R. I. P.

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

This is a prayer we Catholics pray frequently, especially on All Souls Day and throughout the month of November. It is a prayer we pray at funerals and burials and at bedsides in hospitals when patients have died. It is also a prayer that is etched on gravestones, sometimes with an abbreviation of the last three words: R.I.P. In our contemporary culture, these letters are sometimes used to invoke ghostly Halloween-style spookiness. The original meaning of these words, however, are found in this Catholic Christian prayer and the faith and hope this prayer expresses.

“Rest” is a word that brings us all the way back to the Biblical account of creation: “On the seventh day, God completed the work he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken” (Genesis 2:2). God’s rest after the six days of creation later becomes the basis for the commandment: “Remember the sabbath day – keep it holy . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested” (Exodus 20:8-11).

God’s rest also becomes a promise. Moses calls the land God promised to Abraham (see Genesis 12:1 and 15:7) “your resting place” when speaking to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 12:9). In Psalm 95, God declares, “I swore in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest” (verse 11), referring to the Israelites who refused to take possession of the promised land (see Numbers 14).

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, citing Psalm 95, concludes that “the promise of entering into his rest remains” (Hebrews 4:1). He identifies this rest with God’s rest on the seventh day and declares, “A sabbath rest still remains for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9), exhorting his Christian readers, “Let us strive to enter into that rest” (Hebrews 4:10). In this exhortation, the Letter to the Hebrews echoes the invitation of Jesus: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Peace is also Jesus’ gift. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27), he says to his disciples during his farewell discourse. After his resurrection, Jesus’ first words to them are, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36; John 20:19-21).

Jesus’ gift of peace is a messianic gift. God promised to raise up David’s son and “establish his royal throne forever” (2 Samuel 7:13). God told David, “A son will be born to you, he will be a peaceful man . . . and in his time I will bestow peace” (1 Chronicles 22:9). David’s son Solomon did reign in a time of peace, but peace did not last. Israel was soon divided, scattered, and exiled, and Israel’s prophets heralded future fulfillment of the promised peaceable kingdom where the son of David would forever reign.

Isaiah announced, “A child is born to us . . . They name him . . . Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, upon David’s throne . . . both now and forever” (Isaiah 9:5-6). To Jeremiah, the Lord declares, “Look, I am bringing the city recovery and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them an abundance of lasting peace” (Jeramiah 33:6). The Psalmist sings, “The Lord will bless his people with peace” (Psalm 29:11) and “[In the days of the king’s son] may the righteous flourish, and abundance of peace till the moon is no more” (Psalm 72:7).

In Jesus, the messianic hope is fulfilled. The angel declares to Mary, “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father . . . and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). Zechariah welcomes “the dawn from on high [that] shall break upon us . . . to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). The angels sing out at his birth, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).

Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom and when he came to the Jerusalem, the city of David, the multitude of his disciples proclaimed, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest” (Luke 19:38). Jesus wept over the city, saying “If this day you only knew what makes for peace” (Luke 19:42).

Jesus’ gift to his disciples is his peace. “He came and preached peace to you who are far off and peace to those who are near” (Ephesians 2:17). “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). “He is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14).

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

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