In the Hail Mary we ask Mary to pray for us sinners, “now and at the hour of our death.” These are the two most important moments in life. We have the past and the future, for sure, but they’re far less important than now and the hour of our death.
“Now” is the time we live in, the present moment. Whether it’s a time of joy or sorrow, a time of satisfaction or disappointment, a time of sickness or health, it’s the time we have to love, to give, to endure, to act, to live.
“The hour of death” is God’s time, when God brings us from this life to the next. It may be instantaneous or prolonged, but it’s the time when God who gave us life takes this life away.
Both of those moments benefit from faith. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was a believer who trusted in the power and presence of God through these same moments of life. They’re challenging moments.
After the angel left Mary in Nazareth, no other angel came; she walked by faith from the Child’s birth to the death and resurrection of her Son. As we face the mysteries of life, we ask her in our weakness to be with us as a believer and a mother, who knows the goodness and power of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ her Son.
“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
Nothing haunts the human consciousness more than death. The universal history of tomb building and funerary rites, symbols and myths that developed around the phenomenon of death bear witness to its mystery and the fear of the unknown that have burdened the human race for millennia.
Given the universal agreement on the finality of death, the religious authorities took unusual measures to ensure that Jesus was dead on arrival at the tomb. The evidence of the flow of blood and water from his pierced side on the Cross should have been enough. But driven by an unconscious fear, the chief priests and Pharisees had the tomb officially sealed by Pilate, who also ensured no hope of escape by the dead man by setting guards at the entrance round the clock (Matthew 27:62-66).
Something as deadly serious as death was made deadlier still by the official commotion and conspiratorial discussions of the religious establishment. Wasn’t death an absolute and irrefutable fact? Why all this fear and fuss over one man’s claim that he will rise from the dead? If death was absolute, the man could only be a lunatic anyway.
The actions of the authorities could only be classified as irrational given the facts and circumstances of the case. For they were treating a lunatic claim as if it could be true. Even if the disciples were to fraudulently claim their master’s resurrection (though he be actually dead), the authorities treated the matter as if it had believability (unlike a child’s belief in the Easter bunny, which threatens no one).
The claim of the Christ was not dismissed as outright lunacy, but as containing a seed of possibility. This in itself was remarkable, for it exposed a glimmer of light within human consciousness that could only be suppressed by extraordinary “rational” measures to stamp it out. An unconscious and supra-rational doubt about the finality of death mobilized a curiously vehement energy to permanently seal the sepulcher and put death in its place. Why the religious leaders wanted to suppress the possibility is another deep enigma.
Against this backdrop, extraterrestrial beings popped in to lighten things up. Bleary-eyed and sorrowful after a mournful Sabbath, it didn’t even occur to Mary Magdalene to wonder why two shining youths were hanging out in an empty tomb. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” Mary was clueless.
Then another voice echoed the youths, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.”
Enough hide-and-seek, the “gardener” decided with a twinkle in his eye, and the risen Jesus called out to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher.
Absolutely convinced of the finality of death (a mark of her mature rationality), Mary failed to recognize the voice the first time. Recognition and expectation go hand in hand. Nothing in her conditioned mind prepared her to expect to hear the Lord’s voice again. As soon as she heard her name, however, her heart awoke to her beloved.
Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
The freshness of life emanating from the risen Christ was overwhelming, like the fragrance of new blooms. In the moment, Mary could not have understood the full significance of Jesus’ injunction to let him go to the Father, but she faithfully reported his words to the disciples.
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and then reported what he told her.
The fear, perplexity, and doubt that continued to plague the disciples up until the Ascension and Pentecost testify to the deeply entrenched fear of death that had darkened the human consciousness over the course of civilizations. Jesus’ resurrection was not an easy message to preach. Not even the evidence of sight, hearing and touch made it easy. The disciples would need the infusion of the Holy Spirit’s power and energy to go to the ends of the earth with such an out-of-this-world Gospel.
All Saints Day and All Souls Day belong together. On the Feast of All Saints we affirm the capability of humanity for goodness and holiness. We’re all called to be numbered among the saints of God.
