Death is something that we don’t usually think about or talk about. We do know that people die, but somehow most of us feel that we won’t. Intellectually, we know that we will, but we still we do not embrace death as something that we are heading to. Yet we are. You could say that we are all born to die. None of us know when, or how, it will happen, but unless the Lord comes again while we are still alive, we will experience death. Our faith, based on the death and resurrection of Jesus, tells us that death is not the end. Surely the body stops, but who we are as a person continues. The Church celebrates the Resurrection in all that we do. In November, the first two days really call this to mind.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul said, “To this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living”. Matthew, Mark and Luke all say that “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living”. In looking at these two statements, at first they seem at odds with each other, but in essence they are saying the same thing. Death no longer exists. God is Lord of us in our death and our life. When our bodies fail, we know that our soul continues on. As Catholics we believe that we go to Heaven, Purgatory (preparation time for Heaven), or to Hell (quite permanent). We also believe that someday, at the coming of the fullness of the Kingdom, our souls and our bodies will come together in the Resurrected body. Until that day, the “dead” in Heaven and Purgatory still exist in communion with the living Church. We are all the Living Church.
While we Christians are alive here on earth, we are known as the Church Militant. We are soldiers of Christ who still struggle with sin and evil. We have been redeemed by Jesus, and filled with the Spirit and can raise ourselves to great Spiritual heights, but we still fight darkness within ourselves and throughout the world. We continue to work for the transformation of the world by preaching and living out the Gospel. We do hope to receive God’s grace and go straight to heaven at the moment of our death. We look forward to being a Saint. Sometimes we make it, sometimes we don’t.
Often when we die we are not quite prepared for heaven. We are definitely on the way, but we need a time of purification. We call this time Purgatory. The souls in Purgatory are known as the Church Penitent (or Suffering or Expectant). It is a time when we know that we will see God in Heaven, but we must first come to grips with what keeps us from fully coming face to face with God. Do not think of Purgatory as a mini or temporary hell. It is more like a waiting room or antechamber for heaven where we get ready in order to enter.
For those who go straight to Heaven and for those who go there after their purgatory process, the souls in Heaven are known as the Church Triumphant. We will be face to face with God and with His angels and Saints. The Church here is Triumphant, but still awaits the coming of the fullness of the Kingdom at the end of time when all will be one in praise of God. All things will be made new.
This all brings us to the two days we celebrate this week, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. All Saints Day commemorates ALL of the Saints in Heaven. Even though it includes everyone in Heaven, the main focus is on the Saints who have been named by the Church. All Saints’ Day was formally started by Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Pantheon (originally used by the Romans to honor their gods) at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs on May 13 in 609 AD. Boniface IV also established All Souls’ Day, which follows All Saints. All Saints Day is a Holy Day of Obligation.
The day after All Saints Day, we celebrate All Souls Day which commemorates all those souls who have died, but have not gone to Heaven yet. These souls are in Purgatory. They are being prepared for heaven. They enjoy the knowledge that Heaven is theirs, but they need some time to remove the stains of venial sins. They are a very important part of the Church. In our Catholic wake service we start by saying that “all of the ties of friendship and affection which knit us together as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death”. Our loved ones, whether in Heaven or in Purgatory still have connections with us. We can turn to them to help us in prayer. We are not sure of their status, but whether they are in Heaven, or in Purgatory, they are still connected to us and can pray for us.
Truly our God is a God of the Living. The scriptures are filled with story after story and parable after parable and teaching after teaching that points this out. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, Death no longer has a hold on us. We were all born to die. It is a natural part of God’s plan for our salvation. We should not fear death, for in death we find LIFE. Those who have gone on before us, whether they are in Heaven or in Purgatory, are still a part of us as the Church. They still care for us and love us and pray for us. These first two days of November are a time for us to see that our God is God of the living and the dead. We, as a Church, are all alive in Him. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies” (John 11:25).