under the influence
of prayers and with the mercy of God, just as a good seed is developed in the earth under the
life-giving rays of the sun, with favorable weather. But nothing can revive rotten seeds which
have lost the very principle of vegetative life. Similarly, powerless would be prayers for the dead
who have died in impiety and without repentance, who have quenched in themselves the Spirit of
Christ (1 Thes. 5:19). It is precisely concerning such sinners that one must remember the words
of the Saviour in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: that there is no deliverance for them
from the deepest parts of hell, and no transference for them into the bosom of Abraham (Luke
16:26). And indeed, such people usually do not leave behind them on earth people who mightpray sincerely for them to God; likewise, they have not acquired for themselves friends in heaven
among the saints, who, when they fail (that is, die), might receive them into everlasting habitations
— that is, might pray for them (Luke 16:9).
Of course, on the earth it is not known to what lot each has been subjected after his death.
But the prayer of love can never be profitless. If our dead ones who are dear to us have been
vouchsafed the Kingdom of Heaven, they reply to prayer for them with an answering prayer for
us. And if our prayers are powerless to he1p them, in any case they are not harmful to us, according
to the word of the Psalmist: “My prayer shall return to my bosom” (Psalm 34:16), and according
to the word of the Saviour: “Let your peace return to you” (Matt. 10: 13). But they are
indeed profitable for us. St. John Damascene remarks: “If anyone wishes to anoint a sick man
with myrrh or some other sacred oil, first he becomes a partaker of the anointing himself and then
he anoints the sick one. So also, everyone who struggles for the salvation of his neighbor, first
receives benefit himself, and then offers it to his neighbor; for God is not unjust, so as to forget
the works, according to the word of the Divine Apostle.”