Miss Mary Mack-Mack-Mack,
All dressed in black-black-black,
With silver buttons-buttons-buttons
All down her back-back-back.
She asked her mother-mother-mother
For fifteen cents-cents-cents
To see the elephants-elephants-elephants
All jump the fence-fence-fence.
They jumped so high-high-high
They touched the sky-sky-sky
And never came back-back-back
‘Till the Fourth of July-I-I.
What do we know about Miss Mary Mack? First of all, she dressed all in black and silver buttons. She must be one of those “Goth chicks.” I think they’re cool. We can assume she was fairly young or, at the very least, not gainfully employed because she had to ask her mother for the fifteen cents required to buy her ticket to see the jumping elephant show.
We can also safely conclude that she had unrealistic expectations. She honestly believe that, for only fifteen cents, she would see an elephant – an animal with a curb weight of about six tons – leap over a fence, which we can presume was about four feet high. Scientifically speaking, it is not possible for a six-ton elephant to make a four-foot vertical leap, running start or not.
We don’t know where she got this spectacular notion. Probably someone somewhere told her about the fantastic leaping elephant show and, despite all common sense and reason to doubt its existence, she believed it. She so believed it that she set out on the task of acquiring the fifteen cents needed for admission.
Once she had the fifteen cents firmly in hand, she headed off to the elephant jump. She bought her ticket and, sure enough, the elephants jumped the fence. Not only did they jump the fence, in fact, but the show exceeded every expectation that she had. Those elephants jumped so high that they touched the sky. Their leap journey took days to complete. We don’t really know how many days since the date of initial launch is not recorded, but it must be a period of days or even weeks because their return is commemorated as a date in the future and not a span of time measured in minutes or even hours.
When you die, you don’t simply cease to exist. You go on to a whole new existence. That’s a pretty fantastic claim. It runs contrary to what would be the safe conclusion based on observation of what happens to the body after death.
I didn’t make this “afterlife” thing up myself. I heard about it from someone else. That person described to me what I would have to do in this life to get my ticket to not only see but also be a party to a fantastic show in the next life. They told me what I could expect, but also explained that no effort to describe what comes next could possibly explain the reality of it; there are simply not words adequate in this world to explain the next.
Okay. By a show of hands, how many people want to go to Heaven when you die? Spend eternity surrounded by the love of God and in the company of the saints… be reunited with lost loved ones… behold the beatific vision… If you think Heaven is a pretty good idea and that’s where you’d like to end up, then raise your hand. (By the way…. This is not a trick question. There’s only one other option here, so unless you’re waiting for that one this would be a good time to raise your hand!”)
Now, how many people think maybe they’d like to give Hell a try? How many think maybe this whole Hell thing is underrated… plenty of free parking… no chilly winters… probably know a few people there, anyway… How many people want to go to hell when you die – raise your hands.
When you die, there are two places you can spend eternity: Heaven and Hell. Heaven is good. Hell is bad. Smart people want to go to heaven when they die. It looks like we’ve got a room full of smart people; I think my work here is about ninety percent finished.
You want to go to Heaven when you die; that’s great. Heaven is everlasting joy and Hell is everlasting suffering. You’d have to have some sort of mental disease to actually want to go to Hell. You’re on the right path. But!
But. You knew there would be a “but,” didn’t you? You know they say the Devil’s in the details…
You want to go to Heaven, but what have you done lately to make that possible?
There are those who believe that it really doesn’t matter what they do. They think that no matter what, God will take them into Heaven when they die. They think that once they utter the statement that Jesus is their personal Lord and Savior, then they are assured of salvation no matter what they do next. I’m sorry if I’m about to disappoint anyone, but, folks, it’s really not that easy.
There are also those who believe that they can do just about anything they like and repent later. God will forgive; that’s His job. They are only half right; God will forgive the repentant soul. One who truly repents of his sin is assured of forgiveness. God loves us. But, I’m personally a little bit suspicious of deathbed conversions. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible, I just am not completely convinced that it is. I don’t think you can slide into Heaven just under the wire on a technicality because I do not believe that you can lie to God. You can’t live a life of sin and then fool God into believing anything else at the last minute.
So. You want to go to Heaven, but what have you done lately to make that possible?
A perfectly good answer is this: “I enrolled in RCIA.” This is a very commendable action. I’m not telling you that being here tonight will earn you a place in Heaven, nor am I telling you that you in fact can merit heaven. However, the path to salvation like the path to any destination is made up of individual steps; where you end up depends on the steps you take.
