Thursday 1 November 2012

Commemoration of the Faithful departed - "Death thou shalt die"

 If you wish to read the texts click here: Isa 25:6-9; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Mt 11:25-30

The Commemoration of the faithful departed reminds us that we are still one with those who have gone before us into eternal life, and that death is not and can never be the end. Since they are alive we still owe them love and support in Christ’s name, even beyond the grave.
While the readings for today may be chosen from a great variety found in the Masses for the dead I have taken the ones mentioned above. This gives us an opportunity to look at the mystery of death and the new life that Christ has won and promised for all of us who believe.
The question of where we go when we die is a question that has puzzled and continues to puzzle the minds of many. It is a question that brings out the fact that we realize that this life has to end and all of us no matter how strong we are, no matter how rich or poor have to die some day. Death has been and will continue to be a mystery. While we know that we have to die and today with the advancement of science and technology can delay death by a few days, months or even years in some cases and can tell how a person may have died, what we will never know, what will always remain a mystery is why a person must die at a particular moment in time. The feast of the Commemoration of the faithful departed does not provide the answer to this question, but informs us that for us as believers, death is not and can never be the end.
If in the past the focus of the feast was on praying for the deliverance of the “souls” in purgatory who were regarded as the “Church suffering” and needed our prayers so that they could join in heaven the saints and add to the number of the “Church triumphant”, today the focus is different. This focus is brought out through the readings suggested for this day.
It is quite amazing to find a text like the first reading of today in the Old Testament in which we do not find any clear theology of the resurrection of dead. During most of the time before Christ, only a vague idea of afterlife is found: and "abode of the dead" called Sheol, whose inhabitants had only a shadowy existence. God’s favor or disfavor was understood in terms of the present life only. However, as hard times and tragedies befell the Jewish people, ideas of life beyond this life began to emerge. Isaiah saw this as eternal restoration of the nation where death would be destroyed and the whole people would live forever. The text comes from within the block of material known as 'The Isaiah Apocalypse' (Isa 24-27). The view of the future within these chapters is universal in outlook and speaks of God's power in the cosmic as well as the earthly realm. An invitation to a feast is also issued in the first reading from Isaiah.  Those who will heed the call are invited to the mountain of the Lord, Zion. Here is the choicest of food and drink which is served in abundance. It is an invitation to feast and rejoice and an assurance that all tears will be wiped away and the people who come will be accepted. All reproach will be removed and God will reveal himself as a God who saves. This salvation will be shown in the most tangible of ways in that death itself will be destroyed.
The Gospel text is addressed to all those who accept the message of Jesus unlike those in Chorazin and Bethsaida. To understand it fully, two points must be kept in mind. The first is that it is placed by Matthew after three “negative” passages which begin at 11:2. These are the responses of Jesus to the disciples of John the Baptist to their question whether Jesus was the Messiah, the exasperation with the crowd who do not recognize John nor Jesus, and the denunciation of the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Indeed, this entire section of Matthew’s Gospel seems to lean on a sense of apparent “failure” on the part of Jesus to measure up to the expectations that all around him had in terms of what a “Messiah” would look like or act like. The second point is that this text is clearly a Matthean composition and is made of three elements. This first two of these are found in Luke but in different contexts and the third is exclusive to Matthew. In Matthew the audience is clearly the crowds and so the words of Jesus here are meant for all. The passage appearing as it does in this context seeks to state that despite so much of doubt and negativity, that despite so much of blindness and closed attitudes, there is hope. Despite the fact that Jesus’ message has been questioned by John the Baptist, rejected by many and especially the wise and understanding and not paid heed to by the cities, yet the invitation and message will find acceptance among the open and receptive of which there are still some left. There is no arbitrariness in this. Rather, it is simply true that for the most part the wise tend to become proud and self-sufficient in their wisdom and particularly unreceptive regarding the new and the unexpected. On the other hand the childlike are most often unself-conscious, open, dependent, and receptive. They are willing to let God work in their lives. They have not decided in advance how God must act and are willing to let God be God. They are willing to believe that in Jesus, God has indeed brought salvation from sin, failure and even death itself. Jesus himself is an example of such openness, which allowed him to receive everything directly from God. It is his intimacy with the Father and not his religious genius, which is responsible for this grace.
Even as we commemorate the faithful departed we must remember that the readings of today do not focus on death at all rather they focus on life and life in abundance. In writing to the Thessalonians Paul makes clear that we cannot behave as a people who have no hope. Our grief has to be a controlled grief. It has to be a grief that has its basis in the hope that all who have died in Christ are sure to rise with him. After God has spoken in Jesus, death is seen only as transition from one kind of life to another. In the words of the sixteenth century poet John Donne: “Death, thou shalt die”.

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