Nov 2, 2016

A month of Christian hope

Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord.  And let perpetual light shine upon them.  May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in eternal peace.

Today throughout the Catholic world primarily we Christians remember and pray for all of our deceased brothers and sisters.  It begins by ancient tradition an entire month of prayer and remembrance for all the "faithful departed."  It may by comparison be a bit of a downer after yesterdays commemoration of All Saints, which is clearly a joyful feast.

Yet, it really isn't and the reason is because of our consistent Catholic belief not only in the reality of death but importantly in how we view death.  On the surface alone it is an uncomfortable thought - that we will all die someday.  We may become even a bit superstitious about making out a will.  The thought that at some point in time, known only to God, I will no longer exist on this planet.  And, it will go on as if I was never here.  The sun will shine, birthdays will continue, people will laugh, the weather will be beautiful, and whatever I did in life will carry forth without me.  

Sure, I will be remembered by my family and friends and coworkers but eventually, all will move on without me.  When the funeral is over and my body has been buried, I pray that others will not forget me but will keep me in their prayers.  But why?  Why do we pray for the dead?  

Since the time of the early Church and even earlier by Jewish tradition, we have prayed for the dead. Our Protestant brothers and sisters do not have this tradition but in the Catholic world it is very much alive.  In fact, we are the only Christian tradition that a specific ritual around death and the core belief that death is not the end ; it does not have the last say,  The dying are anointed with oil and offered sacramental reconciliation. The funeral liturgy is specific and rich with sacramental signs of baptism and resurrection in the white pall over the casket, the Easter candle, the sprinkling of the deceased with holy water, the placing of the book of the Gospels and/or a cross on the casket of the loved one.
We are also very clear about the cremated remains of a loved one and how they should be reverenced and given the same dignity of the body after death.

In fact the Catholic funeral rite, a celebration of Christian Hope, is beautiful.  Not because it is a funeral but because of how we interpret what has happened.  It looks forward, it gives thanks for the deceased loved one, it brings an optimistic spirit in the midst of sadness, and it acknowledges our faith and hope in Jesus.  It is far more than just a "celebration of life" which has become a somewhat popular term.  We have a ritual which gives comfort.  Time and again I have heard from our non-Catholic folks who have said how impressed they are with the Catholic funerals.  "You Catholics know how to do this," I remember someone telling me once.  

Jesus Christ has conquered death through his resurrection and opened for all who believe in him the door to eternal life.  So we pray for all those who have died that in the last stage where God's mercy is extended (Purgatory) those holy souls of our brothers and sisters will enter heaven cleansed and joy filled.  

The doctrine of purgatory is somewhat troublesome to many in the non-Catholic world.  If you believe in Jesus, when you die you go straight to heaven don't you?  Well we believe that it isn't just faith in Christ but also the good we do, how we have lived out that faith living through the lens of the Gospel, that will gain us eternal salvation.  Yes, Jesus is our Savior but each of us are given the choice to accept or reject what Christ has done for us.  In our daily walk with the Lord, we are called to holiness like the saints but the vast majority of us will likely die with some still unresolved attachment to sin.  

Where any soul goes after death is known only to God.  St. John of the Cross, Spanish mystic and spiritual Doctor of the Church, said that God will judge with love.  Through the eyes of divine mercy, we are given an opportunity even after death to be cleansed of sin and that final stage is referred to as Purgatory.  If we make it there, the next stop is Heaven.  So, it isn't something to fear but something to hope for.  As has once been said, Purgatory is the place we go to wash our white baptismal garments. 

So, let us not fear the future but commit ourselves each and every day to look upon life through the lens of Gospel values and morals.  If we live our life, formed by Christ and his Church, we do the best we can and trust in God's mercy.  

So, today and throughout the month of November, let's pray for all those who walked among us and now we pray will enjoy their final preparation to enter eternal life.  We hope they will pray for us as we offer them our continued prayerful remembrance.  This is a time for joy and gratitude.  For we laugh in the face of death and give thanks for what God has done through his Son, Christ Jesus.  

Listen kindly to our prayers, O Lord, 
and, as our faith in your Son, 
raised from the dead, is deepened,
so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants
also find new strength. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Lord Spirit 
one God, for ever and ever.