In sure and certain hope
Our earnest prayers for the dead are of a piece with our striving, with God’s help, to live a good life and to die a holy death. We live every day trusting in the divine love and mercy. That trust extends into eternity.
Until we all meet in Christ.[i] Among the assurances of faith which give us most comfort at a time of bereavement is the promise of being reunited in the Lord with our dear ones. Our faith in the resurrection of the body reassures us that in the presence of God we will not only be recognisably ourselves but also that we will find in him all those from whom we have been parted by death.[ii] Death is both an adieu and an au revoir for in God we will see our deceased loved ones again. Among the glories of heaven will be the restoration of all that is good which seemed to have been lost.[iii]
Jesus makes gentle fun of some of the questions which can arise about the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.[iv] Will we be reunited in heaven with everyone we have known in this life? There may be some beloved persons with whom we are longing to meet again but there may be others whom we would rather not run into in paradise.[v] The Lord’s good humour around this matter does not conceal his seriousness. Jesus Christ is bringing us to a perfection which will enable us to forever in the presence of God.[vi] We long for that perfection and yet we are also capable of rejecting it.[vii] We have sometimes in the past rejected what the Lord offers us and have damaged our own highest hopes. That damage is repaired by God’s goodness. Our faith in that goodness also enables us to look forward to being again in the company of all whom we have loved, though no doubt imperfectly.
All who have died in Christ will rise with him on the last day.[viii] The framework for this promise and hope is quite demanding on us. God is drawing us all to himself. He will raise us up. He will reunite us with those we have loved. God will do all this for those who die in Christ. The Lord achieves this reunion as well as bringing about our willingness to be with him forever. This willingness shows itself in the way we live. Our receptiveness to God in Jesus we can cultivate all the time. A warm invitation to such openness addresses itself to all of us all through our life. The Maccabees and their experience remind us, if we needed reminding, that death can come prematurely.[ix] The courage of such people in the face of death inspires everyone to aspire to the same fortitude in suffering.[x] Endurance like this is a component of the willingness to live and die under God’s protection.[xi]
The meeting again with those who have died, which we so deeply desire, will also be a work of God. The promises of Christ relate to this divine achievement. We are made worthy of those promises by our welcome to Jesus, by our cooperation with the providence of God and by our membership of the body of Christ. Our earnest prayers for the dead are of a piece with our striving, with God’s help, to live a good life and to die a holy death. We live every day trusting in the divine love and mercy. That trust extends into eternity. It is the best response to the puzzles raised by the Sadducees and other doubters about what it will be like in heaven. Let us trust God to arrange both the totality and the details of the eternal life which he has for so long planned for us. All that has been created and brought to fulfillment will have the perfection, including the happiness, that was always intended.
God promises to bring about the resurrection of bodies. The harmonious reunion of those who have loved God and loved each other is part of that promise. The Lord undertakes to gather up all that has been lost. He intends to restore all justice. He seeks peace where there has been estrangement. These are large matters for us. The promises of Christ fill with significance our perspective on eternity. The teaching of Jesus also settles how we are to live now. What about the difficulties in all of this? Will not God solve them? All will be living with him in new life. What frightens us about death he will deal with definitively.[xii] I shall see your face and be filled when I awake with the sight of your glory.[xiii]
What we are preparing for is to be with God forever. Our attention, sometimes so feeble and fickle, will one day be focused utterly and joyfully on God. We can begin again immediately to lead lives which have this wonderful focus. The Lord is faithful and he will give you strength.[xiv]
In God we will find again our family and friends.[xv] In God we will re-discover ourselves. In God we will enjoy the restoration of all that has been lost. The creator is content with what he has made. He sees its goodness.[xvi] This divine contentment will empty the graves and restore the happiness of those who live as he directs.
In the resurrection is our hope. In the rising from the dead is an end to our sadness over those we seem to have lost. In the new life promised by Christ is also the overcoming of our disappointment with ourselves. We pray for eternal rest for the dead. We anticipate the joy of seeing them again. We give thanks for the comfort this expectation brings us in our sorrow. Through God’s grace, such inexhaustible comfort and such sure hope.[xvii] The resurrection of Christ, now, and the resurrection to come at the end-of-everything will unite us to each other and enable us to be forever with God. Meanwhile, he strengthens us in everything good that we do or say.[xviii]
[i] 1 Thessalonians 4.17
[ii] 1 Thessalonians 4.13
[iii] Acts 3.21
[iv] Luke 20.34-38
[v] Luke 20.33
[vi] Luke 20.37
[vii] 2 Thessalonians 3.2
[viii] 1 Thessalonians 4.16
[ix] 2 Maccabees 7.12
[x] 2 Maccabees 7.17 and the martyrdom of Eleazer and the seven brothers 2 Maccabees 6 & 7
[xi] 2 Thessalonians 3.5
[xii] Exodus 3.6 Moses, full of reverence, was afraid to look at God who made himself present to him
[xiii] Psalm 16.15
[xiv] 2 Thessalonians 3.3
[xv] Luke 20.38
[xvi] Genesis 1.31 and the whole account of creation
[xvii] 2 Thessalonians 2.16
[xviii] 2 Thessalonians 2.17
Peter Gallagher SJ