Bottom line: It is good to think about the last things: death, judgment, hell and heaven.
This month we are reflecting on the last things: death, judgment, hell and heaven. During November, when we see nature dying, it is natural to think about the meaning of death.
Today's readings speak about the last things. The Prophet Daniel foresees the day when those who "sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake." Some, says Daniel, "shall live forever." Others, however, will be an "everlasting horror." Jesus also describes a separation. God will send angels to "gather his elect."
In thinking about death, I found help in a little book by Dr. Peter Kreeft. It's titled "Love is Stronger than Death." Dr. Keeft teaches philosophy at Boston College and he is always thought provoking. He uses five images to explore the meaning of death: death as an enemy, a stranger, a friend, a mother and a lover.
Dr. Kreeft addresses a common misunderstanding. Many people say it is morbid to think about death. For sure, no one should want to hasten their death, but it is good to recognize its reality. Dr. Kreeft tells about people who have come near death, maybe experienced a heart attack, and how it sometimes changes their attitude toward life: each moment and each person becomes more precious. Dr Kreeft then directly addresses the reader: "Lay the book down for ten minutes and ask yourself what you would think, feel, say and do if you knew this was the last ten minutes of your life."
I did that. I was in my prayer chapel and the Lord was right in front of me in the Blessed Sacrament. I have only ten minutes. What do I do? As you might imagine, I thought about my sins and asked for forgiveness. Then I began feeling gratitude for the life he had given me. I said I do not know what lies ahead, I cannot imagine it, but, please, I want to be with you.
Now, this was no great mystical experience. At the same time I was thinking forgiveness, gratitude and meeting the Lord, I was worrying about a problem in the parish, the election outcome and what I would have for breakfast!
It's not easy, but it can be good to think about one's own death. Some saints used to keep a human skull on their desk; it reminded them of their own mortality. The Bible says: "Remember your last days and set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!" (Sirach 28:6) St. Paul writes that we carry the dying of Jesus in our own bodies. (2 Cor 4:10)
We all know that we are going to die. But it's one thing to know it and another thing to really believe it. C.S. Lewis observed that it is difficult to believe that this hand will one day be a skeleton. We know that death is real, but we tend to think that it always applies to someone else. So far every time I read the obituaries, it's always someone else!
We can live in a fantasy world where our own death seems unreal. That's a reason why we should take another look at our burial practices. You can learn a lot about a culture from their burial practices. The Egyptians built magnificent pyramids - basically tombs for the Pharaoh and his family. The peoples of America - for example in Peru - made funeral monuments that visitors continue to admire. In this country we have cemeteries that are green spots in our urban landscapes. They are tranquil places where people can go to remember those who have gone before us.
Unfortunately, our burial practices are diminishing. It's done in the name of practicality and conservation, which is good, but something is being lost. I would ask you to think about this: What is one of the most visited spots in Seattle? It might surprise you, but it is the grave of our most famous citizen. You know who he is: Bruce Lee. I've gone there and noticed flowers and notes from all parts of the world.
Now, if people do that for a movie star, should we not do the same - or more - for our parents and other loved ones? Even if you plan on cremation, there should be a spot with a marker for your mortal remains. And I would add something else: If you are going to be cremated, you should consider purchasing a simple casket so that there can be a Mass with your body present.
Funerals are not easy because we tend to steer away from the reality of death. No one likes to think about it, especially the death of dear ones. But, you know, it's what makes our lives a true drama. I think about my dad's death. This Wednesday will be the 17th anniversary. I remember my mom, my nephew and I kneeling at his bed after giving him Communion as Viaticum. It struck me that he was embarking on a mysterious voyage. If we were sending a man to Mars, news networks from all over the world would cover the launch. But my dad was setting out on an unimaginably greater adventure.
Isaiah calls death "the veil that veils all people." One day you and I will pass through that veil. As Dr. Keeft points out, death is an enemy and a stranger, but can also become friend, mother and lover. It is good to think about the last things: death, judgment, hell and heaven. Amen.
From Archives (Homilies for 33rd Sunday, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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Parish Picture Album
(Bishop Liam Cary - from May 2012)
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
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