Lent II ~ SMC 8th Mar 2020
About a year ago a member of the congregation at the Good Shepherd, our sister church, was in hospital dying. She knew we were expecting a baby in the next few months and she knew she was dying; weak and surrounded by tubes. After I’d anointed her and taken her Holy Communion, we were chatting and she asked how the pregnancy was going and I said it was all fine. She said to me in an enfeebled but clear voice: “You tell that child I’m going to love him.” Through the tears, I replied that of course I would.
For those united to Jesus, life does not end with death and nor does love. Our Lenten observances are making sure, I hope, that we have chastised ourselves enough so as to celebrate with joy the Resurrection of Jesus on 12th April. With death conquered, eternal life can reign. This doesn’t simply mean we can be glad that we’re going to live for ever: it means we know that Christ’s Body the Church does not just consist of those who worship God here on earth. This subject of the members of the Church is the theme of our Sunday Sermon Series in Lent. Last week, Fr Rimmer spoke of churchwardens and those roles that we all have, to do little things to stir up the graces God gives to His people. Next week, we’ll look at the saints, those in Heaven, praying for us. This week we are reminded of those called traditionally the Church Expectant or the souls in purgatory, those who have died united to Christ but are not in Heaven yet.
After forty days of Jesus’ Resurrection and at the end of Mary’s earthly life, they went straight to Heaven and we have the special feasts of Our Lord’s Ascension and Mary’s Assumption to celebrate that. None of us, nor anyone we’ve ever met has been sufficiently ready to do that straight away. Human beings ordinarily have to be prepared after death for that Heavenly glory. People struggle with this for two reasons: first, we’re not very good at accepting we’ve done anything wrong, and certainly not very good at accepting we’ve done anything sufficiently wrong so as to mean we need to be corrected before we can go to Heaven. The second reason we’re not great at this part of the Church’s faith is because we’re not very good at realising suffering is needed to get to life.
Suffering is part of a world where there is love and choice. If we love, we have to have our hearts broken, or it is not love. Having broken hearts is painful. Seeing how we have hurt others is painful. Seeing how we have hurt God should make us cry. Indeed, the pain for realising how capable we are through negligence and through weakness to cause pain or to be devoid of love should disturb us all that it will feel like we are being purged by fire. The image of fire is one the Bible uses to describes the process of being purified (Malachi 3:3, Psalm 12:6).
It requires some imagination on our part to consider how we will feel when we leave this earth and are confronted with the full, face to face revelation of God’s love, when we have our particular judgement. It must be like looking at the Sun, for which we rely for light and warmth, but it’s too bright for us to look at directly. Confronted with God’s love we are also given wisdom to see for the first time all the sins we have committed. We will feel deeply inadequate: aware of our need of God’s grace, aware of our need of the prayers of others, aware of our need of the Cross.
St Pio of Pietrelcina, who died in 1968, spoke of a soul in such a predicament who appeared to him one day and said he’d died in the monastery fifty or so years previous when the building was a poor house. He asked St Pio to offer Mass for him, which he duly did the next day, promising: “I will celebrate Mass for your liberation.” The world cannot comprehend this, struggling to recognise that we can do anything for those who have died because death seems so final. But we know that the Death and Resurrection of Jesus is the reason for our hope of eternal life. But we also know that we need to co-operate with that reality and give His glorious life a grounding in our own life. That doesn’t stop when we die, hence in the second book of Maccabees we see Judas Maccabees trying to make reparation for those who had died committing sin on the battlefield (II Maccabees 12:39-45).
In the Bible we have a sense of two stage process to judgement. There is the particular judgment we receive instantly upon dying, such as in the Parable Jesus tells of Dives and Lazarus, where the rich man is in a hellish existence after death, in contrast to Lazarus who is in paradise (Luke 16:19-31). We’ll hear this Gospel at Mass on Thursday this week. This paradise is the promise also given to the repentant thief to be fulfilled on the day of Crucifixion itself, that He will be with Jesus in Paradise (Luke 23:43). The second stage is the Last Judgement, also called the Day of the Lord or the Last Day or That Day. As we will say in the Creed in a few moments: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” This is when all that has been done by everyone will be revealed, as St Paul writes, “The Lord will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” On this day, the last day, there will be no further need for purgatory, this intermediary state for we will have been reunited with our earthly bodies and then finally ready by God’s grace to be in Heaven.
One word of warning in all this as we try to think about life after death: God is not restricted by Time. All that we experience on earth is real to us through the lens of time. Some things are in the past; other things look newer than they once did; some things are right in our faces, others a distant memory, others not even known to us yet, so much forgotten. To God all things are equally present at any one time.
One of the texts written on the walls behind me in the Chancel is from Revelation 14:13 “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, even so saith the Spirit.” Those who die in the Lord go through this period of post-death preparation for Heaven. This is something for us to be glad about, that we don’t have to be entirely ready on our death bed. That the person I mentioned at the start of my sermon; that my dad; that all those whom we know who have died in the Lord still love us, still pray for us and are still loved by God and called into a deeper love for Him.
This changes what we think funerals are for: they’re not primarily occasions for celebrating the life of the person who has died, the funeral is there for us to pray for someone who is still a member of the Church, to show our solidarity with them. This changes what we think about when we gather for Mass day by day and Sunday by Sunday: we don’t just come here to be with each other, we don’t just come here to see the Body and Blood of our Precious Saviour; we come also to this House of Prayer, hallowed by others who have worshipped here over the past one hundred and thirty years. Some of them are mentioned on memorials, some of them we will have memories of. Most of them we’ll never have met but I’m sure they’re still praying for us and glad we’re here worshipping the same God they continue to be close to today. Let’s never forget them and let’s recognise that we will all need some grace, some prayers, some love after we have died that we might be fit for Heaven, thanks to the Blood of Jesus. Amen.