Sermon: All Souls’ Day 2014

All Souls’ Day
2 November 2014
Fr. Patrick Allen

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all soulsYesterday, the first of November, was of course All Saints’ Day – a day set apart in the Church for us to celebrate the witness and example of all those Christians who have gone before us as true martyrs or having lived lives of heroic virtue. But of course, this is not just a backward-looking exercise as we seek strength in their witness and example. No, we believe “in the communion of the saints,” which is happening right now. We celebrate their present company, their real encouragement, and especially their prayers.

So in just a few minutes, we will seek their intercession for us, and we will lift up our hearts to the heavenly realm where they are, and in the Holy Eucharist enter into the ceaseless worship of heaven, together with “angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.”

Or we may think of St. Therese of Lisieux, dying so young of tuberculosis, who said, “My mission – to make God loved – will begin after my death… I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.”

“I will spend my heaven doing good on earth!” The saints are those known and unknown, formally canonized or not, who have been, as St. Paul has it, “conformed to the image of Christ,” who have been perfected in love, and enjoy the Beatific Vision. And there, in the Presence of God, they exercise a ministry of prayer for us.

But of course this is not the Mass of All Saints, but rather the Mass of All Souls – or “All the Faithful Departed.” And at this Mass we pay particular attention to the other side of this prayer ministry. To be sure, we give thanks for the lives of our departed loved one, and we may well mourn our own losses, but most especially we have a ministry to perform: to help the faithful departed, to encourage them, to love them. In a sense, we may spend our earth (some portion of it, anyway) doing good in Heaven.

All that Father gives me will come to me, is the promise that our Lord makes in today’s Gospel. And the Lord, in his goodness and mercy, is fitting us for that great day. That process, in which we cooperate with his grace, is called “conversion” – and the goal, the promise, is that we will each in our own particular way, be like the saints, conformed to the image of Christ – that we will love as he loves.

We might think of it in terms of last Sunday’s Gospel, in which Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment in the law. And you remember his reply: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy, soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self.” And that is not, at its deepest level, so much a commandment as it is a promise. “Thou shalt love,” God promises his people.

But immediately, we see the rub. For the vast majority of us, upon reaching the “grave and gate of death,” we do not yet love perfectly, whole heartedly, and have in our own individual ways and to varying degrees resisted God’s grace, so that we do not love as Christ loves, do not do as he would do. Not conformed to the image of the Son, we are not yet ready for the Father’s presence.

But it is not just that there is, so to speak, an objective moral shortfall in our lives. Our problem is not just that holiness is not only required objectively, but that it is also desired subjectively – it’s what we want. And perhaps the best way to measure the progress of our sanctification or the depth of our conversion is to consider to what degree we actually desire holiness and wholeness. Regardless of how we struggle and often fall and experience deep conflicts within our hearts, we know what we want – or, in my case, I know what I want to want: to love freely and without reservation, to leave behind mixed motives, for our appetites and desires to be brought in to good order and subject to reason and love. We long, in our saner moments, for purity, to be rid of anything that would keep us from perfect communion with a loving Father.

C.S. Lewis pondered this dilemma of arriving at Heaven’s gate with our love still imperfect, with our desire for holiness still unrealized, and had this to say:

Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid  you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first’ (“The Business of Heaven”).

But God will not break our hearts, and he, incredibly, desires our fellowship and presence, wants our own longings for holiness and wholeness to be fulfilled. And the name that the Church gives to the Father’s love at this point is “Purgatory.”

The teaching of the Church in this matter is actually pretty slim as to content, though it is filled with great comfort and common sense. In fact, the Catechism sums up only three things the Catholic Christianity insists upon with regard to Purgatory.

The first, I hope should be clear from all that has gone before – simply that Purgatory is about purification for heaven (which all Christians – Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant agree is necessary), not about punishment and Hell. Actually, I should be even clearer than that – the Church teaches that Purgatory is Heaven, at least its narthex or doorway or, perhaps, its mudroom. It is part of the process of salvation, the application of redemption – and again, something for which God’s friends desire as “the hart longs for the waterbrook” (Ps 42). So Purgatory is forward looking, not backward. It is for those who are being saved, not for those who have chosen their own way.

Secondly, Purgatory may involve some degree of pain and discomfort. This should not be surprising and is, I think, common sense. Sanctification on this side of the grave involves pain and discomfort – at least in the sense of striving and straining towards the goal and of disciplining the appetites. And also in this sense: it involves necessarily the revelation to ourselves of our own horrifying sinfulness and does so against the backdrop of a much clearer vision of God’s holiness and love than we can have in this life. We can perhaps think of this in terms of confession – which is nothing other than being truthful with God about our sin, and, as we know, sometimes the truth, especially the truth about ourselves, hurts, but truth, honesty, is always the necessary precondition for healing and reconciliation. A Puritan theologian called confession “the vomit of the soul” – it’s not pleasant, but it gets the badness out, and we’re glad and relieved to have it out.

But if Purgatory must necessarily involve pain, it must also necessarily involve pleasure and joy because it brings us to the Source of pleasure and joy. Indeed, St. Catherine of Genoa, the Church’s great teacher about Purgatory, insisted that these pleasures must outweigh any pains:

Thus, according as the rust diminishes and the soul is laid bare to the divine rays, happiness is augmented. The one grows and the other wanes until the time of trial is elapsed . . . With regard to the will of these souls, they can never say that these pains are pains, so great is their contentment with the ordinance of God, with which their wills are united in perfect charity (Treatise on Purgatory).

And finally, the Church has always believed that just as by God’s design and command prayer aids our growth in grace and holiness on this side of the grave, so prayer can aid growth in grace and holiness in Purgatory. How does that work – how do our prayers help? In the same way that any prayer works. God has ordered his world in such a way that our prayers have some effective part in its – and mine and your – unfolding history. As Pascal said, in prayer God “gives us the dignity of causation.”

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom encouraged his flock in Constantinople, “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them” (Hom. in 1 Cor. 41,5:PG 61,361; cf. Job 1:5).

So let us exercise our full dignity! Let us pray!

Love demands that we pray, and the highest prayer of the Church is the Eucharist, when we unite ourselves to Christ’s sacrifice. And it is here, in the Mass, that the veil between this world and next is lifted, and we are there before Christ’s throne with “Angels and Archangels and the whole company of heaven.” The Communion of Saints is actualized. United with Christ, we are united with one another. Our love and desire and prayer for those we love is lifted up to the Father in the Son’s perfect offering of himself on Calvary’s cross – and theirs for us.

And so it will be until that great Day when God will bring all of us finally, fully, and forever to Himself. All that the Father gives me will come to me, he has promised. And so we shall: we will see Christ, and be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

In the meantime, with all who hope in him, we purify ourselves, even as he his pure – trusting that God in his mercy and grace will provide for us and for those whom we love whatever is lacking in our sanctification, and that the One who began a good work in us will bring it completion in the Day of Christ.

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