Job 19:1, 23-27 1 Cor 15:20-23 Jn 12:23-26
Saved, But As Through Fire
Native American tribes are known for their elaborate and colorful quilts. Often the memories of the tribes are woven into large quilts used in religious ceremonies. Native American peoples are believed to be among the best quilt makers in the world. What many people do not know is that they have an unwritten law governing the art of quilting: every quilt must have some flaw. Even when they could easily produce the perfect quilt, they go out of their way to introduce a flaw into it. Since the quilt for them is basically a representation of human life and the human condition, the symbolism is clear: no human life is perfect. In a way, the feast of All Souls which we celebrate today echoes the same message: no human life is perfect, not even the Christian life. The Good News we celebrate today is that God loves us even when we are not perfect, and that the love of God does not abandon the souls of our departed brothers and sisters in the faith even when they did not measure up to the ideals of Christian perfection.
In the feast of All Saints which we had yesterday, we, the saints who are still struggling on earth (the church militant), celebrate fellowship with the saints who have already arrived in heavenly glory (the church triumphant). Today we celebrate our fellowship with the saints in purgatory, a state of temporary suffering for departed souls who are not yet fully ready for full fellowship with God in the glory of heaven (the church suffering).
All Christians believe in the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Purgatory is not mentioned as one of the “last things” because, strictly speaking, purgatory is a part of heaven.
Purgatory is the remedial class for heaven-bound souls. Souls who go to purgatory are those who have been judged worthy of heaven, but not straightaway. They still need some purification (purgation) before they are ready for heaven because, according to Revelation 21:27, “nothing unclean shall enter it.”
Some Christians have a problem with the teaching on purgatory because purgatory is not mentioned by name in the Bible. Yet the same Christians believe in the Trinity even though the “Trinity” is not mentioned by name in the Bible. We arrive at the doctrine on purgatory the same way we arrive at the doctrine on the Trinity, by making a logical inference from what God has explicitly revealed. We shall take three examples:
(1) The Parable of the Unfaithful Servant, which teaches the need for disciples to be faithful to their tasks till the coming of Christ on judgment day, concludes with these words: “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating” (Luke 12:47-48). This shows that in the last judgment, even though the results will basically be either pass or fail, go to heaven or go to hell, there may be those who are not bad enough to be thrown into hell and not good enough to be admitted right away to heaven. These then will receive some remedial purification to make up for what is lacking in their faith and good works before being admitted to heavenly bliss. That period of interim punishment before being admitted to eternity with God is what we call purgatory.
(2) Paul compares the different ways in which Christians live their lives to different builders all building on the one foundation which is Christ. They build with different materials: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw. On judgment day what each person has built will be tested with fire. “If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15). How can the soul after judgment “suffer loss” and still get saved “but only as through fire?” The answer is what we call purgatory.
(3) The Apostle John reminds us that a Christian can commit two types of sin: mortal sin which kills one’s relationship with God and venial sins which does not. “If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one – to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal” (1 John 5:16-17). Believers who die without sin go to heaven. Believers who die in mortal sin go to hell. Where do believers who die in a state of venial sin go? The answer is purgatory, where they can make up for their imperfection before being admitted to the company of the saints in heaven.
Even though officially Catholics believe in purgatory and Protestants do not, unofficially almost everyone seems to believe in an interim state of purification before heaven. When we lose loved ones, Catholics and Protestants alike pray for the dead. We all say, “May their souls rest in peace.” Wait a minute. If the souls of are in hell, why pray for them? Our prayers cannot help souls in hell. And if they are in heaven, why pray for them? Our prayers cannot help those in heaven either. They are already in heaven. Any sort of prayer for the dead has meaning insofar as the souls of the dead are in an interim state where they have not yet reached perfect union and peace with God, and where our prayers can help them get there. That is purgatory.
In the feast of All Souls we pray for the souls of the faithful departed who are being purified in purgatory. In this we pro-fess our belief that, just as God has not stopped loving these poor souls because of their imperfections, neither have we. For us the belief in purgatory is Good News: even though we may not in this life be perfect as our heaven father is perfect (Matthew 5:48) we can still hold fast to the hope that there are mansions for us in the kingdom of heaven.
Fr Munachi Ezeogu, cssp