November 2, 2009

The Welfare of the Dead

You can say what you want about how the faith is faring in our time, but an observance like today reveals the fundamental human concern for the welfare of our beloved dead. People come out for Mass, stuff money into All Souls' Novena envelopes, write the names of their deceased into books of intentions, and visit cemeteries.

It's just a basic thing; just as we could not have understood someone telling us about the breadth and sights and sounds of this world before we emerged from the womb, so we can barely understand the new life into which we will be born at our bodily death. We pray for those who have preceded us into this mystery as an act of care, charity, and concern. We hope in Christ for their peace and rest.

Today at the early Mass I proclaimed St. Luke's account of the miracle at Nain:

Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.As he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, "Do not weep." He stepped forward and touched the coffin; at this the bearers halted, and he said, "Young man, I tell you, arise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, exclaiming, "A great prophet has arisen in our midst," and "God has visited his people." This report about him spread through the whole of Judea and in all the surrounding region. (Luke 7: 11-17)

For me this gospel reveals so much of the personality of God. The miracle Jesus performs is not for the sake of the one who seems to receive it--the young man--but for his mother, who was going to be alone and vulnerable in the world without him. "Jesus gave him to his mother." The miracle is performed in order to preserve a human relationship. Jesus is unwilling to allow the bodily death we have brought into the world with our sins to interfere with human love. This good news always comes out for me in one of my favorite prayers from the entire liturgy, which comes from the beginning of the wake service:

"We believe that all of the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel in death."

Because God has emptied himself into our humanity in Christ, human love is lifted up as a revelation of divine Love in the world. God would not allow divine Love to simply evaporate from the creation just because of something as meaningless as our bodily corruption and death! Rather, the good news for the dead and for us who mourn is that upon our death and final purification, God harvests to himself all of the love and care we were in this life and makes them indestructible in eternity. Salvation is preservation in the sense that God does not allow the revelations of Love whom we become in this life to be lost.

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