Prayers for the Dead: Pannikhida

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The necessity of praying for the dead

In order to appreciate the power of prayers for the dead, it must be understood that death interrupts only the physical contact among people; spiritual contact continues. This contact is realized through prayer. The Gospel teaches us that prayer, coupled with faith, has great power. In the words of our Lord, it can even move mountains. The Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles taught Christians to pray for one another.

The Gospels and the other books of the New Testament contain numerous examples of how the prayers of some helped others. Thus, according to the faith of the nobleman, the Lord healed his son (John 4:46-53); by the faith of the Canaanite woman her possessed daughter was healed (Mt. 15:21-28); by the faith of a father his possessed son, who was deaf and mute, was healed (Mk. 9:17-27); at the request of friends the Lord forgave and healed the paralytic, whom they lowered from the roof with ropes (Mk. 2:2-12); and by the faith of the Roman centurion his servant was healed (Mt. 8:5-13). Furthermore, the Lord performed most of these miraculous healings at a distance, in absentia. The Holy Evangelist John the Theologian urges us to turn to God in prayer, with faith that God will fulfill our request. As he says, "And this is the confidence that we have in Him [the Son of God], that, if we ask any thing according to His will, He heareth us" (1 John 5:14).

Since prayer possesses the power of grace, it knows no boundaries and does not grow weaker with distance. It is the result of love, and, like a ray of light, it penetrates men's souls, uniting those who pray with God and with one another. An ancient story teaches a good lesson. Once St. Macarius of Egypt found a human skull while walking in the desert. When Abba Macarius touched the skull with a palm branch, a voice came from the skull. When the elder asked, "Who are you?," the skull answered, "I was a pagan priest and lived in this place. Abba Macarius, have pity on us who are in eternal torment, and pray for us, for your prayer brings us comfort." The elder asked, "What comfort comes to you from my prayers?" The skull answered, "When you pray for us, light appears, and we begin to see one another."

Thus, prayer joins our world with another world, where the angels, the saints and our departed relatives and friends dwell. Since the moment of the resurrection of Christ death has lost its former fatality; instead, it has become the beginning of a new life. Now, as St. Paul teaches: "Neither death, nor life...nor height, nor depth...shall be able to separate us from the love of God... For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living" (Rom. 8:38-39; Rom. 14:8-9). For this reason it is not only possible, but even necessary, to pray for the dead as well as for the living; for, according to the words of the Saviour, to God all are alive (cf. Lk. 20:38).

Christians who have departed from this world do not sever their ties to the Church to which they belonged during their life. If they are righteous, they have the freedom to pray for us at the throne of God; if imperfect, they require our prayers. The Apostle Paul compared the Church to a high mountain, whose base rests on the earth while its peak reaches the sky. "But ye come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant" (Heb. 12:22-24). In other words, according to the apostle, between the earthly and the heavenly Church there exists a living and close relationship. Faith in this unity and in the power of prayer serves as the basis for a practice which goes back to the apostolic age: to maintain ties with the dead, to turn to the holy martyrs and the saints with prayers for help, and also to remember the dead at the Proskomedia and in prayers for their repose.

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