Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
There have been a few times as a priest that a concept seems to get stuck in my brain and it seems to pop up every now and again. For the last few years, I’ve been fascinated by just such a concept put forth by Pope Benedict in a book which he wrote prior to being elected pope entitled Introduction to Christianity. In that work, he stated that the central frustration of both believer and unbeliever alike is the question of “what if?” For the believer, the question is: What if there is no God, if it’s all a hoax? What if I could be doing all kinds of things that believers think are immoral this whole time but haven’t because I feared the loss of heaven and the pains of hell? For the unbeliever, the question is: what if there is a God? What if someday I have to look God in the eyes knowing full well that he knows I spent my life denying his existence? In some ways, the easy solution to this quandary is to be agnostic, to be not sure if God exists or not. Yet, I imagine even the most committed agnostic tends to lean one way or another. In truth, I imagine we all have theories about the nature and existence of God.
This tension is felt most acutely during this commemoration of all the faithful departed or All Souls, as it’s commonly known in our church. In fact, here at St. Thomas, we use the entire month of November to remember our friends and family who have passed away. We invite you to write in the names of your beloved dead in the book of the dead located by the baptismal font. In this way, we keep the celebration of the faithful departed going throughout the entire month. After all, in some way, this celebration is too important to restrain to one day. It encapsulates that most central tension of the human drama: Should we really have hope that our loved ones are alive in Christ after they have died or are we merely using faith to help “get us through” the tragedy of that loss?
Our readings today, in some way, bring to light a couple of points that may help us along this journey. The first reading, in particular, from the deutero-canonical book of Wisdom, challenges the long believed hypothesis prevalent in so much of the Old Testament literature, that may be summed up as, “You get what you deserve.” It was commonly accepted that people in good health, people who were rich, people who had the best crops and livestock, were blessed by God because they were the good ones, the most obedient. In other words, if you behaved good in the sight of God, God will be good to you in return. The book of wisdom is the first book, I believe, to challenge this assumption by saying that the just will be tested in order to be found worthy. Life is not easy. Our faith is constantly being tested, especially in the light of tragic situations like death. It’s difficult to find hope in the death of a mother, father, son, daughter, or someone else close to us. Yet, according to the second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, hope does not disappoint because it seems to come out of nowhere. It’s like those times when we experience a moment of hope in the most frustrating, confusing, and hopeless situations. Have you ever had one of these experiences? Where do they come from? I’m thinking of times when I have been sitting in a funeral home near a coffin while a loved one tells a story about their deceased relative that makes everyone there laugh hysterically. In some way, the memories that we have with a person, the times that helped us bond with the person and learn to love them are sources of comfort for us. Nonetheless, the unfortunate reality is that memories fade. The daily remembrance of someone who is missing becomes weekly and eventually passes into oblivion. And, thoughts that used to seem so hopeful, thoughts about eternal life in heaven, seem hopeless, more like escapism and avoiding the problem.
Yet, the fact that there is hope points to something larger. Jesus, in the gospel, says that this hope comes from the love of God which is poured into our hearts. In those times when our faith is shaken and the world seems pointless, remember love. Oftentimes, the very reason that the world seems so shaken is because we have dared to love and that love seems lost forever. But, the fact that love exists, the fact that we were allowed to experience the love in the first place, points to something greater than us. Even in this experience of love lost, we can find hope that we will one day see all those souls that have gone before us marked with the sign of faith because the love that is still greater than anyone of us will love us up and take us to be with him forever.