08 Nov 2020

St. Mary’s Basilica Sydney + livestream, 8 November 2020

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

So begins Holy Sonnet 10 by the great Anglican divine, John Donne, echoing the teaching in our epistle this morning that there is hope for those who have died (1Thess 4:13-18; 1Cor ch. 15). Indeed, Paul’s word for ‘died’, κοιμωμένων, is often translated ‘asleep’. So Donne continues:

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

So in the East the Virgin Mary’s end is called her ‘dormition’, her going to sleep. And in the West we pray that our dead be granted not just light, peace and joy, but especially eternal rest.

Truth in Love Ministry Blog

This understanding of death is a far cry from the pagan view of the departed existing only as shades in the realm of the dead, never to return to the land of the living. For Christians, Death may indeed be our last enemy (1Cor 15:26), but he is not as ‘mighty and dreadful’ as he seems. After the sleep of death comes the great awakening, when those who have died in Christ will live in Him forever (1Cor ch. 15). So Paul taunts Death: “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, your sting?” (1Cor 15:55; cf. Hos 13:14) Likewise Donne concludes:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

There’s another account of the sleep of death in our readings today. In Jesus’ Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the bridesmaids, long awaiting the groom’s arrival, “grew drowsy and fell asleep” (Mt 25:1-13). This is a key to reading our parable. All the bridesmaids fell asleep in the House of the Bride, that is, they died in that Church that is bride of Christ the Bridegroom. But because death is but a ‘short sleep’, they soon awoke to face their particular judgement and learn whether they would enter the heavenly banquet.

There are many things we might notice here. First, the bridesmaids all expected to get into the wedding feast: that’s the destiny God intended for every soul. But secondly, some by their own choices remain outside. What are these lamps, this oil, that makes all the difference? The lamps are the light of faith, and the fuel the merits of good deeds expressing a faithful heart. If the lamp of faith is not constantly refuelled by a lived love, its light grows dim and perishes.

Jesus’ parable doesn’t divide humanity into those with lamps of faith or those without. He doesn’t say that the foolish virgins had no lamps, or never fuelled them, or never lit them: for a time, in fact, their faith burnt brightly. Their mistake was to think they’d done enough, had everything under control, needed no more grace or merit. They imagined they knew when the wedding party would arrive – which is naïve regarding any wedding, but especially since Jesus said “No one knows the day or the hour, so stay awake”.[1] Their mistake, then, was presumption and complacency: believing their salvation was secure and they needed nothing more.

What’s often missed is that the wise bridesmaids in the story are not without fault also. Like the drowsy men on the night Jesus was betrayed, these women fell into a deep sleep. The word used in Matthew’s Gospel is different to Paul’s word for the sleep of death: κάθευδον means sleeping one’s life away, being idle and lazy. The bridesmaids should have been alert to the Groom’s arrival, but even the saved ones are far from perfect.

That even good Christians are imperfect, can be idle or slip up, is a sobering reminder for us all. Yet because of their oil stock, their faithful hearts and abundant good works, the light of the saved survives. As St. Augustine put it: “Watch with the heart, watch with faith, watch with love… watch with good works… Make ready the lamps, make sure they do not go out… Renew them with the inner oil of an upright conscience. Then shall the Bride-groom enfold you in the embrace of His love and bring you into His banquet hall, where your lamp can never be extinguished.”[2]

Last Sunday I spoke of that wonderful place where I pray one day we “may all meet merrily together” – heaven.[3] But this week we have intimations that not everyone makes heaven their final destination. When I was studying for the priesthood, one of my fellow students was an English grandmother named Sylvia. She undertook a Bachelor’s degree in Theology in her 70s and a Masters in her 80s. She told me once that in her Anglican days she’d worried that some people die in no fit state to meet God and yet not so wicked they never should; this left her in serious doubt about God’s justice and mercy. Then she discovered that the Catholic Church had what she called  ‘the Merciful Doctrine of Purgatory’. So consoling was that teaching she converted, became a lay preacher for the Catholic Evidence Guild, and eventually came to Australia as a missionary to agnostic theologians and dozy seminarians!

After her theological education, Sylvia would have been more precise about Purgatory, noting that all who die in God’s friendship are assured of eternal salvation but will have the opportunity for purification to ready them for the joy of heaven (CCC 1030). But even her earlier, less sophisticated account of Purgatory as a half-way house for the not-too-good and not-too-bad captured something of the catholicity or breadth of God’s mercy: God will stop at nothing, short of doing violence to our dignity and freedom, to fulfill Jesus’ prayer: “Father, I want all those you gave me to be with me where I am and to share in my glory” (Jn 17:24).[4] Purgatory, you might say, even more than an article of faith, is an article of hope: a promise to those whose life-long process of conversion is still incomplete when they die, that there is still room for grace to complete its divinizing work.

A Protestant friend of mine, who attended so many funerals he regarded himself as a connoisseur, once told me he liked Catholic funerals best: he found them more hopeful and, importantly, got the sense that Catholics thought they could actually do something for the dead, apart from mourning and reminiscing.

He didn’t grasp the theological controversies about souls in Purgatory and Masses for the dead; he only knew these were queer Catholics ideas that made some sense to him humanly. It turns out he was right theologically as well: God in our Scriptures and Tradition reveals that it is “a good and pious thing to pray for the dead”;[5] that in the economy of salvation we have a role to play as intercessors for each other and so can still care actively for our dear departed; that we can, in a sense, share our lamp-oil with them.

“It’s with thoughts such as these,” Paul says to us today, “that you should comfort one another.”


Before Genuflecting

Because current circumstances continue to impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite those who are joining us by live-streaming to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces of sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones, of yourselves and of our world.

[1] Mk 13:32; Mt 24:36-44; 26:36-46

[2] St. Augustine, Sermons, 93

[3] St Thomas More, Last letter to his daughter Margaret http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/morelast.htm

[4]  cf. Jn 5:21-6; 6:37-40; 10:15-18; 14:1-6; 16:26-7 etc.

[5] 2Macc 12:40-46; Mt 12:31; Lk 12:59; 1Cor 3:15; 1Pet 1:7; St Gregory the Great, Dial. IV, 39; Council of Lyons II (1274) DS 856; Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus (1336) DS 1000; Council of Florence (1439) DS1304; Council of Trent (1547) DS 1580 and (1563) DS 1820; CCC 1030-32.

Welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney, whether physically or virtually, for the Solemn Mass of the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Today at Offertory time we will take up the Charitable Works Fund collection for the first and only time in 2020 – having foregone the previous two collections due to church closures and other difficulties. This helps fund CatholicCare, Aboriginal Catholic Ministry; CatholicCare’s 100 programmes in Ageing, Disability, Children and Youth, Employment and Family Services; Hospital, Prison and University Chaplaincies; CCD Catechists in state schools; the Ephpheta Centre for the deaf and hearing impaired; and the Seminary of the Good Shepherd. I commend this appeal to your generous support.

In this month of November the Church remembers and intercedes in a particular way for the faithful departed. The faithful offer Masses and suffrages for those they have loved and lost, including deceased family members, ancestors and friends. Our nation recalls on Remembrance Day those who died for our country. And in this week of All Souls, we offer our Mass not just for the living of our Archdiocese as we do every Sunday, but also for the dead of Sydney and beyond. Conscious of our own need for moral and spiritual renewal if we are to join those souls being purified for heaven and those already there, we first repent of our sins.