A couple had been married for over fifty years when the husband passed away from a fatal illness. Their pastor visited the widow a few days after the funeral, and found that, even though she was grieving, she was also filled with peace and joy. “Mrs. Winslow, I’m glad to see you’re holding up so well,” he said, “but even so, I’m sure you must miss your husband terribly.” “Oh, yes,” answered the widow; “I miss him more than I could ever say. But I think of it this way. For years and years I would wait all day for Bill to come home from his job. I’d keep busy here with work around the house, and I’d look forward eagerly to the time he’d come through the front door. I’d have his dinner ready, and we would enjoy our time together each evening. All these years, I was the one waiting for him to come home—and now he’s waiting for me!” (Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 102).
This is a wonderful understanding of life after death, and a beautiful expression of Christian faith. Atheists and non-believers see death as the end of our existence, but for those who trust in Jesus, death is the entry-way into eternal life, and an opportunity for a glorious reunion with those who’ve gone before us when we reach our true and final home. Society often tries to deny the reality of death, but the Church joyfully proclaims it—for our faith is in the One Who conquered death and Who invites us to share in His new and everlasting life.
God loves us at every instant of our lives: from the moment of conception until the moment of our last breath on earth. Above and beyond that, He continues to love us for all eternity—and if we have tried to respond to His love, we have the assurance of living and rejoicing forever in His presence. As the Book of Wisdom says, “the souls of the just are in the hands of God,” for “God tried them and found them worthy of Himself.” St. Paul assures us in his Letter to the Romans that “hope does not disappoint,” for though we were sinners, “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son. . . .” As Jesus promises in the Gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in Me, even if he dies, will live. . . .” St. Martha understood and believed this, even before Christ’s Easter victory; though she was grieving over the death of her brother Lazarus, she made a magnificent profession of faith in Jesus, saying, “I have come to believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, the One Who is coming into the world.” This is the sort of faith every follower of Jesus is called to imitate—for a glorious future awaits all those who truly place their trust in Him.
In the first 100 years after the death of Christ, Christianity took root throughout most of the Roman Empire, and in the year 125 a pagan author named Publius Aristides tried to explain why it had spread so rapidly. He wrote, “If any righteous man among the Christians passes from this world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God, and they escort his body with songs and thanksgiving as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby” (Zuck, op. cit., p. 106). That is indeed our Christian understanding of death: journeying from one place to another, from a temporary dwelling to an eternal home. Many times people find the idea of dying frightening, but it helps to keep our ultimate goal in mind. Late one afternoon, as evening drew on, a little girl entered a cemetery which she often used as a shortcut after school. An old man at the gate asked her, “Aren’t you afraid to go through the cemetery in the dark?” “Oh, no,” she answered; “my home is just on the other side” (Zuck, op. cit., p. 110).
Our true home is on the other side of death—a home where we will delight in God’s presence and rejoice in the company of our loved ones, along with all the angels and saints. However, it is very important to remember that because Heaven is a place of absolute beauty and perfection, nothing marked by even the tiniest stain of sin can enter there. It’s said that approximately 150,000 people around the world die every day. Some private revelations suggest that only a few dozen at most are so perfectly conformed to God’s will that they’re able to enter into Heaven immediately. Those who’ve rejected the Lord condemn themselves to hell; the vast majority enter purgatory, where they’re cleansed of the effects of their sins and made fully worthy to enter into God’s presence. On the Feast of All Souls the Church affirms the existence of purgatory, and reminds us that we can be of great assistance to those who are suffering there. Our prayers, Mass offerings, and sacrifices are of great value and consolation to everyone experiencing spiritual healing and being made ready for eternal life—and according to private revelation, when we pray for loved ones undergoing purification in purgatory, they are aware of it, profoundly grateful, and from then on personally dedicated to praying and interceding for us, both during our earthly lives and after our deaths, should we end up spending some time in purgatory ourselves. Our prayers and sacrifices for the dead are never wasted—and what a wonderful thing it will be if, when we enter Heaven and are reunited with our loved ones, there are also many thousands of persons helped by our prayers waiting to greet us and thank us.
The Church’s teaching on purgatory avoids the two sinful extremes of despair and presumption: despair over our human sinfulness and mortality, and presumption in assuming that everyone goes straight to Heaven. When we die, God exercises perfect justice—but in His mercy, He also gives us the opportunity to complete our growth in holiness and perfection if we’ve not finished that process here on earth. Therefore, this month of November is meant to be a joyous experience of hope, and a time of heightened awareness of our unity with those who’ve gone before us—including those who now rely upon the help of our prayers, and those eagerly awaiting our arrival at our heavenly home.