On All Souls Day we remember that we’re all weak and sinful. We can lose hope in the call of God, and so we ask God’s mercy for ourselves and those who have gone before us in death.
St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians and Corinthians, affirming God’s promise of eternal life, open our prayer today:
“Just as Jesus died and has risen again, so through Jesus God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep and as in Adam all die so also in Christ all will be brought to life.”
At Communion, we hear the words of Jesus:
“I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord. Whoever believes in me even though he die will live and anyone who believes in me will never die.”
Still, death can sadden us; it can weaken our faith. Praying for the dead strengthens our faith and benefits those who have gone before us. Our opening prayer asks for that grace.
Listen kindly to our prayers, O Lord,
and, as our faith in your Son,
raised from the dead is deepened,
so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants
also find new strength.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.
Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
How do we want to die? I think we’ll be hearing that question more frequently after our current elections are over. “End of life” decisions are going to be part of the political agenda in the future. In our society we’ll be facing a range of questions about death and dying..
Let’s think about the term “end of life” first. If we listen to our first reading from the Book of Maccabees, the seven brothers who are put to death for defying their Greek conquerors and keeping their Jewish faith don’t see death as an end of life. “You are depriving us of this present life,” one of the brothers says, “but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.”
The seven brothers see this life as given to them by God, who is master of life and death. Life doesn’t end. We are in God’s hands from the beginning. It’s for God to decide when we die, but God promises life beyond death. It’s for us to remain faithful as long as we live.
We hear in today’s gospel people denying that there’s life after death and trying to bait Jesus with what they think are absurd circumstances. Jesus tells the Sadduceesthat life beyond this life is not the same as here on earth. A heavenly life is beyond what we can imagine.
So denying life beyond death isn’t new. Today we can hear the same denial of eternal life, the life that Jesus promises and shows us in his resurrection. One of the signs of that denial may be, I think, the increasing number of suicides, even among young people. We can see this life as our only life, and when circumstances become seemingly intolerable and seemingly hopeless, some unfortunately end their earthly lives. But we leave them to God’s mercy.
Today death often goes unmentioned. We don’t want to talk about it. We just want to think about life. But death is an important part of life.
There was a passage in a popular book some years ago by Carlos Castenada about an old Indian, Don Juan, and a young sophisticated scientist from the northeast, walking together in the desert in the southwest. The two are world’s apart in the way they think.
As I recall it, the old Indian says to the young man, “Did you see the White Eagle circling over your shoulder?”
“ Yes, I see it,” the young man replies.
“That’s your death, keep an eye on it.”
“That’s a morbid thought,” the young man says, “We don’t think about that any more.”
“You should,” Don Juan says, “Keep an eye on your death. It will keep you from being small-minded.”
The young man’s describing the way a lot of people look at life today. We don’t want to think about death. We’re thinking more about extending life here on earth, through better diet, better heath care, better exercise;we don’t like to think of a life ending in death.
But we should keep death in mind. Death is the door to another life. By ignoring it we can limit ourselves to a life too small, too self-centered, too brief. We need to see life as God sees it. Life is not ended in death, it’s changed.
So deathis not something to be ignored; it is one of the two most important moments in life. That’s why we say in the Hail Mary. “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
There’s no account of Mary’s Assumption in scripture. An account of her burial and assumption into heaven appears in an apocryphal body of literature called the Transitus Mariae, from Christian churches of the east around the 5th century. This account may contain material from earlier sources and witnesses to the belief in Mary’s bodily assumption in some significant parts of the early church.
The Roman Catholic church bases its belief in Mary’s Assumption on scriptural sources like I Corinthians–the second reading for our feast on August 15th.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, ( c 56) St. Paul writes to Christians who are wavering in their faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Their precise difficulty seems to be that they see only the soul surviving death and not the body, a common conception fostered by the Greek mind-set of his day. With that belief came a low appreciation of creation. The created world wasn’t worth much and was passing away. Let it go.
