The End and the Beginning!
Now that we are arriving at the end of Church Year (three weeks until Advent), the readings call us to think of the events at the end of time, both personally and cosmically. Today, we reflect on the Resurrection; on the life to come; on heaven. Today we see that death is an end and a beginning.
It's hard to talk about these things without talking about one of the few taboo topics of our society: death. We Americans don't often talk about death. We avoid it like it's a dangerous thought, as if only bad things can result from reflecting on the fact that we will one day die and go to God. In any other area of life, we would label this with words like "suppression" and "denial" or some other psychological words. Jesus today reminds us that it is nothing to fear.
This is exactly what the Thessalonians were worried about: death and the Resurrection. How do they go together? Saint Paul's response was two-fold: assure them of the truth that those who have died will rise with Christ, and urge them to practice their faith to strengthen their hope.
Pope Benedict wrote an encyclical on Hope that fits well with today’s theme:
(#11)…Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view. So what do we really want? Our paradoxical attitude gives rise to a deeper question: what in fact is “life”? And what does “eternity” really mean? There are moments when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this is what true “life” is—this is what it should be like…St. Augustine tells us that in the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer besides this “true life.” Our journey has no other goal—it is about this alone. But then Augustine also says: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like. We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us. … “There is therefore in us a certain learned ignorance (docta ignorantia), so to speak”, he writes. We do not know what we would really like; we do not know this “true life”; and yet we know that there must be something we do not know towards which we feel driven.8
12. I think that … Augustine is describing man's essential situation, the situation that gives rise to all his contradictions and hopes. In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for […t]his unknown “thing,” the true “hope” which drives us, [but] at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity. The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it.
Heaven and eternal life is so much better than this very good life that we know and experience every day.
So, I believe that, not in a negative way, we Americans should think of death: the death of Christ, the death of the Christian in Baptism. We think of death all the time at Mass. We represent Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Through our Baptism, we are drawn into that mystery every day when we die to sin and find new life in the Spirit.
(sec #10) Saint Ambrose tells us “Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin ... began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.” 6 … “Death is, then, no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind's salvation.” 7
Death is the gateway to salvation, to being made whole. Let us thank our Lord for the hope we have in His Son’s victory over death, and pray that he open our hearts to receive the gift of “eternal life” where we are with Him forever, a gift that we begin to share in through this Holy Communion of the Eucharist.