Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 23; Romans 5:5-11; John 6:37-40

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Ever since I was a child, when people referred to the dead, I have heard them add, "May they rest in peace." It was said with the reverence of a prayer, even by people who rarely, if ever, prayed. "May they rest in peace." Sometimes we say this with almost a tone of relief, if the person who died has suffered for a long time. "May she rest in peace," – as if to add, "And she really deserves to rest in peace."

A friend of my family has been in a nursing home for 14 years. She has a brain dysfunction that has left her paralyzed. The last seven years she has been confined to bed and is in total need. She is only able to open and close her hands – barely. When I visited her recently with my sister I was struck by much more deteriorated her condition has become since last I saw her. My silent prayer, "Take her home Lord and may she rest in her peace."

We want people who have died to find peace, especially: the long-suffering, those killed in war and religious conflict, the weary poor, those without homes who suffered the debilitating effects of street life, and those ravaged by cancer. Unfortunately, it is too easy for each of us to add to this list. We know of so many for whom death was, or could be, a release. "May they rest in peace... finally." But even those who have had a comparatively easy life will face the final ending some day.

Remember the parable of the rich man who built bigger barns to store his overflowing harvest? "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
(Luke 12:20). Death comes for each of us. This feast is a reminder of those who have passed and of our own mortality as well. Where have they gone? What did they see the moments after they closed their eyes for the last time and then gazed into the next life?

The Scriptures are silent about the furniture in heaven. Artists, good and poor ones, have painted their version of what awaits us the moments after we die. Their paintings are bright with color and filled with angels and humans around the throne of the Almighty. When composers attempt to write "heavenly music" they usually include harps, trumpets and dramatic kettle drums. Is that what we will hear in heaven? But as the Scriptures tell us, "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love God " (Corinthians 2:9-10).

We ordinary humans, along with those artists, will continue to try to imagine what the next life will be like, it’s only natural. We might even wish there were a book in the Bible, besides the visionary Book of Revelation with all its over-the-top images, that would lay out the street plan of heaven for us. But there isn’t, so we turn to the Scriptures we have, like today’s selections, which don’t provide a photograph, or sound recording of the next life, but do give us something to pin our hopes on.

The author of Wisdom doesn’t describe the topography of heaven. Instead we are invited to trust that, "The souls of the just are in the hand of God." We know what often happens to "the just" in this life. They suffer the consequences of their just actions and words. "Before humans they may be punished because of their righteous lives." But the just have God as their impetus and endurance and God will not let them slip out of God’s hands during this life’s trials, nor in the next life. They are "in the hand of God." Their suffering in this world will have value for them in the next, where they will shine and "dart about like sparks through stubble." If they have led good lives they are like sparks and fire to ignite and illuminate us as we, like them, travel along God’s just path.

To a purely rational mind our belief in an afterlife and the resurrection of our bodies makes no sense at all. The Hubble telescope was launched by NASA in 1990 and remains in operation. It circles the earth and has a view of the universe far beyond anything we have here on earth. The telescope can see as far as 10-15 billion light-years away.It shows the universe in details never imagined before and has discovered things never known until now. For example, the Hubble telescope has been able to date the age of the universe to be about 13-14 billion years (let’s not quibble over a mere billion years or two!); it helped discover the mysterious force called "dark energy"; scientists have learned how galaxies are formed, thanks to the Hubble. As a result of the information the Hubble has provided over 10,000 scientific articles have been written.

The Hubble has been scanning the deepest depths of the universe and hasn’t spotted any "pearly gates" yet. So what could the author of the Book of Wisdom, written around 60 B.C.E., possibly tell us about the conditions now enjoyed by the dead – and what awaits us. The sage tells us what no telescope, no matter how powerful, can tell us about our deceased loved ones, "The souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them." How much more secure and sure can we be? "They are in peace."

It’s comforting to know that those that have died as victims of today’s terrorism, revolutions, civil strife, religious wars, the war in Ukraine, the Covid virus, etc., are "at peace" and in the hand of God. So, our prayer for them is a note of assurance for us as we pray in faith, "May they rest in peace.

Jesus’ words today are from the longer Bread of Life discourse in John, which follows the multiplication of the loaves. He promises that those who "see the Son" (i.e. believe) have eternal life. This present tense language is prevalent in John’s Gospel, promising that eternal life begins now for those who believe in Jesus. We gather at Eucharist to receive the Bread of Life which is a share in the eternal life enjoyed by those who were nourished by the same food and who have gone before us.

Some years ago a homeless man came to receive Eucharist at a daily Mass. When he received the consecrated bread in his hand he turned to those behind him and, holding the host before them said , "Some day man, some day." He then consumed it and returned to his pew. That’s what I believe Jesus is promising us on this feast: that some day we will join him, one another and those who have preceded us into life and that the Eucharist is a way we share in that life now and it’s a promise, "Some day man, some day."

How will that happen? Where will it take place? I don’t know and the Hubble telescope won’t help answer the "where?" question. But I do believe it will take place with all of us gathered around the banquet table, because I believe the promise I hear again today: we are "in the hand of God" and Jesus will fulfill what he promises. He will raise us up on the last day. I also believe what else Jesus says today: that now I already have eternal life, a deep life that begins with a new life in Christ which will see us through to the end of our journey to a place where there will be the great in-gathering with all the souls of the just. That’s the "where" the Hubble can’t see, but we believe in.

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