In sure and certain hope

As a young teenager I loved listening to classical music. One of my favourite records was a recording of Brahms German Requiem with its wonderful celebration of resurrection. The sixth movement in particular with its focus on 1 Cor 1.51-55 is amazing, not least as the choir reaches a stirring crescendo as they sing “Where O death is your sting?” This is a requiem like no other. As far as I am aware, all other requiems are a plea to God to have mercy upon the souls of the departed – indeed the word ‘requiem’ is derived from the opening of the traditional  Latin mass for the dead: requiem aeternam done eis, Domine – ‘Eternal rest grant them, Lord’. By contrast Brahms’ German Requiem begins with the words of Jesus from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted”. His requiem offers comfort to the living on the basis of passages of Scripture which he took from Luther’s great German translation of the Bible (the equivalent to the Authorised Version in the English-speaking world). For following the death of his mother (others suggest it was following the death of his close friend Robert Schumann) he wrote a Protestant ‘Requiem’, which is full of hope. True, the name of Jesus never appears nor is there any reference to the Cross of Jesus, but the great hope of resurrection is most certainly there.

This hope of resurrection is at the heart of Christian believing. In In the Church of England’s committal service, the dead are committed to be buried or cremated

in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who will transform our frail bodies
that they may be conformed to his glorious body,
who died, was buried, and rose again for us”.

As I wrote in my introduction to There is Hope: Preaching at Funerals (IVP, London 2021):

Christian hope is not a form of optimism. Indeed, according to the American theologian, Stanley Hauwerwas, optimism is a form of ’hope without truth’. Rather Christian hope is based upon a past reality. For the Bible teaches that in rising from the dead Jesus blazed a trail through the valley of the shadow down which those who have put their trust in him may follow too. In the words of Jesus, with which I begin every funeral: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live’ (John 11:25).

Why then, I wonder, do many Anglicans continue to pray every Sunday for the dead? In writing this blog I looked again at N.T. Wright’s defence of this practice in his little book, For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (SPCK, London 2003). There he recognises that praying for the dead “might seem to undermine the doctrine of assurance, based as it is on the solid gospel promises in the New Testament. ‘Anyone  who comes to me’, said Jesus, ‘I will never cast away’”. But in spite of these words of Jesus from John 6.37, Tom Wright wrote: “True prayer is an outflowing of love; if I love someone, I will want to pray for them, not necessarily because they are in difficulties, not necessarily because there is a particular need of which I’m aware, but simply because holding them up in God’s presence is the most natural and appropriate thing to do.“

Much as I respect the great learning this eminent English scholar, I find this a weak argument, which has no support in the New Testament whatever. Indeed, as Tom Wright admits, prayer for the dead has its roots in the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory – which he certainly does not hold.

Much as I loved my parents and even now still miss them, it has never occurred to me to pray for them. They are “with Christ” and as the Apostle Paul clearly stated, “that is far better” (Phil 1.23) than anything we can experience in this life. They do not need my prayers in any shape or form. for they are safe in God’s keeping.

When it comes to those who have died in Christ, we thank God for the sure and certain hope that is our, for God raised Jesus from the dead. That is indeed what we celebrate every Sunday, for Sunday is the day of resurrection. To pray for the dead on a Sunday of all days is surely a nonsense!

One comment

  1. I found this so interesting and encouraging. Currently I worship at a very welcoming and unusual Catholic church where I am trying to be humble and learn about what we can do to engender more unity in the church. especially between protestant and catholic. Interestingly I thought, in this context, the priest has put a photo of the Queen ( putting aside Henry VIII and all that- which is no small thing!!!) in the prayer chapel with the candles- presumably so interested parishioners can pray for her soul.
    Every Sunday prayers are said for the dead at which point my desire for “unity” is stretched too far so I deviate into silent prayers of thanks to God for relatives and others who have passed so thanks for this and I especially enjoyed learning about the Brahams requiem.

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