Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Crowd Of Witnesses

The poet, Maya Angelou, was invited to speak at a conference. To much applause, she stepped onto the stage and approached the podium. Before speaking, however, she looked uncomfortable and started to squirm. She told the audience, "This stage is so crowded. I can barely move. There are people all around me." At first, the audience thought she was crazy because she was alone on the stage. As she continued, they began to grasp her meaning. Though she was physically alone on the stage, the reason she was there in the first place was because of the sacrifices and endeavors of many people who came before her. They were the educators, the preachers, the soldiers, the activists, the writers who all made it possible for her to be who she was and to do what she does. She was paying tribute to all those individuals who crowded the stage of her life and made it possible for her to be there that evening.

It is often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Everything about us and our lives comes from those who went ahead of us - our language, our clothing, our careers, our freedom and our faith. It is natural for us to want to acknowledge those soldiers, politicians and benefactors and to build monuments to them. Many of our buildings and boulevards take their names from deceased members of our community. Even as we look around this church today, we see windows, pews and statues dedicated to the memory of parishioners who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. And none of us can fail to remember our family members and what they have done for us. Our lives are indeed crowded by the sacrifices and endeavors of so many people who went before us, and we owe them a profound debt.

There is one man above all to whom we owe an infinite debt of love and respect. No other man has sacrificed so much for us. This man has not only gone before us but has gone ahead of us to win for us the hope of everlasting life. We speak, of course, of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Other great women and men have left a legacy of political or literary achievement. But, Jesus has left us a legacy of undying hope. With Jesus, death is transformed forever and life along with it. We no longer look on death as an end but as a beginning. We no longer look on death as a defeat for humanity, but as the guarantee of a future of peace.

The first reading from the book of Wisdom explains how faith transforms our view of death. In the ancient world, there was a vague sense of the immortality of the soul. However, pagans did not expect life after death to be any better than life on earth. As they understood it, the dead traveled to a gloomy, hopeless underworld where they wandered aimlessly. It was more like a never-ending death than an everlasting life. Their gods were often selfish and mean-spirited, and so pagans had little hope that an afterlife governed by such gods could be anything but empty and meaningless.

How different the understanding of death we read about in the book of Wisdom (Wis.3:1-9)! The God of Israel is a good and merciful God. Those who have died are in the hands of this God beyond the reach of any torment or suffering. Because God is good, they enjoy a profound peace as they rest with him. So it is with our loved ones who have died and so it will one day be for us who embrace faith in Jesus Christ.

The second reading from the letter to the Romans (Rom.5:5-11) explains just how good and merciful this God is. Out of love for sinful humanity, God sent his only Son to die for us. This Son was pure and sinless.  And yet, to assure for us a place at the table of life, he died for us. He took upon himself the death we deserved for our sins. We rightly celebrate as heroes those who give their lives to save others. Yet, has anyone in history ever died for an enemy? Has anyone ever given his life for someone who hated him? Jesus has done such a thing for us. Now we can approach the Father with hope and confidence because the price of admission has been paid in full for us through the blood of Christ. 

Praying for the dead is an ancient tradition of the Church and one of the spiritual works of mercy. It is done with faith and confidence that, for those who have died, one last great act of mercy attends them before they enter the gates of heaven and are ushered into the presence of God Almighty. One more cleansing in the blood of the Lamb removes each and every stain of guilt and sin so that those who have been washed through the waters of baptism and purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit may take their place among the apostles, martyrs and saints. We pray for the dead not with fear but with confidence and hope. We pray for the dead also with a sense of duty that those who have sacrificed so much for us should be assured of our prayers as they approach the judgment seat of a just God.

This church is crowded today - not so much with physical people but with the memory and presence of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. Because of the mystical union of all believers, all of heaven joins us in this celebration. Our relationships and connections to those who have died is changed, not ended. And so, every Eucharist is a remembrance. On this day, we make a special point of commemorating the faithful departed - the members of our family and of our parish along with those souls who have no one to pray for them - so that we can be assured of their prayers also as we make our way to our heavenly inheritance.

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