Wednesday 28 October 2020

‘You will not leave my soul among the dead’

Since the clocks changed last weekend, it is suddenly getting darker much earlier. Winter is definitely on its way. And knowing that those long winter nights can become oppressive, the Church, like any good mother, tries to cheer us up. And so she invites us to think about death.

It’s not just because the evenings are dark in November that we think about the faithful departed. And it’s not just the faithful departed that we are thinking about. The month of the Holy Souls begins with the celebration of All Saints. That should be our starting point too. When we think about death, it should be through the lens of the glory of heaven. Yes, death itself is always a tragedy, a consequence of original sin, and ‘the last enemy to be defeated.’ (1 Cor. 15:26) ‘Death was never of God’s fashioning; not for his pleasure does life cease to be.’ (Wis. 1:13) But death is not an end in itself. Death, for those who are united to Christ in this life, is a gateway to that heavenly life with the One who made us for himself.

Prayer for the faithful departed is an expression of that same hope — there is only one way out of Purgatory! And yet many of us may still feel great sadness as we call to mind those we pray for.

Not all weeping proceeds from unbelief or weakness. Natural grief is one thing, distrustful sadness is another, and there is a very great difference between longing for what you have lost and lamenting that you have lost it. (St Ambrose, De excessu fratris)

Christ himself was disturbed by the thought of death. St John tells us that he was ‘troubled in spirit’ (Jn 13:21). He says to his disciples, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ (Matt. 26:38; Mk 14:34). He sweats blood during his agony in the garden, when he prays to be released from the death he knows he is about to undergo. So Christ shows us that death is evil. It is acceptable to be scared by it, but we mustn’t let it get in the way of our journey to the Father. ‘Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ (Jn 12:27–28)

Christ has conquered death. That doesn’t remove the fear, but it helps us to deal with it. Someone who is not frightened by death clearly doesn’t understand what it is. It’s like holding a poisonous snake and saying you’re not scared of it — clearly you don’t know what it’s capable of. But if we admit that death is something scary, then we truly can be courageous in the face of it. Courage is not the absence of fear that comes about through ignorance. Courage is confronting something scary with a good reason for hope. And we have God-given hope, because Christ has conquered death, and is holding the door to heaven open for us.

And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad; even my body shall rest in safety.
For you will not leave my soul among the dead, nor let your beloved know decay.
You will show me the path of life,
the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever. (Psalm 15)