Oct 31, 2011

Our Holy Communion: Days to Pray To, With, and For

As we believe in a God who is merciful, loving and just it may seem a stretch to imagine that everyone who has died is not in Heaven – with the exception of the most evil of scoundrels history has produced: Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gidaffi and others of their ilk. It would surely be disturbing to picture a God of justice opening the “gates of heaven” to such brutal dictators. So, if they aren’t in eternal bliss before God in Heaven, where are they? This must leave open the teaching on eternal punishment in that place we call Hell. Of course, this leads to belief in personal evil called the devils and Satan.

But, we can’t imagine our loved ones: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, good neighbors who have died before us not in heaven. They may not have been perfect, for no one is, but they certainly were not deserving of eternal separation from God. As the Church teaches that how we live in this life does make a difference in the life to come we now mark the yearly commemoration of our faithful departed.  

On November 1st and 2nd we remember all the dead; those victorious who stand before God in heaven and those who prepare to enter eternal life. The Feast of All Saints marks the yearly day when we pray to and pray with our Saintly brothers and sisters in heaven before God. We know they are in heaven because of the heroic Christian lives they lived and through miracles that were granted by God as we prayed to them for their intercession.

Originally a day to honor the early martyrs of Christian history, it later developed into a day to rejoice and give thanks to God for models of heroic Christian virtue.  They desire that we be with them and so become powerful intercessors on our behalf. They remain our heavenly cheerleaders, urging us to play this game of life as well as they did, as holy and heroic Christians.

Intercessory prayer is something we do in this life for one another and those who see God in eternity can act, intercede in prayer, on our behalf. We can certainly pray to our loved ones, as I have done more than once to my grandfather, to remember us.  They too, if they are before God in eternity, can intercede for us here. But, if all the dead are in heaven, All Souls Day has no purpose.  We can be earthly cheerleaders for our deceased brothers and sisters through our prayers and sacrifices on their behalf.

Almighty ever-living God,
by whose gift we venerate in one celebration
the merits of all the Saints,
bestow on us, we pray,
through the prayers of so many intercessors,
an abundance of the reconciliation with you
for which we earnestly long.

(From the new English translation)

Hill of Crosses - Lithuania

All Souls Day, and the entire month of November, is more than just a memorial anniversary of the dead. It is a day, and a month, in which the Church gathers to pray for our beloved faithful departed. Why? Because unless someone who has died comes back to tell us where they are, we live in hope of a God of love and mercy. We pray that God is merciful to our deceased. We hope and trust they may be with God and all who have died before them if they are not there yet. And that opens our belief in Purgatory – that stage of final purification, a state of cleansing from the effects of sin and a place of divine mercy. Our prayers and sacrifices for them, the Church teaches, will be to their benefit. As it has been said about Purgatory, it is that state we enter right outside the gates of heaven, as we wash our baptismal garment to enter eternal life.

Our Catholic funeral rite, more than any other liturgical celebration, reflects our belief in a God of mercy and encourages us to pray for those who have died.  With the body of the deceased present for the funeral Mass we stand beside our loved one and remain faithful to them through death.

The body is sacred both in life and in death for it isn’t simply an empty container, no longer useful. When they lie before us we mourn but we are joined with our loved ones in the hope of eternal life as we stand before death and proclaim the hope of resurrection. It is our certain hope that this body we honor, this person who lies before us, will rise again.

We also have the option of placing a Book of the Gospels on the casket and a cross as well. Both of these remind us that this Christian person was called to live by the word of God and was signed with the cross of Christ in Baptism.

So, on these beautiful two days, we feel comfort in knowing that we are never alone.  God is with us, the Saints are with us, our loved ones surround us in the holy Communion of Saints.  As St. Andre Bessette once said: “There is a thin veil between this life and the next.”

May angels lead you into Paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your coming and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May a choir of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal life.” (Song of Farewell)