November is the month of All Souls, and Remembrance too. It is called ‘The Month of the Holy Souls.’
Each year in November I try to provide an article with the theme of Life, Death, & Resurrection. Here is this year’s offering.
With thanks to Roman Catholic writer William Bradley whose initial article inspired this.
One of the problems with using our Columbarium for services is that sooner or later everyone becomes distracted, looking at all the names on the niches. For some of course, this brings to mind memories of people they have known and loved. For others it is fascinating to think of all the people listed there. Some have bits of information about them, others are just a name. Sometimes there are common surnames spread across the walls. Are they related? Why in some cases are there two people on one lid with different surnames. One can begin a whole variety of conjecture!
One thing our Columbarium doesn’t tell us is how people died. We can see their age, so in some case we can guess. There are infants a few weeks old for example which tells its own story, but there is no real information.
I hope and pray that all of those who make their last journey to their final resting place in our columbarium and garden, or any other, were prepared for that journey and their entry into eternal life that went before it.
Sometimes death comes swiftly and without warning. One of our niches is the last resting place for two children of our parish who died on the same day and one young lady who died aged 35. Even though the details are not there we can tell that some tragedy befell them. A college friend of mine went to bed with the flu and did not wake up in the morning. As Christians all we can do in situations like these is pray that these individuals were in a state of grace with God when death came calling.
There is not a man or woman on this earth who does not have to come to terms with death, it is a part of life. From the moment we are conceived we start to walk a downhill road to the grave. When we are younger we can put it out of our minds as it seems to be so far away. As time slips by though and we get older we start to think more about the end of things as it applies to us as an individual and this seems to happen to us whether we want to think about it or not. The fact that there is less and less time in front of us, than what is piled up behind, has its effect.
For the Christian, death should come as a welcome release from the trials of this life and no matter who we are or how many material possessions we have the trials are there. The truth is, Christian or not, death is that "something" ahead of us that often fills many of us with dread. We will struggle and strive and do whatever we can to put off this natural end of things for as long as possible. Modern science has made great contributions in our battle against illness and disease, but that inevitable day finally comes when all physical intercession comes to an end and we set out on that final journey.
There is nothing wrong in our struggling to maintain our lives, and in fact we have a moral duty to look after ourselves, and not put ourselves into situations of unnecessary danger that may rob us of life. Deep in all of us is a God given drive for self-preservation otherwise the human race would have died out countless ages ago. Eventually the time comes when our heart stops and we step out from our physical bodies, encumbered or enhanced by how we treated others, for that is what it all finally comes down to, and we come face to face with God. At this point God's mercy, which has been available to us all of our lives ends and His infinite Justice takes over.
In whatever way death happens to us the Church teaches that at the moment of death we come to "The Particular Judgement". The "Catechism of the Catholic Church", from which all the following quotations will be taken, and for which there is simply no Anglican equivalent, describes it this way: "Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament often speaks of Judgement in terms of the final accounting with Christ at his second coming but it also affirms that each of us will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with our works and faith (1021).
Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgement that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven - through purification or immediately-, or immediate and everlasting damnation (1022)." In other words, if our lives merit it, male or female, we are rewarded with life in heaven immediately or, life in heaven after having been purified or, eternal damnation in hell.
Those who enter straight into heaven are called Saints by the Church. Some of them are known to us in this life but countless tens of thousands reach heaven immediately who are known only to God. "Those who die in God's grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they 'see Him as He is,' face to face:...(1023) This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity - this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed - is called 'heaven'(1024). The elect live 'in Christ,' but they retain, or rather find, their true identity, their own name(1025).
By his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has 'opened' heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ (1026). In the glory of heaven the blessed continue joyfully to fulfill God's will in relation to other men and to all creation. Already they reign with Christ; with Him 'they shall reign for ever and ever'(1029)."
The Church teaches also, that Baptised infants, guided by the Angels, are brought straight to heaven.
Then there are those who have made their peace with God and have died in the State of Grace, but they are in need of a some purification before they enter heaven. "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (1030). The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned (1031). This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in scripture: 'Therefore (Judas Maccabeus) made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.' (2 Macc. 12:46)(1032)." It is our Christian duty and a act of love to pray for those who have died. It is too a driving force of our evangelism. We are commanded by Jesus himself to go out into the whole world and proclaim the good news.
This teaching on Purgatory is one that a great many people have trouble with. Today in our secular humanist world a great many of us believe that there is no such thing as sin so how can there be any punishment for it. It follows then that if we cannot be faulted for our actions then we can't be punished and if we can't be punished how can there possibly be a Hell let alone a Purgatory.
For me this understanding of Purgatory, a place of cleansing is a great relief! It answers a nagging concern about myself. Put simply I know only too well that if I went under a bus tomorrow, I may not be bad enough to go straight to hell, but I certainly know I’m not sinless enough to go straight to heaven!! Although Jesus Christ has by his redemptive death opened the way to heaven for all people, including me, I still do not think that my own purification is such that I merit immediate entrance into heaven while at the same time I do not think that I merit eternal damnation in hell either. The purifying of Purgatory answers these questions for me and the teaching fits well with my image of a loving Father whose will it is that all of us come to live with Him for all eternity. Didn't Christ say that we cannot enter heaven until we have paid the last penny?
Then there is hell itself and the Catholic Catechism describes hell in the following way: "We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love Him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against Him, against our neighbour or against ourselves. 'He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in Him (1 Jn. 3:14-15).' Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from Him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren(Mt. 25:31-46). To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from Him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell' (1033). The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishment of hell's 'eternal fire (1035).' God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a wilful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end (1037)." Hell is a state of total isolation to yourself in a state of absolute lovelessness for all of eternity.
The Church and Scripture teach us that we do not have the right to judge another or to decide the final destination of any soul. There is nobody living that can know how God deals with a soul and how that soul reacts in the final seconds of its life. A person can be unconscious to our eyes, yet a lot of activity between God and that soul could still be going on. All it takes is one cry for forgiveness from that soul, a movement of the heart toward God, and He will come with love and forgiveness and take that soul to Himself forever. However, if you are that soul that is suddenly struck down, how can you be sure that you will have the time or the grace to cry out to God in those final seconds or even fractions of a second?
All it takes to be sure about your final destination is to bring Christ into your life. If you are a baptised Christian but you have been away from your faith, maybe for a long time, why don't you try going back to Mass? Hundreds and thousands of conversions have begun with an attendance at Mass either alone or with a friend. While you are there ask our Lord, who is sacramentally present on the altar, to lead you home and He will. It may not be an easy journey, and in some situations of life it may take time, but if you are faithful the Lord will not fail you.
If you are dawdling on the journey of faith, why not pick up the pace?
For those who have been born and raised outside of the Church, or who have fallen away from an active faith, you can be reassured that God refuses Himself to no person of good will who lives by the dictates of their conscience. Every soul has come from God and our conscience, for all of us, is the sure guide back to Him. Unfortunately our conscience can become battered and compromised as we move through life and it can use all of the help it can get.
Once again, a sure way of obtaining this help is to bring Christ into your life and fortunately this is not all that difficult to do. It's as simple asking Jesus to come into our hearts wherever you happen to be in life at that moment. Jesus will never refuse anyone. We can only refuse ourselves. Jesus shows us that the way to eternal life is open to all. But separation is open to all as well. Jesus tells us, “No-one can come to the Father except through me.” He gives us the way to himself through the Church. “Unless you eat my body and drink my blood you have no life in you” says Jesus. Leave death behind then and choose life!