Remembering Our Beloved Dead
Following a fight against Gorgias--a general in the army of Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes--Judas Maccabeus ordered his men to gather the bodies of their fallen comrades so that they might be buried with their families. Upon moving the dead, they found them wearing amulets “sacred to the idols of Jamnia.” (2 Macc. 12:40)
All died with sins on their souls.
A noble leader, Maccabeus, exhorted his men to avoid sin, led them to pray for their dead so that “the sinful deed might be blotted out,” and raised money to make a sacrifice for them in Jerusalem. “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Macc. 12: 46).
While none of these practices in this account seems out of the ordinary for modern Catholics, it caused a good deal of confusion--and reflection--on the part of early Christians. After all, why pray for the dead? If they are already “saved,” that is, on their way to Heaven, they have no need for our prayers. If they are damned, that is, on their way to Hell, no prayers will help them. So why pray?
That question, made more pointed by the statement that nothing unclean will enter Heaven (Rev. 21:27) and the realization that a terrifyingly few will die without sin, prompted a great deal of prayer and reflection on the part of theologians and bishops. From that came the Church’s recognition of Purgatory.
November is the month we remember our beloved dead, starting with the Feast of All Saints, where we remember those in Heaven, and then celebrating the Feast of All Souls, where we intercede for those in Purgatory.
And rumors to the contrary, Purgatory is most decidedly real.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect…” (CCC #1030-31)
Mystics and theologians have described this process as “cleansing fire”--Saint Thomas Aquinas going so far as to suggest that it is the same fire as those who suffer in Hell, just experienced temporarily. This image of Purgatory has come down to many of us--and the idea that it will be a painful process for those there is valid. Confronting our sins and selfishness is always painful. Perhaps this is why we prefer to call our sins “mistakes” instead of sins.
Whether we are meant to understand “fire” literally or metaphorically, it certainly hurts. But it also purifies. It enlightens. And it warms. As such, it is an apt image for the fullness of what happens among those experiencing Purgatory.
It’s easy to see in Purgatory the hand of a vengeful and angry God. The reality is that sin divides and destroys, and the penitent needs to do--with God’s grace--her or his part to heal the wounds she or he has caused. That is simple justice.
But Purgatory is also a sign of God’s great love and mercy.
As noted above, those in Purgatory are “assured of their eternal salvation.” Free from mortal sin, they remain in “God’s grace and friendship.” They know, therefore, what it is to love. But they’ve also experienced what it is not to love.
Like a couple readying themselves for their nuptials, those entering eternity need to be clean before they arrive at the “wedding feast of the Lamb” (Rev. 19).
They also need to accept the forgiveness God always offers those who are truly sorry. And that is not always easy to do. Most of us have been in a situation where we have hurt people we love, truly hurt them.
Sincerely asking forgiveness, we may be given it, but there is an innate, powerful desire to do something for those people: not because “doing more” will buy us forgiveness (it’s already been given) but because we need to somehow make what we did right. So our friend/spouse/child/sibling accepts whatever gesture so that we might accept their forgiveness. It is a wonderful act of generosity on her or his part.
God does the same for us.
Unless we have fallen so deep into sin that we have been numbed to what we have done, when we face the Lord and see all the hurt we have directly and indirectly caused, we will undoubtedly ask His forgiveness and be given it. But we will feel the need to offer something more, to do penance. If we hadn’t been able to do that in this life, the “God of second chances” offers an opportunity to do so in the next.
At many funerals, Mass has become a sort of canonization ceremony for the departed. It’s understandable that we focus on the good aspects of our loved ones and offer comfort to those most acutely feeling their loss. But we need to pray for our dead--to help them better accept the forgiveness the Lord offers them and all of us for our failings. This is one of the roles we play in our part of the Communion of Saints--and as family members and friends. And in praying for our loved ones, we implicitly acknowledge our common weaknesses and need for help. Equally important, it shows that our love isn’t dependent on people being perfect.
And looking at Purgatory, we see God’s love isn’t either.