All Souls Day: “I hope in you for me.”

Today, All Souls Day, is our annual moment to remind ourselves of what is in fact an important part of Christian spirituality any day of the year: praying for the dead. 

(Think about it: while the month opens with such a lovely feast as All Saints Day, a far more positive and compelling feast in many ways than the day that follows it, it’s the nature of November 2’s feast that has traditonally seeped over into the rest of the month and made the whole thing a period of remembrance and prayer for the dead.  And so, for example, we see many parishes with remembrance books, where we write the names of our dead loved ones, given a prominent place in the sanctuary or church entrance all month long.  That we sort of organically made November about praying for the dead rather than about the saints says something to me about how integral it is to Christian faith.)

Today’s feast, and the fact that the idea behind it colors the whole month, is one more reason for this to be a great time to celebrate this Festival of Hope.  That’s because praying for the dead is, at its core, an act of hope. 

Let me explain what I mean.  First purgatory.  Obviously, praying for the dead suggests purgatory.  People in hell can’t be helped by our prayers, and people in heaven don’t need them.  So the ancient Christian practice of praying for the dead is linked inseparably to the doctrine of purgatory. 

It’s clear that at any given moment of our lives, it’s not a question of whether or not we are definitively “in Christ.”  Most of us are somewhere in the murky middle.  We were united with him in Baptism, but we’ve done a more or less shoddy job of living up to that.  We’ve struggled mightily to do some sort of job of it, and the last thing we’d choose is to turn away from the task completely.  Our transformation in Christ is ongoing.

Would it make sense to think that that state of being in the murky middle somehow stops mattering immediately at the moment of death?  It’s just as real.  The transformation that hasn’t yet happened still needs to happen. 

When it happens during our lives, we call it penance, prayer, grace, asceticism.  Its happening after death we call purgatory.

And in both cases, thank God, we are not alone in the task.  Both simple sensitivity to human nature and the Christian creed tell us that we are joined with one another, we can help one another, we can bear one another’s burdens.  The communion of the saints.  One body in Christ. 

Joseph Ratzinger put it this way in 1977: “We are not just ourselves; or, more correctly, we are ourselves only as being in others.  Whether others curse us or bless us, forgive us or turn our guilt into love — this is part of our own destiny” (in his book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life).

And so our hope in the transforming grace of Christ, for ourselves and for others, takes shape in praying for the dead.  Ratzinger cites a beautiful line from Charles Peguy to illustrate the idea: “I hope in you for me.”

Our hope is not fundamentally in one another, of course.  Our hope is in Christ.  But our being in Christ, being one body in Christ, is a union that is far more “solid” than the dividing line between life and death, and so it allows us to help one another even from one side of that “line” to the other.

Yesterday’s feast was an expression of our hope in those who have gone before us and their intercession for us.  Our prayers today say to those who have gone before us: You can indeed hope in me, as we hope together in Christ.


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