Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls)
Wisdom3:1-9; Romans 6:3-9; John 6:37-40
My aunt Jane has had a tough year. In May, her husband of 62 years, my uncle Dick, died, and then in July, her twin sister Judy, my mom, passed away. But she is a woman of great faith, going to Mass every day and always doing what she can to serve in her parish and neighborhood. Her faith is inspirational, and it is surely part of the reason than many of her children and grandchildren are still active in the faith. As her oldest son, my cousin Scott, told me at the vigil service for his father, it is times like this that our faith is a tremendous comfort.
That faith is important to all of us, or we would not be here today. As we remember the loved ones that have gone before us, we do so in the faith that we will be reunited one day with them, but also that the love we shared continues to this day because they are still present, no longer in the earthly kingdom of God but in the eternal kingdom of God. Our faith informs us that Christ promised us this, and Christ will deliver on this. There are three different selections in the Lectionary for the first reading on All Souls Day, thirteen for the second, and twelve for the Gospel, and I could have quoted from any one of them about this faith, since this is the most important and overarching teaching of Christ: he came, he died, he rose, and he won our salvation. For instance, Jesus told us in the gospel that was just read, “everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day” [John 6:40b NABRE].
Now when Christ says, “believe in him,” he means a belief that is more than intellectual. It must be a belief that is emotional and physical as well. This stupid argument about faith and works pretends a difference in the two that is not there for one who truly believes. And if we truly believe, we will be ready to spend eternity in heaven and be with God. If we reject that belief, if we reject God or his teachings, we are voluntarily saying that we don’t want to be with God, now certainly, but not for eternity as well. But I suspect that most of us are in the middle, believing, but doing so imperfectly, allowing sin, our own pride and selfishness, get in the way of a full and unflinching faith. This is where the Church’s teaching on purgatory fits in.
Purgatory is that state in which we are not yet ready to be with God. We may not have rejected God in word or action and, as a result, would be forever barred from heaven, but our soul is not yet perfected. And so the bible teaches that we are given the opportunity when we die to finish the job we left incomplete on earth. The Church teaches that those in purgatory are at peace, since they know that they will eventually be with God, but they still have issues to work out. The meaning of purgatory is from the Latin to clean or purify. Some emphasize the punishment involved, and it is no doubt punishing to be withheld, even for a small time, from the glories of heaven. But we should not let fear drive our decisions, and the love of those in purgatory should drive us to pray for their eternal souls.
But this is just a stopping-off point on the way to the final salvation promised. The saints have already made it, and we hope that all the people we’ve loved will make it too. We pray for it, every day, but especially on this special day set aside for it. We pray for them, and we remember them. God-like love – not the emotional love of romantic attraction or the superficial love of people that give us pleasure being in their company, but the deep love of someone that you love unconditionally, that you willingly sacrifice for – that special gift of love that God has given us has a downside. That powerful love means that there is a tremendous emptiness left within our heart when that person departs. But who would have traded never having loved that person in order to avoid the pain of separation? So we have solace in the fact that, because of our love for them, we celebrate that they have begun a new phase in their life. For a Christian, the sum total of human existence is not birth, life, and death; it is life, death, and resurrection. This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We know it with a moral certainty. And at every Mass we gather to thank God for his gifts, and especially today we thank God for the time we shared with our departed loved ones while they were with us here, and especially for his gift of salvation that he has given to them, to us, and to everyone that we love.
This is our faith. This is the faith that keeps us going. It is the faith that my aunt Jane turned to when she lost two of the people she most loved in the world. Now, while many of her children and grandchildren have remained devout in their faith, not all have, or in the family of her sister, my family. And for them, the future can’t be hopeful. How can it be, if your view of your existence is birth, life, death, then … nothingness? But with faith, we can say, as Paul does in the second reading, “For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection” [Romans 3:5 NABRE]. And that makes all the difference in the world.
As we continue with our Mass, our commemoration of all souls, let the Eucharist that we receive be the communion that we celebrate with our whole Church, those still living as well as those that God has call to himself. Let us dedicate our prayers today to those souls in purgatory, both our own loved ones as well as those who have no one to pray for them. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.