Love Without Borders
Thirty-Second Sunday of the Year. On this Remembrance Sunday, Fr Simon Gaine reminds us that the power of God’s love extends beyond the grave.
St Paul writes to the Thessalonians: ‘We would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep.’ Paul didn’t want to the Christians in Thessalonica to be in any doubt about their loved ones who had died. Because there was some in doubt in the Thessalonican church about those who had died.
The Thessalonians had joyfully received the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection from the dead, and they were confident that Christ had conquered death, and their great faith had become an example throughout Macedonia and Greece. They stopped worshipping idols and turned to the one, true God, waiting for his Son, the risen Jesus, to return from heaven.
But the shock came for them when Thessalonian Christians started to die, and Jesus whom God had raised from the dead had not yet returned. It would seem that the Thessalonians were hoping for a quick return, and in their love for their dead they became confused about what would happen to them: would they miss out on the return of Christ, would they miss out on the resurrection of the dead, would they miss out on benefitting from the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead?
Paul wants to end their confusion by assuring them that their dead will not miss out on any of these things. You see, God had so often been conceived as a God of the living that it had been easy to think of the dead as somehow being beyond the sphere of God’s influence, outside his kingdom, as it were. God was often spoken of as a God of heaven above, as a God of this earth, but people were more hesitant in seeing God’s reign as extending to death, which people imagined as a realm under the earth. ‘The dead cannot praise the Lord,’ says the one of the Psalms. The resurrection of Jesus was to change all this, and make clear once and for all that not even the realm of the dead escaped the rule of the one God. But you can see why the Thessalonians might have been confused over whether their dead would share in the risen life of Christ, and why Paul has to assure them that they will.
And so concern for the dead, love of the dead, has always been a part of Christian faith. From the earliest times, Christians continued to pray for the dead, and they prayed for them because they loved them. It had already been a custom among the Jews to pray for the dead, and it became part of the practice of Christian love to pray for them too.
Even where the practice of praying for the dead has been suppressed among some non-Catholic Christians, the basic Christian desire to pray for the dead cannot be entirely squashed. Among non-Catholics there came a great desire to begin to pray for the dead after the slaughter of the First World War. So many people died in this war, and so terribly, that there came a great groundswell of charity to recover the ancient Christian practice of offering prayers for those who had fallen asleep.
Now the message of Jesus had at its very centre a message of love, and it was a message of love losing all its boundaries. Jesus repeated the Old Testament command to love neighbour, but he made it clear to us that we had to be careful what limits we put on who our neigbours are. For one thing he told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Even our enemies become our neighbours. And when someone asked him who was our neighbour, he told a rather surprising story, the parable of the Good Samaritan, where it was a Samaritan – a foreigner – who helped the Jew in trouble.
Jesus expands our view of who our neighbours are to include the whole human race, our enemies as well as our friends. And when it comes to those who have died, we learn that they are our neighbours too in the fundamental Christian instinct to love our dead and offer prayers on their behalf. No living human being lies outside our charity, and neither do our dead. Today, the dead of war ask for our prayers, the dead who fought for our country, and the dead who fought against it: all are neighbours.
This month is the month of November, a time when Catholics traditionally make a special point of praying for the departed, and visiting their graves to pray there, out of love for neighbour. If we made the mistake of thinking the dead were outside God’s kingdom, we wouldn’t bother. But the faithful departed are just as much part of the Body of Christ as we are, and some of them at least rely on our prayers, just as we rely too on the prayers of some of the dead. In the Body of Christ, we’re not isolated individuals, but God brings us to himself by making us depend on one another, and so sometimes the dead depend on our love for them.
In today’s Gospel, we learn that the wise will be ready and prepared to meet Christ when he comes to meet us, both at the end of human history and when each of us dies. If we are wise, we will be ready to meet him. And the wise make themselves ready to meet Christ through love. It is not those who call out ‘Lord, Lord’ whom Christ will recognise, but those who practised love towards their neighbour. But remember not to put arbitrary limits on who we think our neighbours are. And so, be wise this November, and be wise today, and of your charity pray for the dead.
Image: Graveyard on Alderney in the Fog by Neil Howard