Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What We Forget at Funerals

"Uncle Harry has gone home to the Lord. He's gone on to his eternal destiny."

When we've lost a loved one, we use such phrases to comfort ourselves. While they are right in expressing the Christian hope that death does not have the final word, each of them is missing a key piece of our belief about what happens after we die.

"Uncle Harry has gone home to the Lord."

This says that Uncle Harry is now in heaven. I don't want to be a Negative or Nitpicky Nicky here, but we don't know the fate of any person when they die. None of us can know whether Uncle Harry died in a state of grace, in the friendship of God, with no unconfessed mortal sin; and even if he did, he may well have to spend some time in purgatory, excising those last bits of attachment to sin and making his soul all-holy before approaching the throne of God. There are two potential dangers, then, inherent in this phrase:

  1. We fall into an implicit universalism where we assume that everyone will be saved, or at least a near-universalism where we assume everyone will be saved as long as they're basically good and didn't kill anybody or anything. 
  2. By assuming they go to heaven right away, we neglect our absolutely essential duty to pray for the souls of the faithful departed, that we might aid their sanctification and help them get from the waiting room of purgatory into their heavenly home. (My girlfriend's family include's a prayer for the dead whenever they pray before meals, which I think is beautiful and practical--then you're sure to pray for the dead three times a day!)
"He's gone on to his eternal destiny."

From hearing this and other similar phrases, you get the sense that our "eternal destiny," our final end, is to spend eternity as a disembodied soul; your ol' body lies a-moldering in the grave, but your soul goes marching on, as though your body were a spacesuit being used temporarily to let your soul function in this alien environment, ultimately separate from you and disposable. But your body is not an accidental attachment to you; it is you. The human person is a composite of soul and body; each is incomplete without the other. You are an embodied soul, an ensouled body. As such, your eternal destiny must also include your body, and that is precisely what we believe as Christians. It's right there in the Creed: "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." At the end of time, there will be a new heavens and a new earth, and we will have glorified bodies, like Jesus' resurrected body (this is why St. Paul calls Jesus "the firstfruits of the resurrection"), to live with God in this renewed state for all eternity; this is what the Anglican theologian N.T. Wright calls "life after life after death." Spirit and flesh no longer striving against each other, but joined in harmony and integrity, forever enjoying the beatific vision of God Himself, sharing in His very life. That is our eternal destiny.

Don't forget it!

No comments:

Post a Comment