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What Remains of Us?

A Reflection for All Saints Day

By Fr. Ron

The popular writer and speaker Fr. Ronald Rolheiser OMI has written: “When someone dies, I believe that what they so wonderfully and uniquely embodied here on earth is still going on, still happening on the other side.”

I think he means all the good and loving qualities we have known in our brothers and sisters who have died, still live on. This would include their kindness, creativity, understanding, humility, generosity, peacemaking, mercy and compassion. We take all these attitudes with us as we move beyond the limits of this life. These are the qualities that are also proposed by Jesus in the gospel reading for this solemnity. We call them beatitudes and they appear at the beginning of the sermon on the mount.

While we take all of these good qualities with us, I think we leave behind our selfishness and various imperfections. God washes us clean, to use an image. Or in another image, we are purged of our faults. Something like the way fire or heat can be used to cleanse or purify things. To use the imagery of the first reading, our robes are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb (Jesus)

That reading from the Book of Revelation makes some important points: “I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the children of Israel.” (7:4)

That symbolic number refers to the whole people of Israel. God has not forgotten them. God desires for them to be saved. This is just the opposite of a common misinterpretation of this passage proposed by some fundamentalist preachers that only 144,000 will be saved.

That fits with the next part of the passage: “After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” (7:9)

God’s desire is for all people to be a part of this great heavenly assembly. God’s invitation is broad and expansive. God is not stingy. God is far more inclusive than we are.

Sometimes we think of God as picking choosing who gets in and who does not. Maybe that is because we think of God as being like us. Some of us think we know who is getting into heaven and who is not. We have our reasons but I suspect that we are far stricter than God. We make God in our image and picture making choices like we would. Thanks be to God that our Lord is far more merciful and understanding. God’s universal will is for all people to be saved

In our lives, we try to grow in the qualities that are included in the Beatitudes and other teachings of Jesus. Those qualities or virtues become a part of us and they go with us beyond our days on earth. We already live the Kingdom, though incompletely, here on earth. When we are taken up into the fullness of God’s Kingdom, we will feel at home there or not. It seems to me that we are the ones who are making the choices, not God. And in the end, God is far more merciful than we are.

In the Creed, we say that we believe in the Communion of Saints. That includes those exemplary people who have been canonized by the Church. It includes all of our saintly relatives and friends who have gone before us but will never have the recognition of being canonized. In a special way it includes all of those who have suffered persecution for the sake of righteousness. It includes all of us living now on earth whom Saint Paul calls saints or “holy ones,” and whom our second reading calls children of God (1 John 3:2). It includes so many Christians who in our world today are still experiencing persecution because of their faith. All of us in heaven and on earth are part of this great Communion of Saints.

Today we rejoice with those who have gone before us. They are still our brothers and sisters. All of us are children of God. They are not roaming the earth seeking to terrorize us. They do not need to be appeased with our food or offerings. They are gathered around the throne of the Lamb. We join them in signing the praises of our merciful and compassionate God.

Another image sometimes used to describe heaven is a great banquet. As the Catechism says: “by the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all.” (CCC 1326)

I close this reflection with a well-known story that relates to this image of a heavenly banquet. There are many versions of this story in different cultures and religions.

One day a man said to God, “God, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.” God showed the man two doors. Inside the first one, in the middle of the room, was a large round table with a large pot of stew. It smelled delicious and made the man’s mouth water, but the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. The man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “You have seen Hell.”

Behind the second door, the room appeared exactly the same. There was the large round table with the large pot of wonderful stew that made the man’s mouth water. The people had the same long-handled spoons, but they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The man said, “I don’t understand.” God smiled. It is simple, he said, Love only requires one skill. These people learned early on to share and feed one another. While the greedy only think of themselves.

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