|November 1-2, 2014, All Souls|
"For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.”
For most of my life I did not have a clear understanding of the difference between All Saints Day and All Souls Day. I knew the superficial ones such as All Saints was a holy day of obligation and All Souls was not. The vestments were white on All Saints and when I was growing up, black on All Souls. The church differentiates them this way: the primary focus of All Saints is the faithful departed who are in heaven, whether they are on the official list of canonized saints or not; the primary focus of All Souls is the faithful departed who are in purgatory on their way to heaven. And as a consequence of that focus, we don't pray for the Saints in Heaven because they don't need our prayers; instead we praise God for fulfilling the promise that they may have eternal life and we strengthen our desire to be with them. On All Souls day the Church invites us to pray for the souls in purgatory and to offer up our good works for them.
I realize this comes as a shock to a lot of people who think that Vatican II did away with purgatory, along with the obligation to go to mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, and the requirement to fast for an hour before receiving communion and the obligation to go to confession regularly. Well the truth is none of those were "done away with". The more I think about it, purgatory is one of my favorite uniquely Catholic doctrines. It is consistent with God's self revelation that God is Love; with my experience of what it means to be human, and on top of those two excellent characteristics, or maybe because of them, it calls me to respond in a way to draws me closer to God and the communion of saints.
So let's look a little more closely at purgatory. The impression I used to have was that purgatory was kind of a temporary hell. I think the common understanding is that is one last punishment by a strict judge before letting someone into heaven. I now see it as something that is a consequence of my choices but not necessarily as a punishment.
Let me use two analogies that help me understand how this all works. When I was about 6 or 7, I somehow badgered my parents into letting me "help" paint a wicker couch we had. By the end of the day I was literally covered in green oil-based paint. My mother had to strip me and sit me in the utility sink in the basement and give me a turpentine bath. My sister, to this day, remembers my screams. She thought they were killing me in that sink. Was painful? Yes. Was it punishment? No, it was my mother's care and concern for me that involved pain that was the result of my choice. But it was not punishment.
In a more direct analogy, imagine that a young, 6 or 7 year old boy who has been physically and emotionally abused by his birth family is placed in the care of a truly loving family. Just because that child is now in a loving family doesn't mean that he will be able to accept that love and respond to it. It may take a long time, if ever, for him to overcome the coping mechansms that developed during his abuse. Over time he will have to develop trust that his new parents will not abuse him, that they do not want to control him, and that he does not have to have control over them to keep from being hurt. He will also have to develop responsibility for his own actions, coming to a realization that even when he does something wrong, his new parents will continue to love him. The new parents cannot do it alone. And the child cannot do it alone. Healing and flourishing requires this combination of the parents loving the child, and the child deciding to respond to that love, and then living out a loving response. I would suggest that Purgatory is a period of overcoming barriers we have put up during our life that prevent us from experiencing the fullness of love that we call God. It is a struggle, and as painful as any change to self is but that doesn't make it a punishment. It is a wonderful gift from our loving God that allows us to enter fully into that loving relationship with God we call heaven, that we call eternal life.
As I said earlier this is such a deep and awesome revelation of who our God is. A God who absolutely respects our free will to the point of allowing us to experience the consequences of our choices but at the same time a God who absolutely loves us and yearns for us to fully experience God's love.
It is also deeply challenging because it reminds me how easily we humans put up barriers to love. Last week we heard Jesus tell us that this is the essence of who are created to be: lovers. The Catholic Church also teaches that the bonds we forged in life are not broken by death. We are all interrelated and our prayers and good works can have an effect even on those who have died. Just as the ability of that adopted child depends strongly on the love his new parents give him, so our love has the power to assist those we love, even after death. So today's feast challenges me with the reminder that because our love has that power, then I have a responsibility to exercise that power. The choices I make affect even those who have died and are yearning for the fullness of life in God's love, eternal life.
Jesus' words from the Gospel of John give us assurance that what God has promised us in baptism can be fulfilled. It is not because we are good, or we deserve it, but that God has chosen to love us, and the Father has given all of us into the care of Christ who loves us to death. As we take comfort in these words that assure us that the souls we pray for today will enter fully into eternal life, we are challenged n this life to be Christ's hands and feet, waiting on those in need around us, including the souls of the faithful departed in purgatory.
The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
Brothers and sisters:
Jesus said to the crowds: