Day of the Dead, All Souls Day, the day we honor those who have died but are still “on the way” to the face to face vision of God in heaven, being purified by God’s saving grace. We believe that God only saves us as a community of grace, with the whole Body of Christ coming to the aid of each member in need — just as the four friends carried the paralytic to Jesus, who then healed him because of their laboring faith (Mk. 2:1-12). So this day the Church calls us all to intensify our prayers and sacrifices for the dead, in union with Jesus’ saving death on the Cross re-presented in the Holy Mass, to speed their journey toward the full joy of salvation in God’s unveiled presence.
I recommend praying the Office for the Dead today (here is one version), and offering it for loved ones and those you know who have died.
Today also offers us a meditation on the merciful doctrine of Purgatory, which, as Pope Benedict argues in his encyclical Spe salve, allows us to hope for the overwhelming salvation of “the great majority.” Of course, it must be kept in mind that Purgatory is not just a free and easy pass to heaven. Far from it! It is the necessary “fiery” confrontation of the saving judgment of Jesus Christ with our own disfigurement in sin; a disfigurement that prevents us from living in the image of God’s holiness and from seeing the fullness of his Glory. “No one can see God and live,” so we must die to all that is alien to the truth of God’s eternal life, love, justice, purity and mercy. Alien to his holiness.
Purgatory is a “letting go.” In a sense, its pain is akin to the experience of withdrawal symptoms in a detox from an addiction — exposing addiction’s roots, detaching our disordered attachments, our enslavement to things, our grip on vice or on the parasitical evils that inhabit us. Painful, yes, but it is a purifying pain full of hope for the “freedom of the children of God.” In fact, Romans 8:18-24 powerfully ties both agony, hope and freedom together in this very way.
And why are we freed? To be made capable of living as worthy children of a God whose love drove him to the Cross.
And it must be said clearly that “purgatory” is not just for life beyond the grave. It is to begin here, now. Our life here is about us joining God, in Jesus Christ, in leading all humanity and this whole magnificent creation through the purifying fires of Divine Love into a final destiny in the new creation — and leading by first being led. Christian life is marked by such a “purgative way” of detachment from sin, of death to our old self with its natural narcissism, all of which prevents God’s love from being made perfect in us.
This “purgatory on earth” is the work of our free cooperation with Jesus’ saving grace in us, while the “purgatory in heaven” is wholly the work of God to which we simply surrender. And while our cooperation in this purifying transformation in this life bears fruit “for the life of the world,” our surrender to those purifying fires in the next life only permits us to retain the fruits we have already gathered in this life.
Now is the day of salvation, the time to gather with Christ the building materials of the new creation he is building (Mt. 6:19-20; Jn. 14:3).
In addition, as it is with the way we seek freedom from our sins and addictions in this life, we rely on others to carry us to Christ for healing. Rely on their prayers, sacrifices, deeds of mercy. And so Purgatory is also marked by a burden of love with which each person of faith in Christ’s Body is yoked, as we are called — commanded! — to bear one another up to the “Healer of the world” (Jn. 4:42) on the shoulders of our tireless faith, hope, love and works of mercy.
Okay, that’s enough rambling. I will leave you with an excerpt from Pope Benedict’s Spe salvi for your meditation on this awe-full day of the journey toward freedom. It captures what I have been trying to say, with the wonderful clarity of Benedict…
For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains
in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God.
In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over
by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity,
but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges
from all that is base and remains present in the soul.
What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge?
Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter?
What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians,
gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement
according to each person’s particular circumstances.
He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible,
without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—
simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death
nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying
that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ.
This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation
and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death.
Then Paul continues:
“Now if any one builds on the foundation
with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—
each man’s work will become manifest;
for the Day will disclose it,
because it will be revealed with fire,
and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives,
he will receive a reward.
If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss,
though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15).
In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation
can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down,
that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire”
so as to become fully open to receiving God
and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.