In the encyclical Spe Salvi, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI wrote “The Kingdom of God is a gift, and precisely because of this, it is great and beautiful, and constitutes the response to our hope. And we cannot—to use the classical expression— ‘merit’ Heaven through our works. Heaven is always more than we could merit, just as being loved is never something ‘merited,’ but always a gift. However, even when we are fully aware that Heaven far exceeds what we can merit, it will always be true that our behavior is not indifferent before God and therefore is not indifferent for the unfolding of history.”
So, the Pope is teaching that Heaven is more than we deserve, yet God gives it as a gift. Still, our actions matter.
His Holiness goes on to say that “We can open ourselves and the world and allow God to enter: we can open ourselves to truth, to love, to what is good. This is what the saints did, those who, as ‘God’s fellow workers,’ contributed to the world’s salvation. We can free our life and the world from the poisons and contaminations that could destroy the present and the future. We can uncover the sources of creation and keep them unsullied, and in this way we can make a right use of creation, which comes to us as a gift, according to its intrinsic requirements and ultimate purpose. This makes sense even if outwardly we achieve nothing or seem powerless in the face of overwhelming hostile forces. So on the one hand, our actions engender hope for us and for others; but at the same time, it is the great hope based upon God’s promises that gives us courage and directs our action in good times and bad.”
Benedict is teaching that we can open ourselves to what is good. We can free ourselves from the poisons and contaminations that destroy. We can encounter what is good and not work to pervert it; we can share what is good with the world. We can work to advance God’s kingdom in the world; to return good for evil; to offer forgiveness for wrongs committed against us.
If we got what we truly deserved, then our final end would not be pleasant. Man is a fallen creature laboring under the yoke of sin. But, still, God loves us. The closing of Bishop Robert Finn’s pastoral letter entitled Blessed are the Pure in Heart stated: “If you remember just one sentence from this letter let it be this: Never despair of God’s mercy.”
If you truly desire to see Heaven, then your life and your actions – your very being – will reflect that desire. If you truly desire to see Heaven, then you will truly desire to be a servant of God. There are many, many ways to serve God. We only have one Pope, the Vicar of Christ, but all of us can serve God in our own way. In the Catholic Church, a vicar is a representative of an ecclesiastical authority. From this standpoint, we can all be vicars of Christ. The Anglican Archbishop of Capetown Desmond Tutu once said: “Do your little bit of good where you are. It is these acts, taken together, that overwhelm the world.”
If God loves us so much, then why would He send anyone to Hell?
That is not an unreasonable question. There are only two places to spend eternity: Heaven and Hell. If you don’t go to Heaven, then the other choice is do not pass Go, do not collect two-hundred dollars. Go straight to Hell. Suffer for all eternity in misery and damnation. But, if God loves us, why would He do that to anyone?
God could have created us as some sort of automaton, going through the motions of life but truly only following a script. In that way, everyone could have gone to Heaven no matter what; if you were only playing the part you had been assigned and had no choice about that assignment, then it would be downright mean spirited to send anyone to Hell. But God loves us more than that. We are free; we possess a freedom given by God that cannot be taken away by any human agent. We are always free to search for our Maker and our proper end, to know what we ought to desire and to work to do what we ought to. This is our basic freedom that makes us human beings.
If we act in a truly free and human way we will move toward God; we will be judged and still found wanting – remember, you cannot merit Heaven – but God in His divine mercy and love will tip the balance in our favor. We will go to Heaven. If, however, we live as a slave to sin and unbridled passions, if we act in an inhuman way, if we move away from God then God will allow us to make those choices and in His justice will allow us to suffer the consequences of the choices we make. God does not send anyone to Hell, but He does love us enough not to take away our basic human freedom; if a person chooses to reject God, then God allows that choice to be made.
A young man once asked Jesus: “teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” That is a loaded question. The young man probably wasn’t trying to trick Jesus with his question; in his heart, he meant it honestly and Jesus saw that and gave the young man an honest answer. But the question implies two things that Jesus would not acknowledge. The first is that there is a single act that can be performed that will get you into Heaven – the young man asked what ‘deed,’ what specific thing – he had to do. The question also implies that there is anything that can be done that will make a man merit heaven; there isn’t.
Jesus answered the young man not by saying “accept me as your personal Lord and Savior and you’re a shoe in.” Our Savior did not tell the young man to just go and do the best he could and he would make it. He told the young man to obey the Commandments.
