Nature bestows a great gift on those who dwell in the Northern hemisphere: The seasons conveniently align with the liturgical calendar. December's darkness allows Advent imagery to come to life, followed by the copious candles of Midnight Mass that celebrate the birth of the One who brings light. Similarly, after the Lenten barrenness of late winter, early spring brings the Resurrection celebration as plants, trees, and fields return to life.
November, often a dreary month of bare trees and gray skies, is a fitting month of the dead in the life of the Church. All Souls' Day, which has been stolen and secularized by the barons of industry and profit to become a saccharine feast of silliness, is the day when multiple Masses are said for those “who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.” The sign, of course, is the sign of the Cross, marked on a child’s head by parents and godparents as each new Christian is welcomed into the Church. That sign is marked one last time as the priest anoints a departing soul ready to meet his or her Maker when He calls.
The Church has traditionally recommended that Mass for the “Holy Souls”—all those known and unknown who are still awaiting the vision of God’s glory—be celebrated throughout the month of November. The dead, it has been said, are “always with us,” not just as memories or half-remembered dreams, but as part of the mystical Body of Christ. Moderns use the phrase “closure,” to signify that after an acceptable time—perhaps two weeks, perhaps six months—a bereaved person can get on with her life, and consign the dead to the dustbin of memory. Unfortunately, the simplicity of closure has never been part of the human experience. The wisdom of ritual and rite developed through the centuries is designed to give meaning and comfort to those who experience death and bereavement.
For the believer, the ritual of funeral and prayer for the dead is more than just an exterior comfort: It is an act of faith. Robert Sarah, the austere and impressive African cardinal who heads the Vatican’s liturgy office, has written, “postmodern civilization denies death, causes it, and paradoxically unceasingly exalts it.” People today do not die; they “pass away, pass on,” or just “pass.” Pass where, we might ask.
Solzhenitsyn, in one of his “Miniatures”—the prose poems known in Russian as Krokhotki—wrote that “above all things we have begun to fear death and the dead.” That is the paradox Sarah identifies. The culture of death denies the reality of death. The dead are feared and must be forgotten, yet it is now a “human right” to euthanize and to be euthanized. The miscarriage of a child in the womb is a tragedy; the murder of a child in the womb is the leitmotif of a civilized society.
Yet prayer for the dead, funeral customs, and continued mourning rituals of Christian civilization face death directly with a clear and penetrating gaze and offer not facile optimism but the theological virtue of hope. Prayer for the dead, the heart of November’s liturgy is “an act bequeathed to us in deep wisdom, by men of holiness,” according to Solzhenitsyn.
This deep wisdom is first shown in the funeral liturgy itself. “Western decadence,” Sarah has written, “has reached such an extent that it is no longer uncommon to hear applause and long speeches during a funeral service.” A funeral Mass, in the Catholic and Orthodox Church, should be a solemn event. Solemnity is not the enemy of hope. It is the age-old protector, unmoved by fad or fashion. The liturgical color black, still allowed but sadly rarely used, expresses the loss of the bereaved and the symbolism of prayer. A funeral is not a celebration of the life of the deceased, but a prayer for her immortal soul. It is a confident prayer, filled with trust in the mercy of God, but it is a prayer and petition, not a canonization. It is the supreme act of hope and faith, applying the merits of the Paschal Mystery—the life, saving death, and Resurrection of Christ—to the soul of the departed. Eulogies, which extoll the deceased's virtues and are usually bereft of any reference to the person's faith or, indeed, any Christian doctrine, are one of the many mistakes made since the revision of the liturgy.
The deep wisdom continues with the tradition of lifelong prayer for the departed: memorial Masses, visits to graveyards, and prayer for the Holy Souls. The souls of the faithful departed are not forgotten; they are present both in the liturgical and private prayer of the Church. This deeply comforting doctrine and practice, says Solzhenitsyn, “casts from us to them, from them to us, an impalpable arch of measureless breadth yet effortless proximity.”
Ultimately, prayer for the dead is an act, “bequeathed to us in deep wisdom,” because it is an act of charity. It answers not only the needs of the human spirit for commemoration and reverence, but it is, as Scripture says, a “holy and wholesome thing to pray for the dead.” It is hopeful and hope-filled; November’s bleakness holds Resurrection’s promise. “Perhaps,” writes the majestic Russian, “we too can help somehow? And a promise: We shall meet.”
Fr. Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, a 501c3 charity helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.