Halloween has become almost as big a holiday in America as Christmas, with “Halloween Superstores” and a lineup of movies and TV specials on zombies, death, and the paranormal. I think secularism’s fascination with death manifests a deep fear, and a need to trivialize the object of that fear. Certainly this time of year speaks death to us: dying leaves fall to earth, daylight fades earlier, and weather turns colder. In November, the Church helps her children make sense of the inevitable and confusing fact of death as we commemorate All Souls Day. The fact is, each of us will grow older, grow feebler, and die. The Book of Ecclesiastes describes “hateful old age” and “miserable death” (Homer’s description) in these words: “the silver cord is snapped, the golden bowl is broken, the pitcher is shattered at the spring, the pulley is broken at the well, the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it.” That last line points to a truth deeper than death, which gives All Souls Day (and All Hallows Eve) its proper balance: the life breath will return to God, who gave it. Those who willingly return to God do not die, but become part of His deathless life.
Those of us who still live on this side of the grave must look around us at the great multitude filling the air, invisible to us, but more real than anything on earth. The saints in heaven (the Church Triumphant), and the holy souls in purgatory (the Church Suffering), have entered into real life, and we are shadows compared to them. We are the ghosts; they are the living--substantially alive in Christ Jesus. Today Holy Mother Church directs our attention to the souls in purgatory, where most of us will spend some time before entering heaven. These souls have died, and although they are holy, they are not saints in heaven. They need our prayers, and we need their prayers. They testify that death is not easy, but it makes perfect sense if we know where we have come from and know where we are going.
Destined for Life
Where did we come from? We came from God. No one creates himself. All that we have and all that we are is a gift from a beneficent Father. Where are we going? We are going back to God, if we hold steadily onto our faith. One of the most consoling verses in Scripture is found in our first reading: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.” We priests read this at almost every funeral, and hearing it often has freed us from the fear of death. The souls of the just…we are “just” if we believe, if we surrender, if we trust in a Higher Power. We can only fall out of God’s hands, that is, end up in hell, if we stop believing in God. “Grace and mercy are with his holy ones, and his care is with his elect.” God has elected us for eternal happiness, and the Holy One makes holy those who believe in him.
Most of us do believe in God, but our faith is weak, and our Christian living poor. So we need Purgatory, a second chance after death to take care of the issues we couldn’t quite get a handle on here below. Pope Benedict writes: “if there were no purgatory, we would have to invent it, for who would dare say of himself that he was able to stand directly before God? And yet we don’t want to be ‘a pot that turned out wrong,’ that has to be thrown away; we want to be able to put right. Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together again. Purgatory strips off from one person what is unbearable and from another the inability to bear certain things, so that in each a pure heart is revealed.”
More real than death
Death is real, but God is more real. Let’s pray that we trust God more than we fear death. Secular culture, increasingly fascinated by zombies, vampires, ghosts and the paranormal, both fears death and pretends that it is only a laughing matter. We Christians neither fear death nor make light of it, because we have a Father in heaven whom we trust. We have betrayed Him and death is sin’s penalty, but He will forgive us if we let him. We also have a Mother in heaven, both Holy Mother Church and Our Mother Mary. As we think on the fact that we all must undergo our own death alone, and the hope that God will sweep us up into the glorious multitude of saints, we put ourselves into our Holy Mother’s arms. She will lead us over the waters of our earthly death and bring us at last to her Son and His kingdom, where we will live with the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, and all of those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, forever and ever. Amen.