The young man asked which? (The Jews of that time had a complex religious law derived from Mosaic law. There were many, many commandments.) Jesus told him God’s commandments “You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Gospel does not record that Jesus mentioned the Commandments regarding the love of God. This is not because those are not important, but at the time of Christ to a young Jewish man who was seeking the kingdom of Heaven, they were so fundamental that they didn’t need to be mentioned. They were as basic as breathing.
The young man said that he does all of those things. The Commandments Christ names all involve action: not killing, not committing adultery, not lying and slandering, caring for aging parents and loving one’s neighbor. But the young man sensed – rightly so – that those things simply are not enough. He asked what else he needed to do.
Our Lord answered that he should sell what he owned, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Him. If that seems extreme… good. It is. The young man was asking what he could do to earn Heaven and you can’t earn Heaven. The price of Heaven is more than a human can bear without the help of God. The young man went away sad; the disciples had a little bit clearer grasp of what was going on than the young man did. They asked Christ “who then can be saved?”
For men it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.
Salvation comes from God alone. If you truly want to see Heaven – and we all do truly want that, it is in our nature to want it – then you will answer God’s call. You will do everything you can and work hard to do good and avoid evil. But because no one can pay his way into Heaven, Jesus helps us. As the Son of God, a man without sin, perfect and blameless in the Eye of God, the most authentically human being since mankind’s fall from grace, Jesus accepted death on the cross. He did this not for Himself, but for me… and for you… and for every other human being who ever was or who ever will be. He did this to make up the difference that we cannot make up ourselves. He did this so that we can see Heaven.
When our Blessed Savior cries out from the cross “My God, my God, why have your forsaken Me?” His question is not because he lacks information, but to find out if you and I are paying attention. When you read that passage, the answer is: “For me… because I could not bear the weight of it myself.”
That is true love. That is the love that God has for every one of us.
So, how do we get there from here? Step one is die. Don’t rush into this; God gave us life for a reason, and that reason is not so that we can hurry through it and make it to Heaven. That’s selfish. God wants us to be better than selfish. We are the stewards of our lives, not the arbiters.
Step two is the Particular Judgment. This is when we come before the Lord without excuse and without deception and are judged on the basis of our life.
- If we die in a state of grave sin – in the rejection of God – then we will go to Hell.
- If we die in a state of grace, free from all grave sin and without attachment to venial sin, then we will go immediately to Heaven.
- For most of us, there is a third path. If we die and are not in a state of grave sin but still have attachments to venial sins then we go to a place where we are purged of those attachments to venial sins. Catholics call that place purgatory.
The first question is, obviously, what is a grave sin and what is a venial sin? That is a topic unto itself and is one we will be covering later. For now, let’s just say that grave sins are those sins that sever our bond of love with God – things like cold-blooded murder, adultery, idolatry – the things that no right-minded person would ever want to do because you know so intrinsically that they are wrong. Venial sins are those things that are wrong but do not constitute a complete rejection of God – taking a slice of pizza and picking pepperoni off of the remaining slices and adding it to your slice, driving aggressively, being rude or condescending to others, and so on.
Nothing imperfect can come before the Lord. If we sometimes eat too much or are maybe a little too proud of our appearance, then those are things that must be purified so that we can enter Heaven. This is done by way of Purgatory.
Purgatory is not Hell Lite – same great flames, only one-third the agony. If you go to Purgatory, be glad. You will go through there and on to Heaven; no one in Purgatory goes on to Hell. Sometimes Heaven takes a little more refinement, but Hell is right away.
The question of how long one remains in Purgatory is not one that can be answered. It’s not because we do not know; in fact, we do. It’s because time is for the living. After death, you are outside of time. A thousand years are as a day. Asking how long one is in Purgatory is like asking how yellow is rectangle. You’re talking about two completely separate concepts. A person is in Purgatory for precisely as long as he needs to be; no longer, no shorter. Instantaneous and a million years are concepts for the living… until properly purified and ready are concepts for eternity.
Purgatory is also proof of God’s love for us. God cannot deny His nature. His nature is perfection; if we want to share in that nature in the beatific vision, then we, too, must be perfect. God knows that this is not possible on our own – we cannot merit Heaven. However, He does not want us to go to Hell. So, God, in his divine mercy, gave us Purgatory. Through Purgatory our souls may be made clean and we become able to come before the Lord. Purgatory is not a punishment for God’s naughty children who weren’t quite bad enough to warrant Hell but weren’t all that good, either. Purgatory is a divine gift given in love for all men and women.
