From Commentary on 1 Thessalonians (1265-1273)
Paul forbids the Thessalonians to indulge in inordinate sorrow… It seems, though, that the apostle views sorrow for the dead benignly. Nevertheless, he cautions them not to grieve overmuch, even as others. Someone who grieves for the dead does possess compassion. A person grieves first because of the dissolution of the frail body… “O death, how bitter is the reminder of you to one who lives at peace among his possessions” (Ecclus. 41:1). Second, a person grieves because of the separation and departure which is so painful to friends. “Surely the bitterness of death is past” (1 Sam. 15:32). Third, we mourn because death reminds us of our own sin. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Fourth, because death reminds us of our own death. “For this is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccles. 7:2).
So moderate sorrow is permitted. “Weep less bitterly for the dead, for he has attained rest” (Ecclus. 22:11). Therefore, he says, “even as others who have no hope,” that is, because these people believe that these negative aspects of death are eternal; but we do not believe so. “Our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). So, Paul says clearly, concerning those who are asleep. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep” (John 11:11).
A person who decides to go to sleep… lies down with the hope of eventually getting up: “shall he that sleeps not rise again from where he lies” (Psalm 40:9). A person who passes away abiding in the faith feels the same way… Paul constructs the case for our resurrection on the basis of the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 15:12), for Christ’s resurrection is the cause of our resurrection.
So Paul makes his point here by a causal analysis. Christ’s resurrection is not only the cause but also the pattern of our resurrection. The Word made flesh revives our bodies, while the Word as such revives our souls. Christ is the pattern of our resurrection in that Christ assumed flesh, and also rose embodied in flesh. Nor is Christ only the pattern; he is also the efficient cause of our resurrection, for the things done by Christ’s humanity were done not only by the power of his human nature, but also by virtue of his divinity united in him, just as his touch cured the leper as an instrument of his divinity, so also Christ’s resurrection is the cause of our resurrection, not merely because it was a body that arose, but a body united to the Word of life.
So Paul, firmly presupposing this, declares, for if we believe firmly that Jesus died and rose again: even so will God bring with him those who have slept through Jesus. Those have slept through Jesus who were conformed to his death through baptism; or he says through Jesus, because God will bring them with him, that is, with Christ himself… As a result Paul says, “we who are alive, who remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent those who have slept.”
It would seem to those who do not fully understand what the apostle is saying here that all this shall come about while the apostle is still alive; it seemed this way to the Thessalonians. Because of this misunderstanding Paul wrote them a second letter in which he says: “now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess. 2:2).
But he is not talking at present about himself and his contemporaries, but about those who shall be found alive at the time of Christ’s coming. We who remain, that is, those who shall be left after the persecution of the antichrist, shall not prevent those, that is, those who are living shall not receive their consolation first. “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet,” (1 Cor 15:52) ….
In order to prove that Christ is the cause of the resurrection, he shows that all the dead shall rise in the presence of Christ. Three causes cooperate in the accomplishment of the general resurrection: the principal cause is the divine power; the second cause is instrumental, that is, the power of the humanity of Christ. The third cause might be termed a ministering cause in that the power of the angels will have some effect in the resurrection…
Paul says, “therefore comfort one another with these words.” Paul concludes that they should comfort one another about the dead. He feels that since the saints will rise without suffering any loss, the Thessalonians should comfort one another about the dead. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isa. 40:1).
St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) is sometimes described as the greatest thinker of the medieval Church. His various theological treatises, above all his Summa Theologica, seek to reconcile inherited Christian teaching with the newly rediscovered metaphysical writings of Aristotle. His Commentary on 1 Thessalonians is a text reconstructed from lectures he gave at the University of Paris. His modern feast day is January 28. This text has been slightly adapted for contemporary readers.