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All Souls Day

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All Souls Day

by The Reverend Jacob Legarda

Though recently revived within the Anglican Communion, All Souls Day – also known as the ‘Commemoration of the Faithful Departed’, has been observed, in some form and on different dates, since the seventh century in the Western Church and the ninth century in the Eastern Church.

At the Reformation, All Souls Day was dropped from the liturgical calendar of the Church of England in reaction to erroneous medieval views and practices concerning Purgatory (Article XXII), however, the Articles make no direct objection to remembering the dead in prayer – in fact, in its service for the Burial for the Dead, the Book of Common Prayer bids the congregation to implore God ‘that we, with all those that are departed in the true faith of thy holy Name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in thy eternal and everlasting glory’.

While we find no explicit mention of prayers for the dead in the canonical scriptures – apart from Paul’s plea that the Lord grant mercy to the presumably deceased Onesiphorus (2 Tim 1:16-18) – remembering the dead in prayer and at the Eucharist has been a normative part of the Church’s practice since its earliest days, and it finds support in the writings and homilies of the church fathers, such as John Chrysostom, who exhorted his listeners, ‘Let us not hesitate to help those who have died, and to offer prayers on their behalf’.

But how, exactly, do our prayers help or benefit the dead if those who die in Christ are already assured of salvation (Jn 5:24) and if we can do nothing to change the condition of those who have irrevocably rejected God (Lk 16:19-31)? And what are we asking God to do for the ‘souls of the faithful departed’ when we pray that, through his mercy, they would ‘rest in peace and rise in glory’?

The answer is that, though baptised into Christ’s saving death and resurrection, all the faithful – living and departed – continue to be a ‘work in progress’ until Christ’s return: ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.’ (1 Jn 3:2-3)

In his book on Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains this point through an imagined conversation with Christ who says, ‘Make no mistake… if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect—until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.’

This purification – this ‘purgatory’ or purging of everything within us that resists or opposes God – this complete and final throwing off and laying aside of ‘every weight and sin which clings so closely’ (Heb 12:1) is why we continue to pray for departed believers, in the hope that God ‘who began a good work’ in them would ‘carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Phil 1:6); and that being healed from the memory and wounds of sin, they are progressing ‘from one degree of glory to another’ (2 Cor 3:18).

On All Souls Day, and on other occasions, the Church invites us to remember in prayer our departed loved ones as an expression of our love and of our continued concern for their spiritual growth in Christ. As the biblical scholar and Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright puts it, ‘I see no reason why we should not pray for and with the dead… Love passes into prayer; we still love them; why not hold them, in that love, before God?’


For use on All Souls Day or on other occasions such as the birthday or year’s mind of departed loved ones.

If we live, we live to the Lord,
and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
(Romans 14:8)

God of hope,
grant that we, with all who have believed in you,
may be united in the full knowledge of your love
and the unclouded vision of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A candle may be lit with these words:

Light immortal,
you brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
May we, with (Name) and all the baptised,
know the full light of your risen presence. Amen.

Our Father…

May God in his infinite love and mercy
bring the whole Church,
living and departed in the Lord Jesus,
to a joyful resurrection
and the fulfilment of his eternal kingdom. Amen.

Prayers taken from A Prayer Book for Australia, Copyright 1995, The Anglican Church of Australia Trust Corporation under the imprint of Broughton Books. Reproduced with permission.

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