Paul counters this incomplete belief with the faith he has received. Interestingly, it’s a faith that preached, not written down; the gospels and other New Testament writings were not in written form yet:
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” ( 1 Corinthians 15, 3-6)
Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, Paul affirms, and we will rise bodily too. Jesus is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Mary’s Assumption follows the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Because of her unique role in the drama of redemption, Mary is among the“first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” She follows Jesus who rose body and soul. Her Assumption, body and soul into heaven, is a resurrection story.
Bodily life is important, the bodily resurrection of Jesus says. The created world is important, the bodily resurrection of Jesus says, and so we must care for it according to God’s plan. We live in the body from birth to death; like the seed planted in the earth our bodily life will develop into a risen life we cannot imagine. ( John 12,21-26)
In her prayer, the Magnificat– the gospel for her feast– Mary accepts her mission from God to live in the created world of her day, accepting its limitations, its misunderstandings, its sufferings. She accepts fully the mission of her Son, the Word made flesh.
The realization of the mystery of the Assumption grew gradually in the church. Christians of the 3rd and 4th centuries confronted Gnosticism, which tempted them to depreciate creation and human existence itself. Promising a better life beyond the limitations of this life, the gnostics counseled escape from life as it is. Human life and creation itself didn’t matter.
The Roman Catholic church defined the dogma of the Assumption November 1, 1959, on the Feast of All Saints. Humanity and the planet itself seemed endangered in the 20th century. World War I ended in 1918 after four years of bloody conflict when millions perished. World War II ended in 1945 in which 35 million people were killed in Europe alone. Millions of lives perished in the Holocaust. Conventual war and nuclear weapons brought the real threat of mass destruction to the human race and the planet itself.
The 21st century offers new threats from climate change, widespread poverty, wars and terrorism.
The Assumption of Mary is a sign from God. Far from a pious legend, it tells us to look upon human life and creation itself as sacred. We believe in the resurrection of the body according to our ancient creed. Mary was the first of our humanity to share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
On this Friday in the Easter season the poetic St. Ephrem the Syrian has this beautiful description of Christ conquering death:
“Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.
” Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of his manhood, his godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.
“Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strong-room and scattered all its treasure.
You went into the garden and fell to the ground
yet all humanity was there
holding the cup of death
and hearing itself in your words.
“Father, if it possible, let this cup pass from me.
The cup of death.
contained our fears and cries too,
our sweat of blood.
“Your will be done,” you said.
“Your will be done,”we say
and wait for an angel to strengthen us.
Two friends of mine have died and their funerals will take place in the next few days. “Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.”
What do we mean when we pray that those who die “rest in peace?”
The Book of Genesis says that God “rested” on the seventh day after completing the work of creation. God’s rest was a time of delight in what was done, and so we wish that those who die experience delight for the life they led on earth and the new life they share with God. The Letter to the Hebrews, read in the last weeks of January, also speaks of the rest of delight that those who go before us share with Jesus, our High Priest.
That doesn’t mean they will forget those they leave behind or the world they no longer live in. When Jesus rose from the dead he entered into his rest, but his work was not done on earth. God’s Kingdom must still come. As our High Priest, who shared our human life and its weakness and death, he continues to intercedes for us on earth. He is a compassionate and loving High Priest.
Like Jesus, those whom God calls into his rest still love this world and those still journeying here. They don’t forget us. Resting in God, they’re restless till God’s kingdom come. Given clearer sight as they commune with God, they accompany us on our way. They’re in blessed communion with us, a communion of saints.
I was celebrant at the funeral Mass for Jack Olsen last Saturday morning in Sacred Heart Church in Bay Head, NJ.
My memories of Jack go way back to when the Olsens lived in the house on the corner of Lord Avenue and 3rd Street in Bayonne, NJ. My mother was a friend of Jack’s mother and when we were young she took my sister and me regularly to see the Olsens. We played with their 9 kids. Just down the street from their house was a football field where some of the best local teams played. During the 2nd World War Italian prisoners of war were held in barracks there and many Bayonne Italians went down to talk to them and pass them food. It put a human face to war.
