By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
As the days get shorter and shorter for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, autumn invites us to meditate on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell, in anticipation of the day of our death when all will be fulfilled in Christ. Our Catholic tradition sets aside the entire month of November as a time to ponder death and dying and to contemplate our shared mortality and our spiritual solidarity with our beloved dead.
We begin November with the promise of heaven in mind with the feast of All Saints. The saints, the holy ones of God, are those men and women throughout history who, through the example of their lives, embody the good news of the kingdom of God. A tiny number of the saints are remembered by name and have been officially recognized by the Church. In the calendar of the saints, the Church proposes canonized saints to us as models of holiness. But, most of the saints who have lived lives that were ordinary and hidden are unknown to us.
Celebrating the feast of All Saints provides us with a glimpse of heaven, the “cloud of witnesses” whom the Church has proclaimed are assuredly in paradise, that is, who have entered into the eternal communion of love with God. St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached in a sermon included in the Office of Readings for the Feast of All Saints, “Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself.” Their multitudinous variety teaches us that the call to holiness is the call to become more and more who we truly are. While every saint conformed his or her life to Christ: paradoxically, the more they imitated Christ in their thinking, judgments and actions, the more they became the unique and distinctive person God made them to be. Calling to mind the saints helps us to rededicate ourselves, as saints-in-the-making, to the universal vocation to holiness.
The next day, on All Souls Day, we are invited to remember and pray for our beloved dead. All Souls Day is an opportune time to bring out the pictures of the friends and family members who have gone before us in death and remember them in prayer. We pray for the dead so that through our prayers, God may heal all that wounded and brokenness in them so that in his love and mercy, all may be made new and perfect. We pray for the dead as a sign of our love and solidarity with them. All Souls Day is also an opportunity for us to forgive those friends and family members who may have hurt or wounded us in the course of their lives, but who we may not have been reconciled with before they died. And it is a time for us, the living, to renew and deepen our conversion to be ready for our end-time when all will be made new in the Christ.
If heaven is the eternal fulfillment in joy and peace of the communion of love that is God, then hell is as St. John Paul II taught “the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy. This is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the truths of faith on this subject: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’” (n. 1033). [General Audience July 28th, 1998]
Unlike the blessed in heaven, the Church has never definitively declared that any particular person is damned and in hell. The Church commends all sinners to the mercy of God. Nonetheless, we must not presume on that mercy, but strive daily to live in a way that is pleasing to God and allow him to perfect in us the gifts of grace that he has poured out to us, in baptism and confirmation.
Death is the apparent defeat that confronts each of us. As Christians, we acknowledge that death is inevitable, but as Christians, we also affirm that in death, life is changed but not ended.
Jesus taught: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die (Jn 11:25-26)
A beautiful expression of the assurance of eternal life in the face of death is found in the Preface for the Dead in the funeral liturgy: “Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”
Death is a great mystery, and we make sense of death in and through Jesus, the Lord of life and death. In his death and resurrection, he has conquered mortality and is life himself. In calling us to become his disciples, Jesus has invited each of us to become his friends in this life so that we might live in joy with him for eternity.
Death is both the final enemy placed under Christ’s feet and the doorway through which we must pass to enter into eternal life.
For each of us, our particular day of judgment is the day of our death, when our hearts will be revealed to us by God. After we die, each of us will see our fundamental orientation as God sees it: either a generous response to God’s love demonstrated by our love for our neighbor or a selfish rejection of God’s love and hatred or indifference to our neighbor. God’s judgment will be the confirmation of the choice we have made to accept or reject his love for us.
The general or last judgment is the time when God will be all in all. At that time, the entire saving plan of God will be revealed to all of humanity, raised body and soul from the dead, and God’s everlasting reign of goodness, justice, mercy and peace will be established on the earth.
In the Creed, we pray for the parousia or arrival of Christ in glory to judge the living and the dead. We anticipate the hope of the general resurrection from the dead and the life of the world to come. We believe that at some future point, human history will come to its conclusion, and at this time, known only to God, all of humanity (the living and the dead) will recognize Jesus as the Lord of all.
November is an opportunity to become acquainted (or reacquainted) with our call to holiness in baptism. During this month, take time to read from the lives of the saints. Start with the life of your name saint and the name saints of your family. Find their icons and put them up with the family pictures. Pray the litany of the saints together.
I recommend this simple prayer from the Irish, as well. It is supremely confident in the goodness and love of God in all things, as Christ plants the seed and gathers the harvest of our lives so that, in the end, we may be gathered into the eternal communion of love.