Bearing Burdens for the Dead
We hear today that Jesus descended from heaven to do the Father’s will, i.e., to give eternal life to those the Father draws to him. Does Jesus involve us in this mission? Why do we hear this on All Soul’s Day?
Reading: John 6:37-40
The following homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. You can listen here or read below:
In the novel Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams, Peter Stanhope has this to say to Penelope, the protagonist:
Haven’t you heard it said that we ought to bear one another’s burdens? . . . I think when Christ or St. Paul, or whoever said bear, or whatever he Aramaically said instead of bear, he meant something much more like carrying a parcel instead of someone else. To bear a burden is precisely to carry it instead of. If you’re still carrying yours, I’m not carrying it for you – however sympathetic I may be.
Williams terms this the doctrine of substituted love, and this doctrine helps us to understand more deeply what ‘the Father’s will’ means for us today.
Jesus comes down from heaven to do the Father’s will. What is the Father’s will? That those he gives the Son might have eternal life and that the Son might raise them on the last day. Elsewhere in John, we read that Jesus sends us into the world even as he is sent into the world – in order that those who believe in Jesus might have eternal life. He prepares us for sharing in this mission by consecrating us in his own consecration, namely, when he says to the Father, “Not my will but yours be done.”
He consecrates us by breathing his Spirit into us, enabling us to share his life, to breath with his breath, and this Spirit pours love into our hearts and conforms our hearts to Christ’s, making us love with Christ’s love. When Jesus says, “I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me,” he voices a desire that has become ours. And when his love impels him to accomplish the work of salvation, he sets an example for us to follow against which we measure the genuineness of our love.
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.
This is our measure. To die is to live, to give is to receive more, to love fearlessly is to be preserved from what is most fearsome. Love in the Spirit, then, demands self-forgetful trust and strains mere human prudence to the point of breaking. If we faithfully obey the demands of love, however, we will receive what self-reliance and mere human prudence could never obtain, we will reap a harvest that we did not plant and share the fruits of others’ toil.
Precisely with Jesus’ love and according to his pattern, we are called to remember the souls of the dead this All Soul’s Day – souls who have yet to enter the joy and peace had by the saints – who, in the night of death, are no longer able to work for their purification. In life, they were not perfect in dying to this world, and so, in death, they have more to die.
What a paradox! We, the living, are able to die for the dead so that the dead might live. By our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving, we are able to carry the burden of their sins in their stead, so that they won’t have to – all it takes is a simple intentional act of substituted love. Why perform this act of substituted love? Because we join our voices to Christ’s and say, “I wish that where Jesus is they also may be, that they may see his glory that the Father gave him.”