Nov 2, 2014: The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day)

Introduction

On November 2, the Church, after celebrating the feast of All Saints on November 1, prays for all who, in the purifying suffering of Purgatory, await the day they will join in heavenly glory.

All Souls’ Day was originally was celebrated in the Easter season, around Pentecost Sunday — and still is in the Eastern Catholic Churches. By the tenth century, the celebration had been moved to October; sometime between 998 and 1030, St. Odilo of Cluny decreed that it should be celebrated on November 2 in all of the monasteries of his Benedictine congregation. Over the next two centuries, other Benedictines and the Carthusians began to celebrate it in their monasteries as well, and soon it spread to the entire Church.

This particular feast has no specific readings assigned to it.  Pastoral judgment allows us to choose any readings for the Masses of the Dead.  The readings that appear here are those that are listed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as the readings for this Sunday.

1st Reading – Wisdom 3:1-9

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if before men, indeed, they be punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them
and found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their visitation they shall shine,
and shall dart about as sparks through stubble;
they shall judge nations and rule over peoples,
and the LORD shall be their King forever.
Those who trust in him shall understand truth,
and the faithful shall abide with him in love:
because grace and mercy are with his holy ones,
and his care is with his elect.

This passage is taken from a section of the Book of Wisdom called by some “The Book of Eschatology,” because it addresses the last or final things, the end of the age: death, judgment, reward, and punishment.  These verses address the destiny of the righteous.

The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.

It is here in the Book of Wisdom that we first find the Greek concept psyche, or soul.  Although this word is often used with the same meaning as the Hebrew nephesh (“being” or “life”), in other places it clearly marks adoption of the body-soul dualism which was part of the Greek understanding of human nature.

The Greeks held that humans were a combination of an impermanent, material body and an eternal, spiritual soul.  The Hebrews did not hold this view.  This can be seen in the fact that nowhere in this book is the claim made that the soul is immortal.  In this passage, hope is full of immortality, not the soul (verse 4).  Earlier in Wisdom, the author declared that justice of righteousness is immortal.  This statement is important for understanding the present passage.

They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.

This is a radical departure from the traditional doctrine of retribution, which held that suffering itself presupposes sin.  Here, those who cling to that interpretation are called foolish.

The statement “they are in peace” hints that there is some form of existence after death — a notion quite different from the earlier perceptions of Sheol, the netherworld, that we see in other places (Job 11:8; Psalms 6:5, 49:15-16, 141:7).

For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality; chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.

Contrary to the belief that suffering is a punishment for sin, the author considers suffering and death a purification that they must endure in order to be with God.

In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble;

“Visitation” refers to God’s loving judgment of those who have been faithful to him.  The same word is used in Wisdom 14:11 for the punishment of the wicked at God’s final judgment.

They shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the LORD shall be their King forever. Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love: Because grace and mercy are with his holy ones, and his care is with his elect.

Those that enjoy this communion with God are identified “just” and “faithful.”  According to Hebrew thought, human righteousness comes through covenant union with God, who alone is righteous.  At issue here is whether or not death will sever this bond of covenant union.  Originally, the Israelites did not have a clear answer for this question.  However, Israel’s appropriation of the Greek concept of “soul” enabled it to envision the possibility of some aspect of the person surviving death, even though the manner of that survival was not clear.

2nd Reading – Romans 5:5-11

Brothers and sisters:
Hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For Christ, while we were still helpless,
died at the appointed time for the ungodly.
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person,
though perhaps for a good person
one might even find courage to die.
But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
How much more then, since we are now justified by his Blood,
will we be saved through him from the wrath.
Indeed, if, while we were enemies,
we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,
how much more, once reconciled,
will we be saved by his life.
Not only that,
but we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Saint Paul’s teaching on justification, though complex and sometimes difficult to understand, is quite clear in this passage.  He insists that our justification was won for us through the blood of Christ.

Brothers and sisters: Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 

Our hope in God will not disappoint, because it is sealed with the Holy Spirit.  It is the work of the Holy Spirit to instill the love of God in the hearts of all the faithful — a love which is transformative and confers God’s mercy and grace.

For Christ, while we were still helpless,

We were sinners, alienated from God, when Christ died for us and gained access for us the grace that changes us, that places us in right relationship with God, that makes us righteous.

yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.

The term kairós (“decisive moment”) is used to indicate the dawning of the new age of fulfillment — Paul is alerting us to the eschatological significance of Christ’s death.  Used here, it also implies that this is also the moment of our justification, our salvation, our reconciliation with God.

