All Saints, November 1, ranks with Christmas and Easter, Epiphany, Ascension, Trinity Sunday, and Pentecost as one of the seven Principal Feasts of the Church. This year it happens to fall on a Sunday, giving it liturgical precedence over the normal Sunday propers, prayers and readings. Customarily, we sing at least one hymn celebrating the saints of God in the church militant and triumphant, and in some parishes we commemorate members of the parish and loved ones who died since All Saints Day the previous year. It will be an opportunity to name them in prayer and bring them again into the Mind of God.
Twenty-five or thirty years ago, in the small town parish I was serving at the time, I noticed that a local couple whom I knew were coming to our Sunday services, and I always made a point of welcoming them warmly. About their third or fourth time, which turned out to be their final Sunday with us, I greeted them again at the door going out after service, and asked if I could come talk with them about the Episcopal Church and about becoming members of our parish. To my surprise and somewhat to my astonishment, the man said, “No. Because you pray for the dead. Jesus said leave the dead to bury their dead.” Baptist, they had just noticed in our Prayers of the People the petition, “We pray for all who have died, that they may have a place in your eternal kingdom.”
What seemed so natural, logical, and even comforting to me, to us, had, once they noticed it and realized, offended them greatly. So greatly that they returned to First Baptist and we never saw them at Trinity Church again.
I remembered then when they commented, actually it was an abrupt retort, that praying for the dead was, because of papist abuses, a reasonable issue of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. But it had never occurred to me that intelligent people would seize a verse totally out of context and apply it to rationalize a facet of their spirituality. It seemed particularly absurd to me at the time. It still does, even asinine.
“Why do we pray for the dead?” asks a question in our Catechism (BCP 862). "We pray for them because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God's presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is." To drop from my heart and prayers those I love who have died, comes to me as cold and discouraging instead of comforting and hopeful. One of our prayers that is most encouraging and meaningful to me is tucked away in the Prayers of the People of our marriage liturgy, “Grant that the bonds of our common humanity, by which all your children are united one to another, and the living to the dead, may be transformed by your grace ...” And then of course the petition in the Burial Office, "Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope, in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love."
Whoever is mourning, grieving the absence of someone dearly loved who has died, may want to come to church next Sunday and light a candle in loving remembrance, and call their name again into the Mind of the Holy One.