Sunday, 6 November 2011
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury
1 Thess 4:13-18
This time last week I was still in [or only just returned from] ‘the Eternal City’ of Rome, with our parish youth pilgrimage. While we were there we saw many things, and one of the important things we saw was the ancient catacombs, and I want to say a few words to you about them, for 2 reasons. First, we’re now in the month of November, the month the Church calls us on us to remember the dead, and second, as an example of what we heard St Paul refer to in our second reading, of how to mourn those we have lost, but mourn them with hope and faith, not mourn them with the lack of hope that characterises those without faith.
Back to the catacombs. For those of you who don’t know, the Roman catacombs are the ancient long tunnels in which people were buried. The tunnels are very long: we visited those of St Callistus which consists of 12 miles of tunnels, with half a million graves, each consisting of a niche in the wall, originally covered with marble slabs. Some of these graves were in rooms with elaborate frescos painting religious images conveying their Christian faith in the resurrection. More than this, however, the catacombs were also places where the Christians went to pray –to pray for those who had died, to offer Mass for them. A good number of the ancient martyrs, like St Callistus himself, were actually captured while at Mass in the catacombs, at prayer, and we had the privilege of similarly offering Mass down there.
The point I want to make is this: these elaborate efforts made surrounding death reflected what they believed, and reflected their hope for those who had died.
Most of the pagan Romans did not bury their dead –they cremated them, their ashes scattering as symbol of their dissolution into nothingness in death. For the pagans who did believe in life after death, they typically believed it to be a place of shades, shadows and darkness, a lesser place than this world –most certainly not a place of hope, most certainly not a place you want to go to
In contrast, though the Christian catacombs are dark tunnels they nonetheless proclaimed a confident faith in a place of light and victory beyond death.
It is worth thinking for a moment about our own attitudes to death. Is it something we view with fear of the unknown? Is it something we view with superstition, so that we would be afraid to walk through a cemetery at night? –such attitudes were said to characterise the pagan Romans, unlike the Christian Romans who did not fear to go down into the catacombs.
For ourselves, in as much as we have a definite faith in what death involves, it should not be something of superstition. Whereas, in as much as our faith is vague, then death will be a matter of superstition for us too.
A key part of keeping our faith definite is by making our PRACTICE definite, and in this I would return again to the witness of the Early Christians praying for the dead. To add a personal note, one of the things for which I am very grateful is that my mother and grandparents instilled in me a regular practice of praying for those who had died. I would mentally name and pray for them at Mass, deceased neighbours, deceased family. And this practice gave me a clear sense that I was still united with these people, that my prayers helped these people: helped them by imploring mercy in the Judgement, and helped them by both strengthening them in the midst of their purifications in Purgatory and by helping speed them through those purifications to Heaven. And that definite practice of praying for the dead helped form my faith in what death is about.
And, to come back to those words of St Paul, about grieving with hope, and not “like those other people who have no hope”. Of course we grieve when loved ones die, we grieve because we have been physically separated from them, at least for a time. But to grieve with hope is very different to grieving without hope –and it is hope that we are called to.
So, to return to what those catacombs teach us. They teach us respect for the bodies of those who have died, because we believe that they will rise again to the resurrection of the body. They teach us to pray for those who have died, to aid them on their way. And they teach us about that destination we hold in view –a place of light and refreshment, the light of faith even amidst the dark tunnels of the catacombs.