SATURDAY HOMILY: Matters of Life and Death
We who are believers in Christ do not wonder about what lies beyond the grave. Faith reveals to us the certainty of eternal life.
What lies behind their question is the Sadducees' denial of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. The Sadducees limited the Old Testament scriptural "canon" to the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, so Jesus answers them on their own terms.
He cites the "burning bush" narrative of Exodus 3:6. Here the Lord God reveals Himself as the God of the long deceased patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who are not dead but alive! God is not the "God of the dead, but of the living, for to Him all are alive." At this point, St. Luke tells us, "They no longer dared to ask him anything." Case closed.
However, in our age of growing unbelief the case is not closed. There are growing numbers of people who think that this life is all there is, that when death comes the lights turn off and then there is nothingness. This belief is comforting for people who have lived only for themselves and shudder at the thought having to someday answer for their self-absorbed lives.
This notion of a non-existent afterlife may also be a welcoming thought to those who are undergoing unbearable moral or physical suffering. Death for these people, especially if it is self-induced, is seen as the ultimate pain reliever.
But those who subscribe to such impoverished views, whether they realize it or not, are fighting against several things. First, they are fighting against the "democracy of the dead." G. K. Chesterton once wrote: "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."
It is a human "tradition," if you will, that there is life beyond this life. Virtually every culture and civilization before us has had some notion of an afterlife. The pyramids of Egypt and elsewhere stand as a kind of emblem of this persistent and universal acknowledgement of eternal life.
The deniers of eternal life are also fighting against themselves. Human beings naturally intuit that there is something more to life, something beyond this world. When a child suffers the misfortune of losing a loved one and is told that grandpa is "with God" or "has gone to heaven," the child does not doubt it. He may have difficulty accepting the loss of someone so dear, but that there is a better place beyond this world he does not deny. He will only deny it if he is taught to do so.
We who are believers in Christ do not have to wrestle with this question. We don't have to wonder about what lies beyond the grave. Faith reveals to us the certainty of eternal life. It is every bit as certain as the life we are living now in this body. But, as we all know full well, this natural life will not last forever. There will come for each of us the moment when our life on this earth will reach its end.
It is neither macabre nor unhealthy to have before us always the thought of our own death. One of my favorite saints, Saint Josemaria Escriva, with a brutal honesty put it this way:
"Do not fear death. Death is your friend! Try to get used to the fact of death: peer into your grave often, looking at and smelling, and touching your own rotting corpse there, a week, no more, after your death. Remember this especially when you are troubled by the impulses of the flesh" (The Forge, 1035).
Having a realistic attitude toward death will help us not only to prepare well for our own, but it will also lead us to look forward to the life to come. Is this not what we say every Sunday when we recite the Profession of Faith? "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come."
In these final days of this month dedicated to the Holy Souls in purgatory, let us pray also for ourselves who will one day be in "that number." Let us pray for the grace to die a holy and happy death in the company of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Fr. G. Peter Irving III is a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and pastor of Holy Innocents Church, Long Beach.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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