Sunday, July 01, 2018

The ‘Mystery’ of Death

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 1, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8: 7-15; Mark 5: 21-43.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirteenth Sunday 2018]

Death is a mystery.  Now the good news is it’s a mystery that every single one of us will someday solve; the bad news is we won’t be around to tell anybody about it!

Actually when I use the word “mystery” here I’m using it in its theological sense.  Theologically speaking, a mystery is a truth that we can know something about (whatever God has revealed to us), but which we cannot understand completely with our finite human minds.

And that’s the way it is with death.  There are certain things, thankfully, that God has made clear to us about the end of our lives on this earth.  He’s done that through his written word and through his Church.

But there’s a lot about death and its aftermath that we don’t know—a lot that remains hidden from our mortal eyes.  As I indicated a few moments ago, there’s only one way to find out that information—and I presume most of us are not too anxious to have that “enlightening experience” anytime in the near future!

So today I’ll focus on what we do know.  My homily will be about some of those aspects of the mystery of death that we do understand—some of the aspects that God has revealed to us already.  I’ll also deal with some erroneous ideas about death that I’ve encountered in certain Catholics and others during my 32 years of priestly ministry.

The first point to be made in this regard is that, although some people blame God for the existence of death, he’s not the source of it.  He’s made that clear to us.  As today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom puts it, “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.  For he fashioned all things that they might have being. … God formed man to be imperishable.”

Death became part of the human experience only after Adam and Eve made the free choice to sin, in response to a temptation by the devil.  God didn’t do it; it’s not his fault! As the writer of Wisdom puts it, “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world.” 

So if we’re going to blame anybody, we ought to blame Satan.

God is “the Lord and giver of life”, not the dealer of death!  It’s precisely because he’s the Lord and giver of life that he sent his Son to die on that cross 2,000 years ago.  Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

Jesus also said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.”

When Jesus refers to dying in that last verse, of course, he doesn’t mean physical death; he means “spiritual death,” “the death of the soul,”—what the Bible sometimes calls “the second death.”  Physical death is unavoidable.  (It’s one of the residual effects of original sin.)  The second death, on the other hand, IS avoidable by the “sanctifying grace” that has its source in the cross and resurrection of Jesus: the grace that comes to us for the first time in the sacrament of Baptism, and is preserved in us by a life of faith and charity.

If, perchance, we ever lose this grace by committing a mortal sin somewhere along the way, the good news is that it can be restored.  The ordinary way for sanctifying grace to be restored is in and through the sacrament of Reconciliation.

The condition of our soul at the time of death determines what happens to us afterward.  In death, our soul is separated from our body (that’s what death is: the separation of body and soul).  Our soul is then judged by God, and according to how it’s judged it goes to one of three places: heaven, hell or purgatory.  Those who go to purgatory are assured of their salvation.  They’re on their way to heaven—and they know it.  But they also know they’re not quite ready for heaven, since the Bible says that nothing impure can enter the kingdom of God.  You can’t even have one little sinful attitude in your soul and get through the pearly gates. (Rev. 21:27).  Besides that, you also need to attain a certain level of holiness to enter.  That’s why the Letter to the Hebrews tell us to “strive for that holiness without which no one can see the Lord.”  (Hebrews 12:14)

Some non-Catholics don’t believe in purgatory because they mistakenly think that the Catholic Church teaches that purgatory is a “second chance”—but that’s wrong.  Those who die without sanctifying grace in their souls go to hell.  There are no second chances for them.  Souls in purgatory are in the state of grace, but need to be “cleaned up a bit” before they can enter the eternal wedding banquet.

Of course, the real tragedy is when Catholics reject the teaching on purgatory.  And some do.  I hope those Catholics never have Masses offered for their deceased relatives and friends; because, if they do, they’ll be contradicting themselves!  The only reason to have a Mass offered for a deceased person (the only reason to pray for the dead at all) is if purgatory exists!  If purgatory does not exist, then there’s only heaven and hell.  But souls in heaven don’t need our prayers to get into the kingdom, since they’ve already arrived; and souls in hell can’t be helped by our prayers, since hell is eternal.  Once you’re in, there’s no way to get out.

When we have Masses said for the deceased (or pray other prayers for them) we are doing something that presumes the existence of purgatory.  I pray for my deceased relatives and friends every day.  Since none of them is a canonized saint, I presume they all need some purification on their way to the kingdom.

But, Fr. Ray, what if they’ve already been fully purified and are now in heaven?    

Well, then the grace will go to help other souls who need it.  No prayer for the dead is ever a wasted prayer.

What I’ve said so far concerns our souls.  But what about our bodies?  Every human person, after all, has both a soul and a body.  This, incidentally, is why when someone dies it’s wrong to say that they’re now “an angel in heaven”—unless we’re speaking metaphorically.  That’s because angels are pure spirits.  They have no bodies (although when they’ve appeared to people over the centuries God has sometimes allowed them to assume a human form).

Now since we do have bodies as human beings, we are, in a very real sense, incomplete without them.

Which is our initial situation after death.  As I said earlier, when we die our bodies and our souls are separated from one another.  Under normal circumstances, our bodies then decay and decompose.  But, happily, that’s not the end of the story.  As Catholics we believe that our bodies will be raised up in an immortal, glorified state at the Final Judgment at the end of the world.  At that time our souls will be reunited with our bodies—our risen bodies—and everyone will end up (body and soul) in either heaven or hell. 

Purgatory will cease to exist when everyone who needs to pass through it has done so.

This is why we show respect for the body of a person even after that person has died.  Their lifeless physical body is still important, because it’s a foreshadowing of the risen body they will have for all eternity.  Therefore, it should be interred in some fashion (e.g., in a grave or in a mausoleum)—even after cremation.  It does not show proper respect for Uncle Joe’s cremated body to scatter his ashes to the four winds at Westerly Town Beach because that’s where he liked to hang out every summer!  Nor does it show proper respect for mom’s body to keep her ashes on the mantel above the fireplace in your living room!

Hopefully we’re all clear about that.

I was trying to find a way to conclude this homily on the mystery of death, and lo and behold I came across a little story that a parishioner emailed to me 15 years ago.  Let me read it to you now.  It will end things on a positive note. 
A sick man turned to his doctor, as he was preparing to leave the examination room and said, “Doctor, I’m afraid to die.  Tell me what lies on the other side.” 
Very quietly the doctor said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?  You, a Christian man, don’t know what’s on the other side?" 
The doctor was holding the handle of the door—on the other side of which came a sound of scratching and whining.  As he opened the door, a dog sprang into the room and leaped on him with an eager show of gladness.  (Sounds like Fr. Najim’s dog!)  Turning to the patient, the doctor said, “Did you notice my dog?  He’s never been in this room before.  He didn’t know what was inside.  He knew nothing except that his master was here, and when the door opened he sprang in without fear.  I know little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing … 
I know that my Master is there, and that is enough.”
May it also be enough for us.