Not only are we helpless, we are also ungodly: slaves to our own sinfulness. Compared to God, who is goodness and purity itself, we have no right to any relationship with him.

“If Christ gave Himself up to death at the right time for those who were unbelievers and enemies of God … how much more will He protect us with His help if we believe in Him! He died for us in order to obtain life and glory for us. So if He died for His enemies, just think what He will do for His friends!” [The Ambrosiaster (A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die.

Paul tries to explain the astonishing character of the gesture of Christ’s death.  It’s hard enough to die for a good person, but to die for someone who is ungodly is almost unthinkable.  Yet that is exactly what Christ did.

“How can Paul say this when the Bible is full of martyrs? What were they doing? In fact, the martyrs were not dying for other people but for God, and for Him anyone would dare to die. But every other death is much harder to endure, even if it is just and in accordance with the law of human nature.” [Origen (after A.D. 244), Commentaries on Romans 5,8]

But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; he died for us before we were justified.

How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, 

Paul tells the Christians in Rome they have been justified through the action of Christ; they have not justified themselves.  The verb used here for justified (dikaióō) is relational.  It is based on the righteousness that originates in God, a righteousness that gives and sustains life.

This clearly recalls the Jewish sacrifice of expiation offered by the high priest.  In that ritual, the guilt of the one offering the sacrifice was believed to be transferred to the victim and destroyed along with the victim, whose blood was poured out on the altar.  Through his own death, Christ accomplished this expiation for us.

will we be saved through him from the wrath.

The verb for saved is sōzō, which means “to be delivered from serious peril.”  He is not referring to deliverance from the perils of life; he generally uses the verb rhýomai for that.  Here he is speaking about deliverance from the ultimate peril, the peril after life.  Since God is the one who metes out the punishment due to sin, God is the only one who can save the sinner from this peril.

Indeed, if, while we were enemies, 

Paul takes his description of man without God a step further: first helpless, then ungodly, and here, an outright enemy of God.

we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

The word used for reconciled is katallássō, which means “to change or exchange.”  Paul uses it to describe the transformation in the human-divine relationship.

If Christ’s death can completely transform the relationship of God with his enemies, how much more will we be blessed through his resurrected life, as God’s children?

Not only that, but we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Having been justified and reconciled, we can even boast of God himself — whereas before we stood in fear of his wrath.  Having experienced God’s love in the death of Christ, he can now exult at the very thought of God.

Gospel – John 6:37-40

Jesus said to the crowds:
“Everything that the Father gives me will come to me,
and I will not reject anyone who comes to me,
because I came down from heaven not to do my own will
but the will of the one who sent me.
And this is the will of the one who sent me,
that I should not lose anything of what he gave me,
but that I should raise it on the last day.
For this is the will of my Father,
that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him
may have eternal life,
and I shall raise him on the last day.”

Our gospel reading today is part of Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse. In it, Jesus assures his audience that those who are joined to him will never be separated from him.

Jesus said to the crowds: Everything that the Father gives me will come to me,

Those who come and receive have been given to Jesus by his Father.  We are the Father’s gift to his Son!

In one sense the faithful come to the Father through the Son (see John 14:6), but in another sense — the one Jesus references here — they were already the Father’s before they became disciples of Jesus.

Note Jesus’ assertion that no one who is to come to him will fail to do so.

and I will not reject anyone who comes to me,

Jesus further comforts his audience by assuring them who accepts his grace will not be rejected.

because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.

The assurances from Jesus are grounded in the mission given to him by God.

And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.

If any of these disciples were lost, it would be seen as failure on Jesus’ part. This is unthinkable, because the whole purpose of the incarnation was to realize God’s plan of salvation.

For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.”

God’s plan of salvation has two related purposes.  The first is that those to whom Jesus was sent might believe in him.  The second is that their faith might grow deeper and deeper until the last day, when he will bless them with the gift of eternal life.  It is because of their faith that they will be raised up with Jesus on the last day.

Connections and Themes

Divine mercy.  Even though we may sometimes capitulate to our sinful nature, there is still a burning desire on the part of God to save us.  In God there is mercy in abundance.  It seems that Jesus is not willing to lose anyone, and Paul tells us that hope in God’s love does not disappoint.  The power of Jesus and the strength of his promises assure us that even after death there is the possibility of purification and pardon.  We have no idea of when or how this might happen.  All we know is that the lovingkindness of God far surpasses any infidelity of which we might be guilty.  We do not deserve this mercy, but then we have never deserved God’s mercy.  It is a gift freely given.  Even to the end we believe that God will not abandon us to ourselves.

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