Lectionary #668, Gospel: John 6: 37-40
Christians have rightly prayed for their beloved dead from the first days of our faith, asking that their deceased loved ones have the joy of sharing in Christ’s resurrection into glory. Even the earliest writing of the New Testament, the first letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians, relates the concerns of some believers as to the fate of the dead.
Various regional customs and special dates of prayer for the dead developed over time in the Church. In the eleventh century a reform movement of Benedictine monasteries began observing such a day of prayer for the dead on November second, linking this feast with the Commemoration of All Saints the preceding day; later this date was eventually established for the universal Church.
The scriptures read at mass on All Souls Day are comforting in that they are honest about the reality of death, affording us the chance to go beyond the well-intended but trite comments to the effect that our loved one “lived a good life”, or “is up in heaven laughing with God”, or “is in a better place”. We know that our loved ones are not perfect during their lives and sometimes we have estranged or ambiguous relationships with them; tragically those who are closest to us can hurt us at times and cause deep wounds that are slow to heal. It seems strange then to say “hey, all is well” when they die, as though the alienation or abuse that may have marked one’s interaction with them during life is erased.
To this point, the Book of Wisdom reminds us that “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them” (Wisdom 3:1). While that seems to narrow a heavenly end down to the few saintly people who might be considered “the just”, Saint Paul reminds us that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his Blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath” (Romans 5:8-9).
This means that all of God’s children who repent of their sins can find eternal salvation and redemption in him, being purified even after death of their actions which caused pain in the present life. Jesus did not come to save the just but to save sinners (see Mark 2:17), and so there is hope for us and even for those who have offended us, provided we all repent.
In the end, from the perspective of faith in God which weaves together the successive stages of our lives and those of our loved ones’, death itself can be seen as a comfort and even a goal. Pope John Paul II once observed to a group of elderly friends that life on this earth, hemmed-in as it is for all of us by physical, emotional, and mental limitations and weakening, cannot offer us a true and lasting joy. Endless life would eventually become a prison or an exile from our homeland. The words from the opening of the Confessions of St. Augustine speak powerfully here: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions, I,i,1).
Let it be our humble prayer for our beloved dead that as our Lord promised, “I will not reject anyone who comes to me,” (John 6:37) and that, as surely as their hopes and joys were rooted in the service of the Lord through the course of their lives, they may now find reward for their humble service, and joyful rest in God.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.