Month: March 2010

Mormons and Easter

Over at Catholic Answers Forum, a year old thread entitled “LDS do celebrate Easter” was resurrected (pun intended).  A Latter-day Saint poster gave a link to this Youtube video, and said that he and LDS church love Easter.  Subsequently, a Catholic poster asked about the practice of not having Sacrament Meeting (the LDS Sunday worship service) on Easter Sunday if General Conference is on the same weekend.  General Conference is a two day conference held in Salt Lake City, Utah, where various LDS church authorities give sermons on various Gospel principles, together with music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and other LDS church choirs.  Mormons also sustain their leaders at General Conference, and new authorities are presented here as well (and old ones are released from their callings).

Another poster answered in the affirmative, that if General Conference is the same weekend as Easter, Sunday church services are canceled, and that we would see in a year if that is true.  He then resurrected the thread yesterday, and confirmed the previous statement.  Two other posters then commented that, although there are a number of other reasons to not consider the LDS church Christian, the “fact that they apparently have not celebrated Easter since the time of the founding of their sect certainly raises the question (that they are not Christian).”  Another poster claimed “Easter is the single, greatest celebration within Christianity. If Christ was not resurrected then our faith is in vain. The fact that the celebration of Easter could be preempted by any other event is very telling.”
In Catholicism (as well as Orthodoxy and various Protestant churches), there is of course always an Easter Sunday Mass.  Churches are typically decorated with beautiful flowers, and the Mass is typically very well attended (perhaps because of the Christmas/Easter-only church attenders).  One of the differences between Catholicism and Mormonism is that Catholicism holds to a liturgical calendar, while Mormonism really does not.  Mormons most certainly celebrate the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ, however they do not necessarily have Sacrament Meeting on December 25th or Easter Sunday (both according to the Western calendar).

What I find fascinating about the comments by the Catholic posters on the Catholic Answers Forum thread is that they think that because there isn’t a specific Easter service this year because of General Conference, the Christianity of Mormonism is called into even more question.  If one does not have church on Easter, does that mean that they are not celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ?  For that matter, is the Resurrection only to be celebrated on one day of the year?  The posters on the thread in question would be hard pressed to show that Mormons do not believe in and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is through these historic events that Latter-day Saints hope to be saved.  Celebrating the life of Jesus Christ should not be limited to certain days of the year, and I am sure that Catholics would agree.  The problem comes when someone makes the illogical statement that because Sunday services are canceled on Easter Sunday because of General Conference (which may very well have Resurrection-themed sermons and music), Mormons do not revere the Resurrection this year.  If some Catholics believe that the Resurrection is only celebrated once a year, then that brings up another issue.  There is certainly nothing wrong with having Easter Mass, having one special day to celebrate the Resurrection, followed by the days through Ascension and Pentecost.  However, we do need to remember that we should be continuously celebrating Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, and that it is only through these events that our sacraments and ordinances (whether Catholic or Mormon) have any purpose and validity (within that faith).

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Proxy Baptism, Prayer for the Dead, and 1 Cor 15:29

As I am readying myself for work at the hospital, I only have time to quickly post on something that I found interesting.

One of the unique practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) is “baptism for the dead”, also known as “proxy baptism”.  This is a ritual (or “ordinance”) that occurs in special buildings called temples, which are only open to Mormons that are deemed “worthy” based on their following of the principles of the faith.  In baptism for the dead, a living person is baptized “for and in behalf of” a deceased person.  This practice is based in part on the LDS belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation, and that it can only be performed on earth.  So, to extend the blessings of baptism to those who did not have a chance to accept it during their earthly lives, LDS baptize themselves on behalf of the deceased, who then have the chance to accept or reject that baptism (proxy baptism does not make a dead person Mormon.  An essential part of proxy ordinance theology is that it extends an offer for the deceased to accept or reject the ordinance.  It is not something that forces a change in that person’s soul).

