Our Greatest Act of Freedom
Wednesday, November 3, 2022, Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day)
by Fr. David M. Knight
View readings for today:
Today we “commemorate” all who have died. We remember them, not just as friends and family we have known and loved — and still know and love — but with focus, centering our attention on the meaning and value of death itself. On the mystery contained in it.
Death is not just a natural human event. It is the moment of transition from human and from divine life lived under the conditions and limitations of life on this earth, to divine life lived in its fullness in union with God, and human life lived in separation from the body, awaiting resurrection. There is a lot more to death than just the physical and medical alterations bystanders observe. We experience a certain awe and wonder as we stand before death. And we should. Death is a mystery. Something human that involves the divine. A truth inviting exploration through reason enlightened by faith
In my own flesh
The first reading gives us an assurance from faith where reason might stand in doubt. Job 19: 23-27 is the declaration that through death we do not lose our individual existence or identity:
But as for me, I know that my Vindicator lives... whom I myself shall see. My own eyes, not another’s, shall behold him, and from my flesh I shall see God.
Powerful. And needed against the fear that at death we might somehow be indistinguishably “absorbed into God” like a spark lost in the divine fire. Job tells me I will see God “in my flesh,” my own flesh. My own eyes, “not another’s” will behold him.
Philosophers tell us the body is the “principle of individuation.” For example, “human nature” is a general concept, the same in all people, until it becomes individual in a physical body. That is why the resurrection of the body is so important. The promise that I will rise in my body is a special guarantee that I will be my unique, individual self.
This clarifies, but does not contradict, the greater mystery of the “end time,” the mystery “hidden for ages in God who created all things,” the mystery Paul was sent and empowered by grace to make known: God’s “plan for the fullness of time” was to “gather up all things in Christ.”
Christ is the “Alpha and the Omega, the beginning, the middle and the end of the mystery of God’s plan for creation. In Christ all things in heaven and on earth will be “united,” “gathered up,” “summed up,” “recapitulated,” “brought together under a single head.” This is Paul’s vision, shrouded in mystery, of the end for which all things were created: the mystery of Christ “brought to full stature.”
The goal of all creation is Jesus himself, the “perfect man,” the body of Christ, head and members, all of humanity brought to the fullness of perfection in the Church, “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:3-10, 22-23, 4:11-13). In that body all will be one, and all will “be Christ.” Heaven is a communal experience. But all will also have their own distinct, personal identity.
“Father, into your hands...”
There is nothing more personal, more distinct and individual, than an act of free choice. And that is what death is.
Death is not just something that happens to us. Karl Rahner has pointed out that death is the greatest free choice of our whole lives. When death comes, we have to respond to it.
We can die yelling, “No!” Or shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Okay” in stoic resignation. But neither of those is a Christian death. A Christian must die giving a positive “Yes!” to death. A yes to actual, physical death that matches and brings to completion the yes we gave to the total reality of death when, as Paul reminds us in Romans 6:3-9, we accepted to die with Christ and in Christ at Baptism.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
While we are in our bodies we are still to some extent “of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.” Accepting death in Baptism does not free us from the cultural conditioning, the infected attitudes, values, compulsions and inhibitions “programmed” into us from the day we began interacting with the human race. So we experience what Paul did: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.... I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind” (Romans 7:14-24). It takes physical death to free us completely from this.
Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning: “What is essentially new about Christian death is this: through Baptism, the Christian has already ‘died with Christ’ sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ's grace, physical death completes this ‘dying with Christ’ and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1010).
Luke 23: 44-49 gives us the model for this in Jesus’ own death: “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” To die as Christians we have to die as he did, surrendering willingly to death for the sake of union with the Father. This is the greatest free choice of our lives.
To make it we have to rise to the fullness of pure faith, hope and love. Nothing else can motivate this choice or make it possible. We are not saying yes to death as such if we just accept it as relief from pain, or because life has become boring. The acceptance of death in its true reality, and not just as an idea, is more than choosing to stand up to a firing squad while alive as an alternative to dishonor. The real experience of death is feeling ourselves actually losing existence itself as we know it. Losing all we have and are. There is nothing in this prospect of annihilation to say yes to unless we believe in what Jesus said about life after death, hope in what he promises, and love God, finally, with our whole heart, soul and mind as the All who is worth the sacrifice of everything else — absolutely everything and everyone. Death is our first act of observing the First Commandment completely.
Purification, not “Purgatory”
Whatever transition from partial to total faith, hope and love is required for a given individual to arrive at this full and freeing act of surrender to God in death is the true meaning of “Purgatory.”
“Purgatory” is a misleading word. It is not a place where people spend time prior to “entering heaven.” Only bodies can be in time and space; so after death there is neither: just eternity. A better word is just “the purification.” If we do not have the pure faith and hope we need to say “Yes!” to death with undivided love of God, there must be a transition. That need not involve time.
The Church speaks officially of this purification as a “temporal punishment (poena temporalis) due to sin.” We can translate poena as “punishment” or more accurately as “penalty”; that is, as the natural consequence of the “sin” or “shortcoming” (in New Testament Greek hamartia: to “miss”) of not trying fervently enough during life to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. If we haven’t grown to perfect faith, hope and love by the time we face death, we have to do that before we can see God as he is. Because this transition has a before and after, we call it “temporal” — not to say it takes place in “time,” but just to distinguish it from “eternity.”
“Purgatory,” then, is the transition from faith mixed with dependence on human evidence, from hope mixed with dependence on human reassurance, and from divided love mixed with human self-seeking to pure acceptance of all three as divine gift. We make this transition in the act of saying “Yes!” to death” “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!”
The only “pain” in this transition comes from our resistance to change. We fight the changeover from dependence on our natural guidance system — our senses, intellect and emotions — to total abandonment to the voice and word of God. This transition, and the pain it involves, is “measured” by its intensity. But we found it easier, especially when teaching children, to explain it in terms of a longer or shorter “time” spent in a “place,” enduring “punishment.” We were taught that, even though our sins were forgiven, a just (understand “vengeful”) God still required us to “pay” for what we had done. That was common teaching in the Church, but it was never the teaching of the Church.
This is one example of the Church being “careless about our instruction in the faith, or presenting its teaching falsely” that the bishops in the Second Vatican Council acknowledged as having “concealed rather than revealed the true nature of God and of religion.” Because of this, the Council “urges all concerned to remove or correct any abuses, excesses or defects which may have crept in here or there, and so restore all things that Christ and God be more fully praised.” “All concerned” includes all of us who by Baptism have been made “stewards of the manifold grace of God,” and responsible for the establishment of the Kingdom of God: a “kingdom of truth” before all. We might begin by correcting the misleading explanation of “Purgatory” that falsifies our notion of God. 
Insight: How do I feel about death? Do I look forward to the day of my total “Yes”?
Initiative: Prepare for dying by doing what gives growth in faith, hope and love.
 “The Church in the Modern World,” no. 19; “The Church,” no. 51.
Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry