Readings for each Sunday can be found at www.usccb.org click on the calendar for desired date.
St. Paul, in our second reading, addresses an interesting question: “How should believing Christians react to the death of a loved one?” What is the proper response when someone we love - a parent, spouse, child, good friend - dies? This was a question for St. Paul in that he, and many of his converts, expected Jesus to return momentarily, in their own life-time. But Jesus did not show up, and their friends and relatives began to die. This created a worry that those who died before Jesus came again in glory would lose out on entrance into the Kingdom of God. St. Paul re-assures them that the dead are not excluded. “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, [that is, died] so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.”
This is also a question for us, for each of us must face the death and loss of loved ones: a parent, spouse, grandparent, good friend, child, co-worker, fellow parishioner. Death is a reality for all of us.
When we lose a loved one to death, there is sadness and sorrow. Christians feel just as much as anyone else, and when a Christian loses someone they dearly love, their heart breaks with sadness. But believing Christians do not grieve as if they had no hope.
For we do have hope for all of our loved ones who have died. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too God, through Jesus, will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. “ That is, bring them with Christ Jesus into his eternal kingdom of life and glory.
This hope makes a great deal of difference. Having presided at numerous funerals, I have seen all different kinds of reactions in families to the loss of a spouse, parent or child. And for people who believe, it is different. There is certainly sorrow and sadness and tears, but there is also something more, something deeper; for the loss is not the final statement, not the end. There is more yet to come, and death is NOT the final word. We shall be together again.
In the meantime we pray for our beloved dead, and we ask them to pray for us. Why do we pray for them? Because we love them, and we believe that our prayers are somehow supportive and helpful. We don’t know how, but we believe that our prayers do help them.
Catholic teaching speaks of a time of purification, or purgation after death. It is a time of cleansing. If you are basically a holy and good person, there are probably still areas where you need to grow, bad habits that still need to be shed, impatience and anger and laziness and lust and greed you still have not totally been freed from. So the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1030 states: “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.” We call this state of purification “Purgatory”. It is not so much a place as a state. Think of it as spiritual buffing and polishing so that you can shine with glory.
I think a good analogy for Purgatory is Charles Dickens’ beloved story, “A Christmas Carol” We all know that Ebenezer Scrooge has grown self-centered and unloving through greed and life’s hurts. What does Scrooge need to do to be healed, to be opened up to love fully and freely? He has to be purged – that is what purgation is – he has to be purged of the hurts, the resentments, the bitterness, the greed that he so tightly clings to. He does this by going back into the past and coming to terms with his failures to love, to give himself away in relationship and in service. The Spirit of Christmas Past takes him to confront the times in his life he refused or failed to love.
Purgatory is something similar. I think that when we die we go before our Lord Jesus. We then see ourselves as Jesus sees us, through His eyes, with all the love and forgiveness He has for us. And in His eyes we see all the possibility, all the potential, all the wonderful capacity for love and for service that each of us was born with. And inevitably we see our failures, the times we refused to love, to give of our selves. We see the times we made ourselves small by our stinginess, our laziness, our fear. We see all the times we made ourselves less and degraded by rage or lust or greed or hate or envy.
We see all that we could have been. And we have to come to terms with that. We can only do that through the loving gaze of the Lord Jesus.
Scrooge is freed up by this process of coming to terms with his failures. He grows in ways he should have but failed to in life. Similarly, in coming to see ourselves truly, as Jesus sees us, and to love ourselves truly, as Jesus loves us, we are purged. All the evil and fear and selfishness are burned out of us.
For to see ourselves in the Lord’s loving gaze is initially painful. The recognition of so much love refused, so many opportunities lost, so many mistakes repeated, such intimacy with the Lord denied, that truly this revelation will burn like fire. Not physical fire, but the fire of remorse and embarrassment and shame and regret. If you have ever had the experience of really betraying or seriously letting down someone who you really do care about, and then think of how you feel when you next see the person, you become overcome with shame and embarrassment and remorse. You are burned by the recognition of love betrayed. And I believe that is what the purgation and purification of Purgatory are like.
But the result is that we are purified, cleansed, burnished and polished to shine magnificently with the glory of the Son of God. And we do not do this alone. For we are still connected to our loved ones here on earth who are part of the Body of Christ, and they to us. By their prayers and good works, and above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, they encourage and support us. We are all intimately connected.
This has major implications not only for how we react to the death of a loved one, but also how we are to live each day. The moral or point of today’s Gospel parable is very simple: “Stay awake! For you know neither the day nor the hour.”
We know neither the day nor the hour of our own death, only that it is certainly coming, so we must stay awake to be prepared. This is not an injunction to insomnia, but rather to consciousness - to recognize that our final end is not here, that everything here is transitory, and to realize therefore what is really important in this life.
It is so easy for us to be lulled into unconsciousness by all the incessant demands and enticements of this world, to get so caught up in deadlines, social obligations, petty politics, trends and fashions, the opinions of others, and so many things, that we become dulled to real meaning, to what is really going on, to lasting importance and value.
As we come to this end of the liturgical year, in this time of Fall as the days shorten and the leaves fall and the weather turns cooler, the Church by these readings is calling us to stop and take stock; to wake up; to remember what is most important; and recognize anew our true destiny, our true identity.
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.“ Including you and me.