The Embrace of the Family of the Church

By Matthew S.C. Olver

An honest look at the Scriptures leads us to a very important conclusion: “the real frontier runs not between earthly life and [death], but between being with Christ, on the one hand, and on the other, being without him or against him.” In the wake of Reformation concerns, All Saints and All Souls came to be conflated in some places. It seems to me, however, that the real loss in this conflation is first not dogmatic, but pastoral. To put it differently, the more fruitful avenue in a context such as this is not to press the difficult (and probably intractable) questions about the precise difference between the state of the soul of the saint and the soul of our departed friend or relative. Rather, it is much more helpful if we ask about the purpose of each commemoration.

The human impetus toward All Souls’ Day is of a different character than that of All Saints’ Day. Yesterday’s festival springs from the natural inclination to celebrate the brilliant flame that is a holy life. All Souls’ Day, on the other hand, comes from a different spring altogether: a place of loss and even grief: a place of tears. In the midst of life we are in death, and no life goes untouched by this most basic fact. A singular consolation can be found in the sharing of the Body and Blood of the One who not only destroyed death but also wept at the grave of his dear friend Lazarus.

The Church is right to give expression in All Souls Day to the sense of loss that each of us have known in the death of someone near to us. While it is not the only reason for the practice, it would be strange to discount that the desire to pray for those whom we love but see no longer is a genuine and holy articulation of this love. For a Christian, concern for another moves very quickly to prayer.

But All Souls’ Day is more than psychological refuge. It is a proclamation that the communion of the whole state of Christ’s Church is consequential and true. How exactly God works out the relatings between our prayers, the will of God, and the lives of human creatures is beyond us. But that should not draw us away from the fact that prayer is more than simply an expression of trust in God, a sort of mental crutch. Just as we are reminded on the feast of St. Michael and All Angels that God has “ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order,” so too has God ordained and constituted the interplay between his mercy and our prayers in a wonderful order. Remember the promise in Hebrews: apart from us, the departed are not made perfect (Heb 11:39-40). It is not that God needs our prayers to do anything. Rather, God has chosen to allow us to share in the living and in the dying, in the corruption and in the purification of those around us.

In Joseph Ratzinger’s remarkable book on the Last Things, he explains that the word used in the West for the space between death and the general resurrection, namely, purgatory (but let’s not get hung up on this word), does not refer, “as Tertullian thought, [to] some kind of supra-wordly concentration camp where [we are] forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. … What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay, and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. [We] are the recipients of divine mercy; yet this does not exonerate us from the need to be transformed.”

But the fire that reveals the true nature of our deeds, that “tests what sort of work each one has done,” the fire through which it is necessary that we pass through (citing here St. Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 3): this fire “cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time.” In fact, Ratzinger argues, the purgation that is constitutive of growth in Christ is not a place and it cannot be measured by time. Rather, “Encounter with the Lord [in the face of Jesus Christ] is this transformation. [That] is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.” The reason this doesn’t contradict the doctrine of grace is that the face in the fire is the very form and source of grace: Jesus, the Lord.

The prayer we offer for those who have departed this world in the faith of Christ reveals one of the most fundamental facets of our nature: we were made for relationship; we are made for communion. Our loves and our hates do not affect only us, but everyone with whom we have contact. “We are not just ourselves,” Ratzinger goes on: “we are ourselves only as being in others, with others, and through others. Whether others curse us or bless us, forgive us and turn our guilt into love—this is” is bound up in whom I am and who I am becoming. When Paul teaches that “the saints will judge the world,” what this means is that the “encounter with Christ is” at the same time an “encounter with his whole body. I come face to face with my own guilt” not only in “the suffering members of that body,” but also in “the forgiving love which the body derives from Christ its Head.”

As he puts it elsewhere, “we make our way through the judging fire of Christ’s intimate presence in the companionable embrace of the family of the Church.” The means by which God brings us to the end for which we were created is never as an isolated individual, but always in relationship. It is through a person that the Gospel first falls on the ear. It is through the pen of a human writer that the Scriptures come to us. Through these and many other sacramental encounters, we are called to faith and spurred to love.

The practice of praying for the faithful dead proclaims “that for such love the limit of death does not exist. The possibility of helping and giving does not cease to exist [at] the death of a Christian. Rather does it stretch out to encompass the entire communion of saints, on both sides of death’s portals. The capacity, and the duty, to love beyond the grave” is built in to the very fabric of what it means to be the creatures that God made in his image; it is built into the means by which God ordained to save us: not as isolated monads, but as friends, as family, as children of the Living God.

So then: let us allow this All Souls’ Day to have its solemn due. Today, we lift our departed loved ones into the merciful embrace of the Crucified One who lives. Today, we ask in hope that God will bring them to the glory intended for each us: a vision clear and unencumbered by sin, incorporated in that Body whose worship of its Savior will resound unto all the ages. “The King to whom all things live: O come, let us adore him.”

The Rev. Matthew S.C. Olver is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and the director of St. Mary’s Chapel.

The Rev. Matthew S.C. Olver is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and the director of St. Mary’s Chapel.


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