Monday, May 28, 2012

The Hail Mary and Memorial Day

The "Hail Mary" consists of two scripture quotes (Luke 1:28 and 42) followed by the petition, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." It is the most common petition made by living Christians to a departed Christian, asking the Mother of Jesus for her prayers.

The word "pray" means "ask", but it is often used in the wider sense of any communication, particularly communication directed to God or through God to the angels or the saints and other faithful departed. Protestants often object to the idea of prayer to the angels or the saints, despite the fact that such prayer is explicitly in the Bible: “Praise him, all you angels of his; praise him, all his hosts” (Psalm 148:2).

If you accept the authority of the apocyphal/deuterocanonical sections of the Book of Daniel, there is also the song of the three young men in the fiery furnace (a Morning Prayer canticle in the Book of Common Prayer): “O ye Angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever. . . . O ye Spirits and Souls of the Righteous, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever.”

Even if you don't consider that canticle to be scripture, and are unsure about the interpretation of Psalm 148:2 (or consider it an exception to the rule), you have prayed to the saints and angels if you have ever sung the hymn "Ye watchers and ye holy ones." Consider the words of that hymn (included in most Protestant hymnals):

1. Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones,
Raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
Virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs:
 Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

 2. O higher than the cherubim,
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of th’eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

3. Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
Ye patriarchs and prophets blest, Alleluia! Alleluia!
Ye holy twelve, ye martyrs strong,
All saints triumphant, raise the song.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The first stanza addresses the nine choirs of angels, the second addresses the Blessed Virgin Mary, the third addresses the holy souls as well as the patriarchs, prophets, the holy apostles, the martyrs, and all the saints to join in the praise of God. Note that the first three stanzas are exclusively prayer to the angels and saints. The fourth stanza finally addresses the present congregation and all the living to join together in praise.

It occurred to me today that there is at least one other occasion when Christians pray to the dead who might otherwise object to it theologically. That is on Memorial Day, when we not only pause to show respect for our honored dead (and some pray for the repose of their souls) but when we also address them directly with the prayer, "Thank you." Some might object by saying we are simply thanking God for them and their sacrifice, and certainly that is done. But it is sheer ignorance to say that no thanks are directed toward those fallen in battle themselves (as we see in the cartoon above).

Having realized what they're doing, some might object on the ground of "necromancy"--that the bible forbids contact with the dead. But this is a misunderstanding of terms. Necromancy is an attempt to harness diabolical powers to (among other things) conjure up "familiar spirits." The Bible condemns this occult practice, which includes attempting to communicate with spirits through trances, seances, and incantations (see Leviticus 19:26, 31; 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:10-12; 1 Samuel 28:4-18; Isaiah 8:19; 47:12-14). Asking the saints for their prayers is not necromancy; nor is offering them our thanks or asking for their intercession.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that those who object to prayer to anyone but God have equated prayer with worship (which is odd in light of the frequency that the phrase "prayer and worship" is invoked in evangelical circles). Prayer (communication) and worship (giving divine honors to God) are two different things. Just as you can worship without prayer (e.g., making an offering, or silently adoring God's presence), so you can also pray without worship (e.g., "Thank you for laying down your life to defend our freedoms.").

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