Tag Archives: life after death

The World Here and the World Beyond

Two worlds are described in the readings at Mass this week. The Gospel of Mark tells of the world that Jesus lived in over two thousand years ago, the world around Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, where he called his first disciples, encountered a demon in the synagogue, cured Peter’s mother in law, the paralyzed man and the leper. (Mark 1,14-2,12) It’s a world like ours that he came to redeem.

The world described in the Letter to the Hebrews is a world beyond this one, the world of the Risen Lord. Jesus enters that world as Lord of all creation; he sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, our creed says.

The Letter to the Hebrews describes him further as a High Priest entering a heavenly sanctuary to intercede for us. He’s a merciful High Priest, the same Jesus who entered Capernaum and cured Peter’s mother in law, the paralyzed man and the leper. He’s knows our humanity with its weakness and its yearning; he carries the wounds of suffering and death.

It’s hard to keep these two worlds in mind, but our readings, like our creed, tell us to do it. They’re not sealed off, they’re joined to each other. They have a common goal:  “Our Father, thy will done, thy kingdom come.” The Risen Jesus is present in both of these worlds. He’s Savior and Redeemer. Through him, God’s kingdom will come.

Unfortunately, some today only think of the world they see now. Others are unsure or confused about a world beyond this one.  Some see the world beyond as an escape from this life, an isolated world in the clouds. For some the world beyond is a world we make, a world without Jesus Christ and the mystery of his resurrection.

Some conclude it’s just not important to think about it. But that’s wrong. What we think about life beyond this determines how we live now. It makes a difference.

The Feast of the Assumption of Mary


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.

Where do we learn about life after death?

I mentioned in a previous blog on the Resurrection of Jesus (Feb 20, 2013) that books about life after death are popular today. The blog for Publishers Weekly lists among recent best sellers: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife Eben Alexander, Author. Does the book tell us we would rather learn about life after death from scientists rather than from people of faith? How much can science tell us anyway?

I was thinking of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in the gospel. The rich man wants someone to come back from the dead to warn his brothers who, like him, aren’t paying any attention to the poor. No one will be sent, says Abraham from the world beyond.

‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’

He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’  Luke 16,19ff.

We have to listen to people of faith. In that same blog there was the encouraging news that sales of  Benedict’s books on Jesus of Nazareth are up since his resignation.

All Saints

Years ago I wrote a book on the lives of the saints honored in our church calendar. Saints like Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the apostles, the martyrs, founders of great religious orders, men and women recognized for their great holiness.

It was a hard book to write and I’ve never felt satisfied with it. My dissatisfaction isn’t just  from not capturing their lives as well as I would have liked. I think it’s because we can’t capture what the saints experience at all.

A saint is someone who enjoys a completed life, a life we haven’t seen yet, a life we hope for. “We feebly struggle while they in glory shine.” We can never capture the final steps of their story.

The letter of St. John we read today on the Feast of All Saints tells us that. We haven’t seen yet what God intends us to be. We haven’t completed our lives yet; we complete our lives when we join the company of the saints.

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us

that we may be called the children of God.

Yet so we are…

Beloved, we are God’s children now;

what we shall be has not yet been revealed.”

The saints we honor in our calendar led extraordinary lives; they were shining examples of faith, hope and love and changed the world they lived in.  What’s interesting about today’s feast of All Saints is its promise that they’re not the only ones in heaven. There are unnumbered saints in God’s company, saints who lived obscurely, without any sign of the extraordinary.

People like us.

I like St. Bernard’s advice about saint-watching in today’s Office of Readings:

“We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.

When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory.”