The end of time. The Final Judgment. The Second Coming. Most people believe at least at some level that they will live to see the end of days; that the Final Judgment will come in their lifetime. The graveyards are full of people who were wrong on that one. But at some point the end will come, and it will not be pretty. The Bible makes clear that the end times are a time of tribulation.
What do we know about the End Times? Well, if you can believe the bumper stickers, we know there will be at least one brown 1973 Ford Pinto that will be unmanned. Beyond that, we frankly don’t know a lot. The Bible speaks in very general terms of what we can expect. The Church herself has few teachings on what the end of the world will be like. There are a lot of wild theories about what will happen and more than one person who has declared certainty that he or she will be magically raptured away before it happens.
I’m not sure how to respond to that other than by saying, “Well… good luck with that, then. Let me know how it works out for you.”
We know not the hour or the day, either of our own death or of the Final Judgment. We should live every day as if we will be judged just then.
Compare particular judgment, the Final Judgment, and purgatory to other concepts key to a Christian worldview, say morality or marriage. Morality is easy to talk about. Marriage is even easier to talk about. With both of those topics, I could make a very convincing argument for why they are a good idea based solely on logic. You don’t have to believe in God to think the Ten Commandments are a pretty smart move. Even atheists get married… they just don’t understand why. Both marriage and morality are a good idea here and now… in this life.
The Fullness of Life, though – Heaven, Hell and Purgatory – they are much harder. I can think of no reasonable external, observable event that indicates there is life after death. The belief that death is simply one more step in the process of coming to know God is a matter of faith and faith alone. Everything that we know about Heaven, Hell and Purgatory is based on the Bible and the teachings of Holy Mother Church. Acceptance of the authority of the Church, of Bible as the Word of God, and the belief that God would not lie to us are made entirely on faith.
What if the atheists are right? What if there is no God? If that is the case, then one day you will die. There will be nothing else. The light at the end of the tunnel is nothing more than the failing of your optic nerve. You’ll be stuck in the ground and your brain will rot away. With it will rot everything that made you a person. An individual. Unique in all the world and time. On a more personal and immediate note, you will also have completely wasted your Wednesday night tonight.
But everyone was brought here tonight by a separate path. Every person in this room is unique. In the world and in time. Every one of us has hopes and dreams; goals; pastimes and hobbies; loves, likes, and even hates. We also all have faith. Some of those hopes and dreams we share. We are fortunate to share our faith. We are also fortunate to share our faith with two-thousand years of Catholics who came before us, many of whom have moved on to what comes next.
Each person is unique. There can never be another Saint Francis. He already exists. He was created by the Lord and put in his mother’s womb. He lived; he died; he went to God. He is in Heaven now. The world had St. Peter, St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Ann, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and all the saints. They cannot be reborn into the world anew; they are with God now.
Each person is unique and has one shot at life. There is no dress rehearsal; this is it. Some people don’t do so well. Some people are downright nasty. When Adolf Hitler died, he had some pretty tough questions to answer.
A lot of people kind of muddle through life. They think faith and religion and all that churchy stuff are pretty good ideas, but the day-to-day details always get in the way: the job, the mortgage, the boat, the next vacation. They show up at church just like clockwork… for Christmas and Easter; they kick a few bucks into the plate when it comes around, mostly out of guilt, not asking why the plate comes around. They tell themselves that one day they will try harder. They hope they will go to heaven someday. I certainly will not tell you that they won’t, but I cannot promise you that they will.
Some people do really well in this life. Maybe they don’t have the boat or the vacation home. Maybe they don’t have the fame. Maybe they die without their name being a household term. But they don’t die thinking, “I wish I’d spent a little less time worrying about other people and a little more focusing on Ol’ Number One.” They don’t die thinking “If I had just let another man go hungry, I might have actually been able to see Paris in the spring.”
For those of us here tonight, we probably don’t have to so much be afraid of living a life of evil as we do living a life of mediocrity. Of doing just enough to get by. Nothing more. Muddle through… one foot in front of the other. Eyes down. Shoulders hunched. Marching toward our inescapable end.
Faith offers more. Faith offers us the opportunity to walk through life with our heads held high, our backs straight and our eyes fixed firmly on Christ. Faith offers us the opportunity to live as servants of God, not as slaves to the trappings of the material world. Faith offers us the opportunity to walk proudly toward the reward that awaits those who live according to the Word of the Lord instead of the whims of the world. Faith allows us to live in cooperation with God’s abundant grace. Amen, Amen I say to you, the greatest commandment is this: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “At the evening of life, we will be judged on our love.”
And so I ask you this: what kind of lover will you be?