Listen kindly to our prayers, O Lord, and, as our faith in your Son, raised from the dead, is deepened, so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants also find new strength.
-Collect for All Soul's Day
What happens when we die? Will I feel pain? Will I panic? Will I see a bright light? Will I hear the voice of those who have gone before me? And where will I be after they pronounce me dead? Will there be clouds and harps, pitch forks and brimstone, or just a sense of falling sleep? In the course of a lifetime, we spend a lot of time agonizing over such questions.
Of course, we are not the first to wonder about such things. Saint Augustine thought and wrote about death a lot. It started when, as a young boy, he lost his father, and later in life when he buried a dear friend, and finally when his mother, Monica, died, of which he wrote: “I closed her eyes and an overwhelming grief welled into my heart and was about to flow forth in floods of tears. But at the same time under a powerful act of mental control my eyes held back the flood and dried it up. The inward struggle put me into great agony.”
That inner agony led Saint Augustine to reflect on where his father, his mother and friend had gone. Some people, he concluded, have led an evil life. They made their choice and they will go to hell. Jesus gave us an example of one who goes to hell in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. You remember, the rich man who walked by poor Lazarus each day and stuffed himself with this world’s pleasures while Lazarus lay begging and went without. Lazarus goes to heaven, but the man who was rich in this life, is separated from heaven by a great abyss. He went to hell.
Some people go right to heaven. They are the pure souls who have followed Jesus and loved others as he has loved them. The Lord himself speaks of them: they feed the hungry, visit the lonely, clothe the naked, and willingly sacrifice themselves on whatever cross God might call them to carry. They are the ones whom we celebrated on All Saints and on whose blessed intercession we rely.
But then there are those, Augustine suggested, who were, indeed, saints, most of the time. But at the moment of their death were truly fit for neither heaven nor hell. They are the folks who have sought to follow Jesus, to worthily celebrate the Sacraments, to live a life worthy of their calling, but who at the moment of their death still have a long list of unfinished business. People they never really forgave, broken relationships they never truly sought to heal, forgotten people they never loved, prayers they never said, thing they never gave to God.
Would God send such folks to hell?
No, Augustine concludes. The greatness of God’s mercy, the depth of his love will grant such poor souls a place of purgation, a purification which would make them fit to join the saints in the Kingdom of Heaven. Purgatory, therefore, is the most optimistic of doctrines: it teaches a second chance and always flows one way. And our beloved dead who await the vision of God, who spend a time being purified of that which keeps him from dwelling in his presence, are the ones we are called to pray for on All Souls day and every day of our lives.
That’s why we come together to offer this unbloody sacrifice for all who have died. I pray for my grandmother, my friend Loretta, my classmate David, and so many others who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again. You have your own list…those at whose funerals you cried…those at whose death beds you sought to make sense of it all and failed…those whom you loved so much that the ache is just as real today as it was when you stood by the edge of their grave.
Today’s is a profoundly Catholic feast, for not many Americans believe anymore what we believe about the obligation we carry on behalf of those who we have buried in the ground and who await the resurrection. It’s the obligation taken up by Judas of the Maccabees when he sought to offer expiatory sacrifices for his comrades who had died. He knew, however incompletely, that the sacrifices of the living could take away the sins of the dead. And he fulfilled his debt to those who had died.
But the sacrifice which we offer for the dead, at the hands of our own High Priest, is no mere offering of the blood and flesh of bulls and rams. The sacrifice we offer is the perfect sacrifice of the judge of the living and the dead, whose paschal dying and rising “takes away the sins of the world.” And the flesh which we eat and the Precious Blood which we drink are taken with the promise that we who offer this sacrifice will never really die.
For on the November 2nd which follows my death, what is it that I hope for the most? That they will say nice things about me, or build a memorial to my name? No. For memorials will turn to dust, and memories will fade. The day will come, not long after I am dead, when not a single person recalls my name or that I even walked upon the earth.
But what lasts is hope. The hope that begs God to forgive my sins and lead me home to be with him forever. We owe that debt to those whom we commend this morning to God’s merciful embrace.
So we pray, for all who have fallen asleep in Christ that they might know forgiveness, refreshment, light and peace.