Our Eternal Destiny
(Readings: Wisdom 6:12-16; 1Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13)
Introduction to Mass
From the standpoint of Christian faith our life here and now is imperfect and incomplete. It's the life to come, when we're with God, when we encounter God's love fully, which is permanent and complete. For us, time is overshadowed by eternity.
As he got near the end of his preaching ministry Christ encouraged people to see their present lives in the light of their eternal destiny, their future life with God. Letís begin Mass by recalling the times we've been too wrapped up in our immediate plans and projects, and ask God for his pardon and healing.
Every Sunday when we stand up and recite the Creed at Mass we finish by saying that "we look for the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting". We testify to our belief that Christ "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead".
The Creed is the summary of Christian belief which was settled at one of the major Church Councils at the end of the fourth century. It brought an end to a lot of theological debate and it defined the content of Christian belief. That's why we stand up and recite the Creed in the terms that we do every Sunday at Mass.
Some of the other Christian churches - I think I can say without caricaturing or misrepresenting their views - don't see the content of the Creed as being fixed or unchanging in the same way that the Catholic Church sees it.
Some theologians see the articles of the Creed as being the products of a particular time and culture. Articles of belief - in their opinion - are always open to change or can even be abandoned altogether.
So Jesus' Resurrection, for example, was only a metaphor, meaning that the new Christian community were keeping his memory alive. Jesus' parables about life after death, like the one we heard today, were only a way of confronting people with radical moral choices about their lives in the present.
That's not really the way that the Catholic faith has understood the Holy Spiritís manner of working in the Christian community throughout history. The language we use to talk about God and Christ and the Sacraments and so on might well change, and does change. But the beliefs themselves don't change, and that remains one of the big differences between ourselves and many of the other Christian churches.
The readings this Sunday touch on some central Christian beliefs, which in the past were a source of division between the different Christian traditions, and which are still interpreted differently by the various churches: beliefs about our life after death, about Jesus' Second Coming, about Purgatory, about God's Judgement.
The Christians Saint Paul was writing to in the second reading had started to worry that the people who died before Christ's Second Coming - most people, presumably - would somehow be at a disadvantage compared to the people who happened to be alive at the time of the Second Coming.
Paul's answer is to tell them that they're worrying about nothing. We all have the same future in front of us, he says: either to know and love God more fully than we ever can while we're still in this life - what we mean when we talk about "heaven" - or else to be deprived of God's company forever, which is what Jesus was talking about when he conjured up images of wailing and gnashing of teeth and being cast out into the darkness.
The particular moment that we die doesn't make any difference to our final destiny, but it was partly this worry, voiced by the Christians in Thessalonica, that led to the development of our belief in Purgatory.
As we know, some of the more evangelical Churches reject the idea of Purgatory because there's no direct or obvious reference to it in the Bible.
But like so many of the Church's beliefs that developed very early in its history, the belief in Purgatory was the answer the Christian community came up with when it reflected on their knowledge and experience of God, in this instance his love and care and mercy and his desire that every person should gain salvation.
From our Christian point of view our death is the moment when we leave behind all the shadows and inadequacies of earthly life and move into the light and fullness of life with God. The person we reach out to in our prayers, the person we often experience in a dim, partial, fleeting way during our present life will be known directly and clearly in the next life.
And according to what we believe about life after death, that involves two things.
One is that we get a much clearer sense of God's holiness and love and mercy, and the happiness that goes along with that. There's the knowledge that we're saved - that we're heading towards God.
And the other thing is that we get a much clearer sense of our own lack of holiness and love. We don't only see God face-to-face, we see ourselves much more truthfully as well - all our self-centredness, our clinging to wrong goals, our pride and childishness.
So of course there's an element of pain and upset - the pain of contrasting our imperfections with God's perfection, our lack of love with God's perfect love. And it's that state, after we've died, that we refer to when we talk about Purgatory. It's not some place where we spend millions of years being tortured - the picture conjured up by a certain tradition of preaching, taking Jesus' own apocalyptic images too literally.
Purgatory is more the experience of seeing God's goodness and love alongside our own faults and inadequacies, and being purified of those elements, so that we're fit to be with him forever.
In the Gospel passage this Sunday - Jesus' parable about the sensible bridesmaids and the foolish bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive - we get another image of the Second Coming, the end of time, and the Judgement that goes along with it.
Again, we have to avoid looking at these passages in a fundamentalist and literal way. The Bible doesn't contain scientific knowledge about life after death. It uses images: a new heaven and a new earth, the eternal banquet, the resurrection of the body, and so on.
The Bible has to use images because the Bible is struggling to describe what it will be like to live in complete harmony and love with God and with each other, and we can't give a scientific description of that, we can only give comparisons, analogies, images.
The only thing that can stop us from enjoying that future is by deliberately turning away from it - preferring to assert ourselves and choosing to alienate ourselves from God.
That's why Jesus' parables about the end of time always have a hint of a threat. There's going to be a judgement and our time here and now is a sort of probation, a time of testing. The final choice that we make about our eternal destiny will be a summing up of all the free actions and decisions that we've made during our life, not an arbitrary punishment by a capricious God.
Those are my thoughts and reflections about what the readings today tell us about death, judgement and our future life with God.
Many people only give superficial thought to these subjects and obviously find them difficult to accept or believe in. But when we spend some time reflecting on them, and praying to God about them, we begin to see that they don't deserve to be dismissed so easily.
Not only that, they open up the way to greater truth about the purpose of our lives on earth and our relationship with God - and it was with the aim of opening up that greater truth that both Jesus and St. Paul preached to people in the terms and the language that they did.