Just beyond the Olsen’s house was the Kill Van Kull, the busy three mile waterway between Bayonne and Staten Island. Bill Olsen, Jack’s father, was a tugboat captain. As a kid, I couldn’t think of a better job in all the world than pushing and pulling big ships and barges around New York harbor.
My mother told me she met my father when she was washing the dishes after a baptism at the Olsens–maybe it was Jack’s baptism, or Fr. Tom’s, or Rita’s. My father was a friend of Jack’s uncle, Dinny, who probably invited him to the baptismal celebration that day.
“What’s your name?” my father said to her. “Rose O’Donnell,” she replied. “I’m Victor Hoagland,” he said. So my sister and I are here 80 or so years later. How connected our lives are by small things, like washing dishes or going to a baptism.
I mentioned at Jack’s funeral some of the small things that took place at his baptism 86 years ago. He was brought to church and signed with the sign of the Cross. That simple sign meant that he was blessed by the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who would bless him through the course of his life, even the hard months that marked his final sickness.
At his baptism, the priest poured water, the source of life, on his forehead and said (in Latin then) “John, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Life was God’s gift to him, a life that begins at conception and continues beyond the years here on earth.
Jack was a strong believer in God, the Creator, who gives life and Jesus, our Redeemer, who saw life so precious that he gave his life that we might live. He was a firm believer in the Right to Life.
Baptism is a sacrament of family life, which means, first of all, that we’re members of the family we belong to in this world. Jack, a bachelor, played a big part in his large family of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and all their wives and husbands, never missing celebrations, births, deaths and holidays. He was proud of his family and loyal to his own.
Baptism calls us into other families too– the family that’s our neighborhood, our city, our country. Jack was a good neighbor who loved the place where he lived and the people who lived there.
Baptism also calls us into the family of the church. Jack was a true believer; he loved the church. No doubt about his loyalty; the church was his home. He belonged to its societies, like the Holy Name and the Knights of Columbus. He made retreats with the Passionists. The Mass and the sacraments were not formalities, they were real for him. He loved his church in good times and bad.
At Jack’s funeral the other day, it seemed right to remember his baptism. The sacrament is at the heart of our funeral rites, when you think about it. We blessed him with water, the sign of life and made the sign of the cross over him again as his remains were carried into the church and then carried out. A white cloth, a reminder of the white garment he received long ago, was placed over him. The great words of faith were proclaimed: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God.” We heard the account of Jesus’ death and the message of the angel, “He is risen.” We celebrated the mystery of the Bread and Wine, which Jesus said are the food of eternal life.
“Life is changed, not ended,” our prayer said. Rest in peace.
All Souls Day, says a homily I received in email this morning from the Congregation of the Clergy in Rome, recognizes our fears before the mystery of death. “From the perspective of Gospel wisdom, death teaches us an important lesson because it makes us see reality without filters. It encourages us to recognise the falling away of all that appears great and strong in the eyes of the world. Before death every motive of human pride and jealousy is lost and instead all that is truly worthwhile reappears.”
All Souls Day is a frank admission that we find it hard to face death in ourselves and in others. It’s an experience we cannot prepare for adequately, despite all the resources of faith and reason we have at hand.
Yes, the hope of resurrection encourages us. But as a holy bishop says in our readings for the Office of the Dead:
“As we are saying all these things some unknown feeling causes us to burst into tears; some hidden feeling discourages the mind which tries to trust and to hope. Such is the sad human condition; without Christ all of life is utter emptiness.
“O death! You separate those who are joined to each other in marriage. You harshly and cruelly divide those whom friendship unites. Yet your power is broken…We do not really belong to ourselves; we belong to the One who redeemed us.” (Saint Braulio)
This is day that recognises our “sad human condition” as its struggles to believe. And as our prayer for today says:
“Merciful Father, as we renew our faith in your Son who you raised from the dead, strengthen our hope that all our departed brothers and sisters will share in his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever an ever. Amen.