Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed
Where Everybody Is…

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 27; Romans 5:5-11; Mark 15:33-16:6

Just a day after having joyfully celebrated the triumph of all the saints in heaven, we commemorate all the faithful departed. Traditionally, we distinguish these two celebrations in terms of people and places. In the first we rejoice with all those who have made it to heaven. And in the second, we pray for those who are not quite there yet, those who remain, as it were, suspended between heaven and hell. The first feast is for the saints in heaven, the second for the souls in purgatory. Valid and helpful as this approach is, doesn’t it also give rise to some perplexity and even confusion? To paraphrase a recent insightful remark of a revered older priest, you don’t know where everybody is. Take my late father, for example. Do I rejoice with him on All Saints’ Day? Or do I pray for him on All Souls’ Day? Or, to cover all the bases, do I do both? I can’t be sure, since I don’t really know exactly where he is? Is there any way to deal with this perplexity, this doubt, this confusion?

Thankfully, the readings for these two days give us some guidance. Remember the readings for yesterday. The emphasis was on the triumph of the saints in heaven, and the difficulties and trials that they endured in order to get there. As we rejoiced with the saints, we were also invited by our readings to model ourselves after them, even as they modeled themselves after Christ. We were exhorted to purify ourselves, to take comfort from the beatitudes. These were powerful readings, enlightening readings. They tell us what our heavenly destination is like and even tell us how to get there.

But isn’t it possible that those same readings might evoke in us a reaction other than joyful hope and patient expectation? When we hear of the purity, poverty and heroic virtue of the saints, for example, isn’t it possible that we are led to doubt our own capacity to follow them? And not just ourselves, but isn’t it likely that we may also wonder whether our dearly departed loved ones could have followed where the saints have gone? Sure, they may have been very good people. But were they quite as pure and perfect as we tend to think the saints are?

It is especially upon this parched earth of perplexity and doubt that the bold words of the psalmist falls like much needed rain: I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. And on what is this brazen confidence based? Is the psalmist not aware of his own sins and shortcomings? Yes, probably even more than we are. But the psalmist’s confidence is not based on his own righteousness or heroism. Rather, the Lord is my light and my help… the stronghold of my life. And who is this Lord but the One who has promised to take away his people’s shame everywhere on earth. What does this Lord do but continually prove His love for us even as he did by letting Christ die for us while were still sinners.

Important as it is then for us to continue to purify our hearts and to pray for our dearly departed, we should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by the weight of our sins or those of our loved ones. In the words of the young man in the gospel: there is no need for alarm. For our trust and hope is in the One who rolled back the stone from the mouth of the tomb and raised Jesus to life.

Indeed, we don’t really know where everybody is, but our faith reminds us who our God is and what he continues to do.

How is the Lord strengthening our hope and proving his love for us this day?

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