Homily: The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed – Cycle A
Sometimes it seems like dying is one of the hardest things to do. I suppose that for some it happens quite elegantly, they just go to sleep one night and don’t wake up the next morning. For most, though, it comes in some other way: an accident, a sudden heart attack, or perhaps an extended illness. It’s hard because we simply cannot control it. Regardless of how we hope we might leave this world, the chances that it will happen in the way that we planned are probably pretty slim. The best that we can do, therefore, is to hope that we will live out our “full span of days” with very few regrets about the choices that we have made and about the circumstances in which our lives were played out. There’s a blessing in that; because, as it turns out, our lives aren’t judged by how we die, but rather by how we live.
None of this, however, makes any difference if there isn’t something on the other side of this life waiting for us. We kind of instinctively know this because when someone close to us dies, one of our natural responses is that of concern for what will happen to them now that they are dead. We worry about whether or not they will be happy in the next life or if there will instead be continued suffering. As Christians, when these questions and worries come to us, we turn to our faith, to the Word of God in the Scriptures, to answer these questions and to calm our worries.
In the first reading from the book of Wisdom in the Old Testament, we read that “the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.” We believe that in baptism, we are made “just” as we are cleansed from sin and marked with the sign of faith. Saint Paul reminds us that through baptism “we were indeed buried with [Christ Jesus] … into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … we too might live in newness of life.” “For,” as Saint Paul adds later, “a dead person has been absolved from sin.” And so, even in death, we can have hope that we will be in the hand of God and that we will be in peace. Nevertheless, baptism isn’t magic; rather, it is a sign of conversion. This aspect of conversion is what Jesus speaks of in the Gospel reading today.
In the Gospel, Jesus says that he “will not reject anyone who comes to [him]” and “that everyone who see [him] and believes in him [will] have eternal life”, for that is the will of his Father. Now, I suspect that it is obvious to most of us here that in order to turn towards something, one must also turn away from something. For example: If I wish to turn towards the altar, I have to turn away from all of you. This is the most basic meaning of the word “conversion”: turning around. Thus, when Jesus says “I will not reject anyone who comes to me”, it is obvious that he is speaking of conversion: for one must “turn around” from whichever direction he or she is heading so as to turn towards Jesus in order to come to him (because I can’t go to the altar if I haven’t turned toward it). Thus, as I’ve said, baptism isn’t a magic spell that makes us ready for heaven regardless of whether or not we make any changes in our lives. Rather, it is a sign of conversion: of a fundamental “turning towards” Jesus and a “turning away” from the world. In other words, conversion comes first and then in baptism we receive the gift of acceptance—that is, the gift of eternal life—that Jesus promises to all those who come to him.
This work of conversion, sealed by baptism, doesn’t end with baptism, however. Rather we must work constantly to keep ourselves turned towards Jesus: for the ruler of this world, that is, Satan, the enemy, is constantly at work in the world trying to convert us away from him. Thus just about all of us will find ourselves at the end of our lives having been “less than perfect” in remaining true to our conversion to Jesus. Sure we’ve turned towards him, but we keep looking back over our shoulder at what we’ve turned away from, which causes us to drift off of the path that leads towards him. These are the venial sins that often clutter our lives and introduce impurities into our souls that had once been purified in baptism.
In this way, our souls, at the end of our lives, look very much like gold ore. When gold ore is unearthed, it is almost unrecognizable as gold. It has been covered in dirt and is full of impurities. Nevertheless, it retains its value. It is still a precious metal, but it is in need of purification. This is kind of like purgatory for the human soul. Gold, in order to be purified, must be put through a harsh process in which it is heated in a furnace to the point of melting in order to separate it from its impurities. This often has to be done two or three times before the gold can be considered “pure”. The human soul, once “buried with [Christ Jesus] through baptism into death” which freed it from sin, but which over time took on impurities because of subsequent venial sins, must too be purified through an intense process of atonement: for only souls which are certified to be “pure” can be admitted into beatitude, that is, perfect communion with God, which is heaven.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, all of us who have never turned back from our conversion towards Jesus will pass through purgatory when we die. Some of us will go straight through to heaven: the virtue of their lives keeping their souls largely free from impurities. Most of us, however, will spend some time there, purging those impurities that we allowed to enter our souls by our personal sins. All of us, however, who have been united in one baptism in Christ, regardless of the state of being in which we find ourselves, are still connected as members of Christ’s body. And so we spend these first two days of November remembering in a special way our continued communion with those who have gone before us: on November 1, those who have passed through purgatory and now enjoy eternal bliss in heaven—that is, the Church Triumphant; and on November 2, those who still suffer in the purifying fires of purgatory, awaiting to join those who have gone before them into heavenly bliss—that is, the Church Suffering.
United in one communion—that is, the Communion of Saints—we support each other. Our prayers, penances, and mortifications on earth help accelerate the purification of the souls in purgatory, while we can call on them to pray for us in our need (which also has the effect of accelerating their purification); and, of course, we both look to the saints in heaven who, having lived as one with us on earth and having seen the painful purification of purgatory, are ever solicitous for us before our heavenly Father. This, in a way, is Jesus—the head of this body which is the Communion of Saints—making sure that none of what his Father has given him would be lost.
And so, my brothers and sisters, as we approach this altar today, let us draw close to our fellow saints: those here who surround us, our dearly beloved who have gone before us “marked with the sign of faith”, and the triumphant ones already enjoying the fullness of the heavenly banquet, a foretaste of which we receive here when we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus from this altar. And, as we do, let us give thanks to the Father through Jesus—for that is what Eucharist truly is, “giving thanks”—for having made us worthy to share the lot of the saints in light.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – November 1st & 2nd, 2014