Each year as we come into these first days of November, the church’s liturgy asks us to give serious thought to the ultimate questions of life and death and life again.
The various Hispanic cultures among us take very seriously these “dias de los muertos” and renew their bond between the living and the deceased in public and colorful ways.
Americanized Westerners, however, seem satisfied to let the children play with domesticated Halloween forms of the spirit world while we adults – perhaps unfortunately – maintain our individualized sense of superiority about such things. We have become so sophisticated as to lose much of our bond with the next age and those in it.
Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans, however, seem to have a stronger sense of “All Saints” and are more eager to celebrate the bond which unites us with the holy people of all times and ages.
In fact, the Episcopal Cathedral in Milwaukee is dedicated to All Saints. It is important enough for Catholics to claim Nov. 1 as a Holy Day of Obligation with the duty to attend the Eucharist, even amid the often hectic business of our modern daily lives.
Our liturgical calendar for the following day on Nov. 2 each year subsequently turns to focus on all the deceased who still experience the personal purification needed for every baptized individual to encounter the Presence of God.
We abbreviate the day into the title of “Poor Souls” and pray for family and friends who have been summoned through the doors of death into the fullness of life.
Looking at the bigger picture for a moment, one could boil down the entire Gospel narratives into the ecstatic cry, “He has been raised / is risen” (Mt 28:6)! They quickly fill in the rest of the story to explain what he rose from and how he got there!
Each Gospel, in its own fashion, also proceeds to describe the public ministry of Jesus to provide further insight into the words and deeds which incorporated his teachings and explained his mission for the redemption of the world. Every canonical Gospel adds its own rich contribution to the portrait.
St. Paul summarizes the tradition which he had received in the famous fourfold creed, namely that Jesus died according to the Scriptures and was buried, rose according to the Scriptures and was seen by several groups of witnesses (1 Cor 15:3-8)! He insisted that this is what we believe and what we proclaim.
The rest of the apostolic message also includes an invitation to enter the saving waters of baptism and thus share in a profoundly transforming and personal fashion the Lord’s dying and rising (Rom 6:3f).
That sacrament binds us to the mystery of the Trinity, makes us children of God and unites us in a family of grace which includes people of all generations, places and cultures. In Christ we are all one. With him, because of baptism into his death and resurrection, we each and all also die and rise.
In the bitter debates of the 16th century Reformation, Lutheran and Catholic theologians clashed over the substance of our beliefs and some of the abuses which infected Catholic practices related to our prayers for the dead. Politics and fundraising were often mixed into the stew. Sadly, we have lived in a church wounded by division ever since.
Since the Second Vatican Council, however, some patient, official conversations have occurred to understand each other’s traditions in order to determine which, if any, differences are still existent and truly “church dividing.”
I was privileged to co-chair the national Lutheran / Catholic Dialogue which produced a thoughtful 2011 report titled “Hope of Eternal life.” I recommend it heartily to anyone willing to work through the hundred some pages of meticulous ecumenical reflection on these basic questions.
It is clear that all of us need to be humble about the mysterious ways of God’s transforming love for each of his people. We often pretend to know more than we really do. Catholics in particular need to remember the power of God’s grace and mercy, even when we speak of our free human cooperation.
We should be especially cautious about any mechanical tally of souls “freed from purgatory” by our actions. Unfortunately, sometimes items show up in parish pamphlet racks which minimize God’s free grace and almost make us the instruments of our salvation.
In his 1988 study of the last things titled, “Eschatology,” Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, suggested that perhaps purgatory is nothing more than the instantaneous encounter with God’s searing love which purifies us and welcomes us into heaven forever!
Nevertheless, we live and die bound together with Christ and each other. We pray with and for each other as women and men baptized into Christ’s redemptive death and victorious resurrection!
That is what we believe. That is what we celebrate during these grand annual celebrations of “All Saints” and “All Souls”! They mark the end of the liturgical year and signal the ultimate purpose of all human history. We are profoundly grateful.