The Liturgy of All Souls' Day and the Office of the Dead



The Liturgy of All Souls' Day and the Office of the Dead
(Based on The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger)

The Church having always followed the same method with regard to the commemoration of the Blessed and that of the departed, it might be expected that the establishment of the Feast of All Saints in the ninth century, would soon lead to the solemn commemoration of All Souls. In 998 St. Odilo, the abbot of Cluny, instituted it in all the monasteries under his crosier, to be celebrated in perpetuity on the day following All Saints. In certain visions, recorded in his life, St. Odilo and his monks had been denounced by the demons as the most indefatigable helpers of the holy souls, and most formidable to the powers of Hell; and this institution was the Saint's retaliation. The whole Catholic world applauded the decree; Rome adopted it; and it became the law of the whole Latin Church.

As early as the ninth century, historians note the similarity between the Office of the Dead and the Office which commemorates the death of Our Lord (Tenebrae). There is the same lack of hymns, doxologies (Gloria Patri…), absolutions and blessings; the same suppression of the customary introduction: Domine, labia mea aperies… Deus in adjutorium meum intende… There is this difference, however: that the Office of Tenebrae has no Invitatory, while that of the Dead has either always kept it or long ago taken it up again.

This Invitatory, like the first psalm of Vespers, is a song of love and hope: The King, for Whom all things live, come let us adore. Beyond the tomb, as well as on this side of it, all men are living in the sight of Him who is one day to raise them up again. In the language of the Church, the graveyard is the cemetery—that is, the dormitory where her children sleep; and they themselves are defuncti—laborers who have finished their task and are awaiting recompense. This opening of the Office shows us what prominence the Church gives to thanksgiving and praise in her prayers for the dead.

The First Nocturn
The first psalm (Psalm 5) expresses the overflowing gratitude and praise of the soul escaped from the snares of sinners, at that first dawn of her eternally secured salvation, when she took her place among the holy ones in Purgatory. With what confidence she entrusts to Our Lord the care of directing her along the painful and purifying way, which is to lead her to the very entrance of God's house: Direct, O Lord my God, my way in Thy sight!

The soul has been heard: the time of mercy being at an end, justice has laid hold of her. Under the terrible grasp of this her new guide, and placed in the irresistible light of God's infinite purity, which lays open her most secret recesses, the flaws in her virtues and every remaining trace of ancient stains, the poor soul feels all her strength fail her. Trembling, she beseeches God not to confound her in His wrath with those cursed forever, whose proximity increases her torment. But her supplication and her fear are still full of love: Turn, O Lord, and deliver my soul; for there is no one in death that is mindful of Thee. This psalm (Psalm 6) is the first of the Seven Penitential Psalms.

In the following psalm (Psalm 7) David, accused by his enemies, cries to the Lord against their calumnies. The fear which causes the soul in Purgatory to prostrate with a holy trembling before God's justice has no more shaken her hope than her love; nay, she trusts to the very sentence of her Judge, and to the help sought from Him, that she may be able to cope with the infernal lion, who pursues her with his roaring in the midst of her poverty and desolation: Lest at any time he (the enemy) seize upon my soul like a lion…

After this cry has escaped from the maternal heart of the Church—From the gate of Hell...Deliver their souls, O Lord, the whole assembly prays in silence, offering to God the Lord's Prayer for the departed. And now, from the midst of this recollected silence, rises the single voice of the lector. He receives no benediction, for he is speaking in the name of the holy souls, who have no longer the right as we have to ask a blessing from the Church. He borrows the accents of afflicted Job, in order to relate their overwhelming sufferings, their invincible faith, their sublime prayer. At times Holy Job, overwhelmed with his sufferings, seems on the verge of despair; he seems to question the justice of God. But his faith and confidence are always triumphant: I believe that my Redeemer liveth, and that in the last day I shall rise out of the earth, and in my flesh I shall see God my Savior. These vicissitudes may be taken as a warning against those temptations which frequently beset the dying Christian. The choir intervenes after each Lesson with a Responsory, whose melody is marvelously in keeping with those echoes from beyond the tomb. At one time it is man taking up the words of the dead and making them his own, or supporting their prayer with his own supplication; at another, terrified at God's rigor towards souls that are so dear to Him, and that are sure of loving Him eternally, he trembles for himself a sinner, whose judgment is still uncertain.

The Second Nocturn
Our astonishment at finding the following antiphon (He hath set me in a place of pasture) in the Office of the Dead might elicit from the Poor Souls the reply: I have meat to eat which you know not. And being just and holy, they might add with Our Lord: My meat is to do the will of My Father. Seen from such a height in the light of our antiphon, what a place of pasture is Purgatory! O Lord, Who guidest me, Who by Thy grace deignest to be with me in the midst of this shadow of death; Thy rod, by striking me, comforts me; my resignation to Thy justice is the oil which flows from my head, and anointing all my members, strengthens them for battle; my heart, thirsting for submission, has found its inebriating cup. St. John Chrysostom informs us that in his time this psalm (Psalm 22) was chanted at Christian funerals, together with Psalm 114, our first psalm at Vespers of the Dead.

