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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Jewish Traditions of All Souls' Day

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

When we pray for the faithful departed, we offer the Mass, we light candles, and we make sacrifices. When someone passes, people often donate to a charitable cause in memory of the deceased. Where do all of these traditions come from? Many of our Christian traditions for All Souls’ Day come from Judaism.

On the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, Jews offer a beautiful prayer of “remembrance” called in which candles are lit, and prayers for the dead are offered. Likewise, Catholics light votive candles and we offer prayers, sacrifices and works of charity for them. This Jewish tradition of remembering the dead is mentioned in the Old Testament, in the Second Book of Maccabees, written around 165 B.C.

When the Jewish General Judas Maccabeus and his men came upon a field where a battle had taken place, they found their fellow Jewish soldiers lying dead on the battlefield. As they began to mourn their fellow men-at-arms, they noticed that the soldiers wearing amulets of the false god of Jamnia, and so Judas Maccabeus and his men offered prayer and expiation to atone for this., as Scripture records:

“[Judas Maccabeus] then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice [in the Temple]. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.” [1]

This is the Biblical basis for the Catholic tradition for offering the expiatory Sacrifice of the Mass for the faithful departed – to make atonement to God in light of the resurrection of the dead to come.

In the Jewish theology of Yizkor, the charitable deeds performed by the living for the love of the deceased help make atonement for the beloved dead, who is in need of spiritual assistance. For the same reason, Catholics offer prayers, good works and sacrifices for the souls of the faithful departed, to assist these souls in their assent to God.

In heaven everyone is a saint, but most of us do not live as saints here on earth. At the moment of death, very few have attained the perfect charity of sainthood. One might ask what it means to be a saint? To have the soul of a saint is to have the purity of heart is to will one thing — caritas (charity) — the perfect love of God and neighbor. The famous playwright Dante once put it this way:

The love of God, unutterable and perfect,

flows into a pure soul the way that light

rushes into a transparent object.

The more love that it finds, the more it gives itself;

so that, as we grow clear and open,

the more complete the joy of heaven is.

And the more souls who resonate together,

the greater the intensity of their love,

and, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other.

But who loves like this? Who is pure of heart? Throughout our lives, we choose so many things –many are good, but some are bad. Even though we try to follow what is right and good, we often fail, as St. Paul says:

“For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” [2]

King David understood this complexity, this struggle of man's heart between good and evil. Remember his love of Bathsheba drove him to murder her husband so he could marry her. When David finally repents of this, in Psalm 51 (50), he cries out:

Miserere mei Deus (“Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner”).

In Psalm 130 (129), the De Profundis, David asks the question you and I have asked every time God forgives,

“If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could escape condemnation?”

This begins to reveal the mystery of how justice and mercy work. When we commit a mortal sin, and repent sincerely of it, God shows us His Divine Mercy when we are absolved in the Sacrament of Confession. When we confess our sins, we make peace with God before we are brought to trial, if you will. St Matthew’s Gospel portrays it this way:

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.” [3]

In the Sacrament of Confession, God takes away the eternal punishment of Hell when we commit a mortal sin. When we leave confession, the burden of sin, the punishment of hell is lifted. What a liberation! When we leave the Church after having been absolved from sins, we should dance for joy all the way home. Grateful for God’s tender mercies in Confession, we ought to try to make reparation for what we have done, because we have offended the justice of God.

Like King David, who made reparation for his sins of adultery and murder, wearing sackcloth and ashes, we should ask ourselves what more could we do to make reparation to God for our own sins? The Psalms of King David teach us that God purifies the soul like a refiner of silver:

“The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried by the fire, purged from the earth refined seven times.” [4]

Just as the refiner will not stop working until his perfect reflection appears in the silver, God similarly seeks to purify the souls of His children, so that we reflect the image of His Son, Jesus. If we have not completed the work of penance in this life, God, in His goodness, gives us a time and place to complete our penance and reparation before we enter heaven. Thus, in Purgatory, we pay back God’s justice fully and do it with great love in our hearts.

Because the souls in Purgatory need the assistance of our prayers and good works, we ought to follow the pious example of Judas Maccabeus, who offered sacrifices to God to make reparation for the sins of his brethren. As we offer the all-sufficient Sacrifice of the Mass for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed, we follow the Scriptural tradition of praying for the dead.

My dear children of God, the key to understanding the purification of our beloved dead is Divine Mercy. God's fathomless mercy extends beyond death. God’s mercy is yours—there is nothing more God wants to give you—but there is one condition. There is one thing you must offer to obtain that mercy. It is humility. How do the souls in purgatory enter heaven? How will we one day follow them? Every soul enters heaven through a little and narrow door. It is the door of humility. Saint Augustine asks,

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. Do you plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Notes: [1] 2 Maccabes 12:43-44. [2] Romans 7:19-20. [3] Matthew 5:25. [4] Psalm 12:6 (11:6).


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