Ever since I was a child, when people referred to the dead, I
have heard them add, "May they rest in peace." It was said with the
reverence of a prayer, even by people who rarely, if ever prayed.
"May they rest in peace." Sometimes we say this with almost a tone
of relief, if the person who has died has suffered for a long time.
"May she rest in peace," – as if to add, "And she really deserves
A friend of my family has been in a nursing home for 14 years.
She has brain dysfunction that has left her paralyzed. The last
seven years she has been confined to bed and is in total need. She
is only able to open and close her hands – barely. When I visited
her recently with my sister I was struck by much more deteriorated
her condition has become since last I saw her. My silent prayer,
"Take her home Lord and may she rest in her peace."
We want people who have died to find peace, especially: the
long-suffering, those killed in war and religious conflict, the
weary poor, those without homes who suffered the debilitating
effects of street life, and those ravaged by cancer. Unfortunately
it is too easy for each of us to add to this list. We know of so
many for whom death was, or could be, a release. "May they rest in
peace... finally." But even those who have had a comparatively easy
life will face the final ending some day.
Remember the parable of the rich man who built bigger barns to
store his overflowing harvest? "But God said to him, 'You fool! This
very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get
what you have prepared for yourself?'
(Luke 12:20). Death comes for each of us. This feast is a reminder
of those who have passed and of our own mortality as well. Where
have they gone? What did they see the moments after they closed
their eyes for the last time and then gazed into the next life?
The Scriptures are silent about the furniture in heaven. Artists,
good and poor ones, have painted their version of what awaits us the
moments after we die. Their paintings are bright with color and
filled with angels and humans around the throne of the Almighty.
When composers attempt to write "heavenly music" they usually
include harps, trumpets and dramatic kettle drums. Is that what we
will hear in heaven? But as the Scriptures tell us, "Eye has not
seen, nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love God "
We ordinary humans, along with those artists, will continue to
try to imagine what the next life will be like, it’s only natural.
We might even wish there were a book in the Bible, besides the
visionary Book of Revelation with all its over-the-top images, that
would lay out the street plan of heaven for us. But there isn’t, so
we turn to the Scriptures we have, like today’s selections, which
don’t provide a photograph or sound recording of the next life, but
do give us something to pin our hopes on.
The author of Wisdom doesn’t describe the topography of heaven.
Instead we are invited to trust that, "The souls of the just are in
the hand of God." We know what often happens to "the just" in this
life. They suffer the consequences of their just actions and words.
"Before humans they may be punished because of their righteous
lives." But the just have God as their impetus and endurance and God
will not let them slip out of God’s hands during this life’s trials,
nor in the next life. They are "in the hand of God." Their suffering
in this world will have value for them in the next, where they will
shine and "dart about like sparks through stubble." If they have led
good lives they are like sparks and fire to ignite and illuminate us
as we, like them, travel along God’s just path.
To a purely rational mind our belief in an afterlife and the
resurrection of our bodies makes no sense at all. The Hubble
telescope was launched by NASA in 1990. It circles the earth and has
a view of the universe far beyond anything we have here on earth.
The telescope can see as far away as 10-15 billion light-years away.
The deepest view of the universe thus far. It shows the universe in
details never imagined before and has discovered things never known
until now. For example, the Hubble telescope has been able to date
the age of the universe to be about 13-14 billion years (let’s not
quibble over a mere billion years or two!); it helped discover the
mysterious force called "dark energy"; scientists have learned how
galaxies are formed, thanks to the Hubble. As a result of the
information the Hubble has provided over 10,000 scientific articles
have been written.
The Hubble has been scanning the deepest depths of the universe
and hasn’t spotted any "pearly gates" yet. So what could the author
of the Book of Wisdom, written around 60 B.C.E., possibly tell us
about the conditions now enjoyed by the dead – and what awaits us.
The sage tells us what no telescope, no matter how powerful, can
tell us about our deceased loved ones, "The souls of the just are in
the hand of God and no torment shall touch them." How much more
secure and sure can we be? "They are in peace."
It’s comforting to know that those that have died as victims of
today’s terrorism, revolutions, civil strife, religious wars, Ebola,
etc., are "at peace" and in the hand of God. So, our prayer for them
is a note of assurance for us as we pray in faith, "May they rest in
Jesus’ words today are from the longer Bread of Life discourse in
John, which follows the multiplication of the loaves. He promises
that those who "see the Son" (i.e. believe) have eternal life. This
present tense language is prevalent in John’s Gospel, promising that
eternal life begins now for those who believe in Jesus. We gather at
Eucharist to receive the Bread of Life which is a share in the
eternal life enjoyed by those who were nourished by the same food
and who have gone before us.
Some years ago a homeless man came to receive Eucharist at a
daily Mass. When he received the consecrated bread in his hand he
turned to those behind him and, holding the host before them said ,
"Some day man, some day." He then consumed it and returned to his
pew. That’s what I believe Jesus is promising us on this feast: that
some day we will join him, one another and those who have preceded
us into life and that the Eucharist is a way we share in that life
now and it’s a promise, "Some day man, some day."
How will that happen? Where will it take place? I don’t know and
the Hubble telescope won’t help answer the "where?" question. But I
do believe it will take place with all of us gathered around the
banquet table, because I believe the promise I hear again today: we
are "in the hand of God" and Jesus will fulfill what he promises. He
will raise us up on the last day. I also believe what else Jesus
says today: that now I already have eternal life, a deep life that
begins with a new life in Christ which will see us through to the
end of our journey to a place where there will be the great
in-gathering with all the souls of the just. That’s the "where" the
Hubble can’t see, but we believe in.
for a link to this Sunday’s readings:
Living a just and non-violent life is hard to do on a daily
basis—it is difficult to be open, listening, and reflective with
people who may not agree with you. Yet, to emulate Jesus, this is
exactly what is required of us—to do the right, love goodness, and
walk humbly with God (Micah 6: 8).
If you are looking for a group working to reflect the peace of
Christ, check out the Pax Christi USA website. Their mission is as
follows: "Pax Christi USA strives to create a world that reflects
the Peace of Christ by exploring, articulating, and witnessing to
the call of Christian nonviolence. This work begins in personal life
and extends to communities of reflection and action to transform
structures of society. Pax Christi USA rejects war, preparations for
war, and every form of violence and domination. It advocates primacy
of conscience, economic and social justice, and respect for
creation. Pax Christi USA commits itself to peace education and,
with the help of its bishop members, promotes the gospel imperative
of peacemaking as a priority in the Catholic Church in the United
States. Through the efforts of all its members and in cooperation
with other groups, Pax Christi USA works toward a more peaceful,
just, and sustainable world."