The sins of my youth and my ignorances, do not remember, O Lord. Would to God that we now examined our conscience as seriously as we shall be forced to do in the place of expiation, in order to repair our present negligence in that respect! Ignorance, which is now considered so excusable, will be a sad thing for those in whom the neglect to seek instruction has darkened their faith, lulled their hope to sleep, cooled their love, and falsified on a thousand points their Christian life. Then, too, must be paid, to the last farthing, the debts of penance accumulated by so many sins, which have been forgiven, it is true, as to the guilt, perhaps long ago, and as long ago entirely forgotten. See my abjection and my labor; and forgive me all my sins (Psalm 24).

On Good Friday Psalm 26 is sung at Matins, to express the unfailing confidence of the Messias throughout His Passion. It is repeated at Matins of Holy Saturday, to announce His approaching deliverance; and on this latter occasion it is accompanied by the very antiphon which is now sung in the Office of the Dead. As the dwellers in limbo on the great Saturday when our Savior was among them, so the souls in Purgatory unite themselves to their divine Head in His expectation of a return to light and life. Their prayer, which the Church makes Her own, is such as may well touch the Sacred Heart of Our Lord: I believe to see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.

The Third Nocturn
As the purifying expiation goes on, the darkness that surrounds the soul is gradually dissipated, and glory begins to dawn. Psalm 39, which is also sung at the death of Our Savior, contains lively expressions of sorrow as well as the most ardent prayer. It also shows how suffering leads to closer union with the divine Liberator, Whose Blood extinguished the flames of all the ancient holocausts. It is full of thanksgiving, of admiration for God on account of His goodness, and of the desire of praising Him and seeing Him praised by all. Yes: be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me: but let all that seek Thee rejoice and be glad in Thee…

We have just been saying: I am a beggar and poor, the Lord is solicitous for me; and the following psalm (Psalm 40) declares: Blessed is he that understandeth concerning the needy and the poor. Among all the noble sentiments that reign in Purgatory, there could not be wanting that of gratitude towards those who have a thought for the too often neglected dead. How odious is this indifference for the departed, especially in those men of their peace who ate their bread in happier days, and in whom they so vainly hoped and confided! But hear how humbly and sweetly they pray for the benefactor, whom they themselves perhaps ignored or even despised in the time of worldly prosperity and who now assists them in their need: May the Lord make him blessed upon the earth, and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies. May the Lord help him when he is on his bed of sorrow!

"I believe," says St. Catharine of Genoa, "that no happiness can be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory, except that of the saints in Paradise. And this happiness increases in proportion as the rust of sin is consumed away by the fire, enabling the soul to reflect, more and more clearly, the rays of the true sun, which is God. The suffering, however, does not diminish. On the contrary, it is love kept back from its object which causes the pain; and consequently the suffering is greater according as God has made the soul capable of a greater perfection of love." But let us listen to the soul herself expressing her anguish; no mortal tongue, were it even that of the great theologian of Purgatory, could give a similar utterance to such sublime sentiments. How the Church, in her psalms and her liturgy, surpasses even the most saintly and learned of her children! My soul hath thirsted after the strong living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God? (Psalm 41)

Lauds for the Dead commence, like the ferial Office throughout Lent, with Psalm 50, which David composed after his sin, and in which he gives the liveliest expression to his humble repentance. The Church makes use of it whenever She wishes to implore the mercy of God; and of all the canticles of the prophet-king, this one is the most familiar to Christians. In the place of expiation it seems to rise naturally to their lips.

Holy Saturday, which the Man-God spent in limbo, is the great day for the faithful departed. The Church, therefore, as She daily sings a Canticle at this point in Her morning Lauds, puts today upon the lips of Her suffering children the Canticle of Ezechias. On Holy Saturday it expresses the words of Christ praying for His speedy deliverance. It is also accompanied by the same antiphon as on that occasion: From the gate of Hell deliver my soul, O Lord.

Let every spirit; everything that breathes, praise the Lord! In Purgatory love is overflowing, praise becomes the sole occupation, for Heaven is at hand. Absolute self-forgetfulness characterizes the close of the painful purification. Had the soul to remain still longer in the expiatory fire, it would not hurt her, since she has no longer any stain or rust for the flame to consume; but is full of God, incapable of any other sentiment than the desire of His glory: let every spirit praise the Lord (Psalm 150).

Again, as at the close of Vespers, the cry of joy contained in the Versicle comes down to us from Heaven: I heard a voice from Heaven saying unto me: Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.

In the Canticle of Zachary, the Church, united with all the souls delivered or comforted by Her liturgical suffrages, thanks the Lord God of Israel; for He hath visited and redeemed His people. We too return thanks to Him Who is the Resurrection and the Life, and Who never abandons those who believed in Him during their earthly sojourn.

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