One of the unique practices of ancient Christianity (found in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Churches of the East, etc Churches) is that of prayer for the dead.  In Catholicism, it is believed that the dead have two eternal destinations: Heaven or Hell.  However, some souls may have to be cleansed/purified before entrance to Heaven.  It is believed that this occurs in a place/state called “Purgatory”.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

III. THE FINAL PURIFICATION, OR PURGATORY

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:607

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.608

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”609 From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.610 The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.611

Part of the necessity for purification before Heaven is based on the belief in “temporal punishment”, which is essentially what Purgatory is.  Catholics believe that after a sin is forgive, the eternal punishment, i.e. Hell, is gone, however temporal punishment remains.  Catholics will therefore perform penance to rid themselves of this temporal punishment (which again applies after the sin is forgiven).  Indulgences also can forgive temporal punishment (a common misconception is that indulgences forgive sins.  They do not.  An indulgence only “works” after the sin is forgiven, since it is remitting temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven).  Purgatory essentially functions in this line, where, if a person still has temporal punishment after they die, it will be remitted in Purgatory.

Catholics believe that prayer for the dead is important because it can reduce the “time” spent in Purgatory being cleansed.  Catholics not only pray for the dead, but also may offer Masses for the departed as well.  This is all in the hope that the deceased will sooner enter into the presence of God, the beatific vision, in Heaven.

One curious verse in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 15:29-

29Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

Mormons of course see this as a reference to their own supposedly restored practice of baptism for the dead.  Traditional Christians, who have no ritual known as “baptism for the dead”, interpret this differently.  Whatever the practice is, Paul is clearly saying that there would be no point in it if the resurrection was not real.  Some believe that this was a practice that was not practiced by Paul (nor the early Christians), since he says “they” are baptizing for the dead, which implies (to those using this argument) that those who are proxy baptizing are “other”.

While there are multiple interpretations of what this verse is referring to, I found it fascinating to look into the Catholic commentary on this verse, as well as its usage in Catholic apologetics.  For example, in the Saint Joseph Edition of the New American Bible (a Catholic Bible), we find this statement in the notes:

“Baptized for the dead: this practice is not further explained here, nor is it necessarily mentioned with approval, but Paul cites it as something in their experience that attests in one more way to belief in the resurrection.”

In the Douay-Rheims Bible (another Catholic translation) online, there is this commentary:

“29 “That are baptized for the dead”… Some think the apostle here alludes to a ceremony then in use; but others, more probably, to the prayers and penitential labours, performed by the primitive Christians for the souls of the faithful departed; or to the baptism of afflictions and sufferings undergone for sinners spiritually dead.”

From the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on “Prayers for the Dead“:

Passing over the well-known passage, 1 Corinthians 3:14 sq., on which an argument for purgatoryEpistle (15:29), where St. Paul argues thus in favour of the resurrection: “Otherwise what shall they do that are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not again at all? Why are they then baptized form them?” Even assuming that the practice here referred to was superstitious, and that St. Paul merely uses it as the basis of an argumentum ad hominem, the passage at least furnishes historical evidence of the prevalence at the time of belief in the efficacy of works for the dead; and the Apostle’s reserve in not reprobating this particular practice is more readily intelligible if we suppose him to have recognized the truth of the principle of which it was merely an abuse. But it is probable that the practice in question was something in itself legitimate, and to which the Apostle gives his tacit approbation.

On the Diocese of Lincoln’s website, in answer to the question “When did the practice of prayer for the dead begin?“:

The Catholic Church, from the time Christ founded her, always prayed for the dead. This practice, since its importance was already revealed by God in the Old Testament, however, was also present in ancient Judaism. The earliest Christian liturgies (worship services) contains prayers for the deceased. Tomb inscriptions and all the evidence from the catacombs indicate that the earliest Christians prayed for their dead and had Masses offered for the repose of their soul. Writing in the year 211 A.D. Tertullian said, “We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthdays and anniversaries”. Rejection of the doctrine of purgatory only came about when Martin Luther abandoned the Catholic Church and invented the Protestant Religion. There are indications of prayers for the dead in the New Testament (2 Timothy 1:16-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:29-30).

The traditional Catholic website “Fish Easters” finds a correlation between 2 Maccabees 12:44 and 1 Corinthians 15:29-

2 Maccabees 12:44
For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. [see 1 Corinthians 15:29 below]

1 Corinthians 15:29
Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? [see 2 Maccabees 12:44 above]

There are many other examples, but I think that these suffice to make my point.  It is interesting to me that those that do not have a practice of prayer for the dead nor proxy baptism see the “baptism for the dead” of 1 Corinthians 15:29 as something “other” that should not be done.  While a few Catholic sources do mention that argument, they also entertain the view that the practice mentioned is something legitimate, more specifically as a reference to their own prayer for the dead (and it is also very interesting that 2 Macc 12:44 uses similar language in referring to prayer for the dead and the resurrection).