Sunday, April 10, 2011

The 4—not the 2!—Last Things

Stephen DeAngelis

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on April 17, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 11: 1-45.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2011]

You know you’re getting old when . . .

How would you complete that sentence?

You know you’re getting old when . . .

I can think of a number of ways to finish that sentence off—based, sad to say, on my own personal experience of the last few weeks. For example,

• You know you’re getting old when you get together with your old buddies from high school, and the primary topics of conversation (at least initially) are what aches and pains you have, which doctors you’ve seen lately, how many surgeries you’ve had, and what medications you’re currently on!

• You also know you’re getting old when your previously non-religious, carefree friends suddenly become very serious and philosophical about life and its meaning. (That’s because they realize that they’re now closer to the end of life than they are to its beginning.)

• You also know you’re getting old when your contemporaries begin to die in greater numbers—some of them suddenly and unexpectedly.

Like my good friend, Stephen DeAngelis. Steve passed away a couple of weeks ago of a massive heart attack. He woke up that day, realized what was happening, and called 911 (he was home alone)—but by the time the EMTs got there and broke into the house he was gone, and they were unable to revive him.

His death made an deep impact on a lot of his classmates from Barrington High School, but it really hit home with me, because not only had we graduated together in 1975, not only had we played sports together as little kids—our lives had literally been linked from birth! Our moms knew one another in 1957, they were both living in Barrington at the time, and they were both were admitted to the old Lying-In hospital in Providence during the same week to deliver their babies. Stephen beat me by a day: he was born on April 17; I was born on the 18th (which also happened to be Holy Thursday that year—but that’s another story).

Two days before Stephen died I found out that another one of my classmates from high school had passed away from breast cancer in late January of this year—and perhaps that explains some of the very serious conversations that I had with old friends at the reception after Stephen’s funeral.

Now don’t get me wrong, these were good conversations about our mortality and about the ultimate purpose and meaning of life—but they were very different from the conversations we’ve had at past funerals.

This time, the reality of death seemed a lot closer.

It’s good for all of us, at least every once in awhile, to reflect on death and its meaning, as some of us did at Steve’s funeral the other day, and as the family and friends of Lazarus probably did at his funeral 2,000 years ago. As ironic as it might sound, reflecting on death can actually help us to live life better and with the proper focus. And even more importantly, pondering death and its meaning can help us to be better prepared to face it when it comes. And we definitely need to be prepared, because it sometimes comes suddenly and unexpectedly, as it did for Stephen DeAngelis the other day.

On that note, whenever we do ponder and discuss death as Catholics, it’s essential to remember that there are 4 so-called “Last Things”—4 final realities, 3 of which will be experienced by you and by me and by every human person on the planet. Hopefully most of us know them already: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

And please do notice, my brothers and sisters, that there are 4 of these Last Things, not 2! I say that because there are many people—including I dare say, many professed Christians—who seem to think that the only last things most people experience are death and heaven.

I was at a funeral the other day in which the priest said that the deceased is in God’s eternal kingdom already. I wanted to ask the priest afterward how he knew that, and why he also encouraged the people in the congregation to pray for the deceased!

Logically speaking, that didn’t make sense.

You see, if someone is already in heaven, that person doesn’t need our prayers; that person does not need to have Masses offered for the repose of his or her soul. They don’t need our assistance on their way to the kingdom because they’re already in the kingdom!

Praying for the dead only makes sense if the deceased person is undergoing the final purification that many souls need on their way to the kingdom—the final purification which we call “purgatory.”

Have you ever noticed that we never have a Mass offered FOR St. Peter or St. Paul or St. Catherine of Siena or St. Teresa of Avila or any other canonized saint? We offer Masses in their honor on their respective feast days, but we never pray FOR them either at Mass or outside of Mass! That’s because they don’t need our prayers. Quite to the contrary, we need them to pray for us!

And this is no small point. Actually, this tendency to reduce the 4 Last Things to 2 is one of the biggest reasons why we have so many problems in the world right now! Because so many men and women do not believe in God’s judgment and in the possibility of going to hell, they think they can do whatever they want in this life! They think they can hurt other people and live by their own set of rules and still end up in God’s eternal kingdom when their earthly lives are finished!

They don’t believe that they will be accountable for their actions—and that erroneous belief is reflected in their behavior.

It can even lead, in some cases, to despair! Think about it: If there’s nothing at stake in this life—if God’s going to push us through the pearly gates of heaven regardless of how we’ve lived on this earth—then what’s the point of continuing to live this life when things go bad?

There really isn’t any point at all!

The response of Jesus to Martha in today’s gospel scene from John 11 implicitly affirms the reality of ALL 4 of the Last Things. Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

The reality of physical death (the first Last Thing) is affirmed in the section where Jesus says, “whoever believes in me, even if he dies (that is to say, physically dies) will live.”

As for the second Last Thing—judgment—that’s implied if we look at the sentence in its totality. Notice that Jesus makes a distinction in this verse between those who believe in him and those who don’t. And here it’s important to remember that in the New Testament “belief” is not simply a “head trip”—it’s not simply a matter of saying, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” Biblically speaking, if you really believe in Jesus you will strive to obey him. Belief implies obedience. Belief and obedience go hand-in-hand. So Jesus could have said, “Whoever believes in me and obeys me, even if he experiences physical death, will live forever after being judged”—and it would have had the same meaning.

And where will the person who believes in and obeys Jesus live forever? In heaven, of course—which is the third Last Thing.

As for the possibility of Last Thing number 4, hell, that’s alluded to in the final part of the sentence where Jesus says, “And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” The “death” Jesus is talking about there is not physical death, rather, it’s spiritual death—the death of the soul—what the Bible calls “the second death.”

So the bottom line is this: we can’t avoid the first death (the physical) no matter how hard we try, but by the power of Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, we can avoid the second death.

And, please God, by his saving grace, we all will. Then we’ll get to meet some great and wonderful people in the kingdom of God, including, hopefully, my old friend, Steve DeAngelis.