Sunday, 12 November 2017
Catacombs & Resurrection, Remembrance Sunday, 32nd Sunday Ordinary Time Year A
Today our nation keeps Remembrance Sunday, when we remember all those who died in the great wars of the last century.
I would like to share with you, in particular, what it means for us AS CHRISTIANS, to remember the dead, and to do so by commenting on what we saw in our recent youth pilgrimage to Rome when we visited the catacombs.
In our second reading we heard St Paul speak about those who have died in Jesus. He spoke also about grieving, and he said that he didn’t want them to grieve in the way that “those who have no hope” grieve. This is an important distinction: both Christians and unbelievers both grieve, both are sad at their separation from their departed loved ones:
but the Christian grieves “with hope” -and this makes a colossal difference.
St Paul would have seen this difference between the pagans of his day and the Christians, and that difference is also something that we can see visibly manifested in the ancient catacombs of Rome.
The catacombs, as our pilgrimage group saw, were underground tunnels specifically dug to be places to bury the Christian dead. There were a great many such catacombs in Rome but the one we saw, of St Callistus, compromised 12 miles of tunnels, carefully dug in 4 levels, more than 20m deep. The catacombs were dug to be a sacred and dignified place to bury the dead, and the walls and slabs sealing the graves were decorated with many symbols that expressed what the Christians believed about life after death.
But the most basic and important symbol expressed was the reverence shown to the dead body itself. This contrasted with the rather confused and conflicting notions that the different pagans held about what happens after death.
Some, held a very physical but limited view of the afterlife, they left food and coins to be used by the dead after death, and would pour oil and food into holes in graves -thinking that the dead somehow needed such sustenance.
Others, like Plato, said the body was a thing to be escaped from in death -all that mattered was the soul. This was expressed by the practice of burning the body in cremation and scattering ashes.
Christians, however, held that the body is a good thing, and that there will be a resurrection of the body. Thus they reverenced the body in burial.
But they believed the resurrected body would be transfigured and glorified and thus did not need to be buried with trinkets, coins, food etc.
The vast catacombs thus testify to the greatness of the faith of those Christians that the body would rise again.
As a pilgrimage group we celebrated Mass in one of the underground chapels in the catacombs.
In doing that we joined in the practice of the ancient Christians who offered Mass in those chapels to pray for those who had died.
It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone who has died UNLESS you have HOPE that there is something more that lies ahead for him or her. The Bible makes in point in the 2nd book of Maccabees, where it comments on Jewish temple sacrifices that were offered for those who had died, and notes that we only pray for the dead because we believe they will rise again (2 Macc 12:44).
We today, and especially in the month of November, likewise pray for those who have died:
We pray that God will have mercy on them in the judgment;
We pray that God will comfort them as they pass through the purifications of purgatory;
And we pray that God will sped and hasten that purification for them.
To bring that to a conclusion: How do we remember the dead?
As a memory or the past? Or, as those who have a future, a resurrected future symbolised by the respect we show their bodies?
How we remember them with affect whether we grieve like pagans, or grieve like those “who have hope”.