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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.”

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