Philippe de Champaigne, Vanitas, c 1671.
First reading 2 Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 16(17):1,5-6,8,15
Second reading 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5
Gospel Luke 20:27-38
During the week just gone, the Church celebrated the great feast of All Saints (also known as All Hallows), which is our parish’s patronal feast day. On that day we commemorated all the saints, that is, every human soul who currently rejoices in heaven at the eternal vision of God. On the following day, which we call All Souls, the Church commemorated all the human souls who have died in a state of grace but who, by an extension of God’s mercy, are still undergoing the purification and sanctification necessary to be a saint, which they failed to complete in their earthly life (purgatory). The image associated with purgatory is that of gold being purified in the furnace to purge it of every foreign alloy.
Because of these two important days, the whole month of November has traditionally been associated with a special care for the dead, in which we continue to pray for those souls in purgatory, that they might pass over from the temporary fire of the purifying furnace into the brilliant light of glory. Indeed this, as well as our very well-themed readings today, urge us throughout November to have a particular attention to those things which most contemporary people really don’t like to think about – “the four last things.” These are death, judgement, heaven and hell. I find it curious, given that each and every one of us without exception is going to face these realities sooner rather than later, that these four last things have become a taboo in our culture, and that nobody likes to talk about them. Think about it. We are all going to die. There’s no other way about it. And after death, God is going to judge us. As a result of that judgement, we will either go to heaven forever, (most of us via a detour in purgatory), or to the unquenchable fire of hell. Now, I didn’t make this up, neither did the church make this up to scare people. Jesus himself speaks candidly and frequently about these four last things in the Gospels. For this reason, whenever the children from St John’s or St Patrick’s ask me, “Fr Tom, why do you always wear black?” I eagerly say to them, “because I’m on my way to a funeral.” Sometimes they ask, “whose funeral is it?” I answer, “mine!”
Brothers and sisters, rather than avoiding these unavoidable realities out of fear or out of pride, I think it’s in our best interest to make a thorough meditation on the four last things. It’s not morbid, nor is it scrupulous or fearmongering for us to prepare for the future. In fact, it’s very wise and prudent to look to the future and make preparations accordingly. Consider this: If you hear on the news that a dangerous storm is approaching, what do sensible people do? They begin to prepare. They put their car in the shed, they might start sandbagging if they are in a flood zone, they might go out and buy some supplies, they bring things inside that could be blown away or damaged, etc. In other words, sensible people hurry to use what little time they have to prepare. What, then, of the Christian? We know that our life on earth is short, and that it could end at any moment. That is certain. The amount of time we get is out of our control. We know, because Jesus has told us so, that there will be a judgement, and that there will be an eternal destination awaiting us, whether heavenly or hellish. What, then, should a sensible Christian do?
I wonder. What if every Christian took reality seriously and lived sensibly, as if every day were their last? I’d like to think I’d be impelled to love unreservedly, to forgive quickly, to give generously, to avoid sin carefully, to examine my conscience and repent daily, to honour God constantly, and to pray without ceasing in the hope that I might enter heavenly glory tomorrow! And not out of fear! But out of a sense that this time which I have now but may not have tomorrow, is a precious treasure to be used wisely and to the full. What fear of judgement and hell would one need have if we lived in this way, totally oriented toward God and neighbour? There would be no need for fear! In fact, I suspect our lives and our society would be utterly transformed and that we would come alive most fully.
My dear friends, the month of November, with its special commemorations of All Saints and All Souls is a powerful invitation for us to become wise and prudent Christians who do not shy away, but rather face their destiny with eager joy and faith in Jesus. I want to conclude by leaving you with this thought-provoking quote from the Doctor of the Church, St Alphonsus Liguori, who wrote a work called Preparation for Death:
“Time is a treasure which is found only in this life; it is not found in the next, either in hell or in heaven. In hell the damned exclaim with tears: Oh! that an hour was given to us! They would pay any price for an hour of time, in which they might repair their ruin: but this hour they will never have. In heaven there is no weeping; but, were the saints capable of weeping, all their tears would arise from the thought of having lost the time in which they could have acquired greater glory, and from the conviction that this time will never again be given to them… My brother, how do you spend your time? Why do you always defer till tomorrow what you can do today? Remember that the time which is past is no longer yours: the future is not under your control: you have only the present for the performance of good works.”