This coming Sunday is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, or more commonly referred to as All Souls Day. As this special day falls on a Sunday this year, we put aside our readings for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time to focus our attention on those who have passed on before us.
The Word for All Souls Day:
Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6
Romans 5:5-11 or Romans 6:3-9
What happens after we die? This is the question that our first reading from the Book of Wisdom tries to answer. Here the passage states that “the souls of the just are in the hand of God.” In other words, those good people who have passed on are in good hands. The book of Wisdom comes to us about 50 years before the birth of Christ from the Jewish community in Alexandria. In many ancient cultures sickness and death were equated to sin, so those who were passing before their time, that is, those who didn't die of old age, must have done something to anger God. Our passage from Wisdom is meant to assuage that fear. Our Psalm is meant to echo that comforting notion through the very popular Psalm 23… the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Our second reading gives us two options for the All Souls Day celebration, both from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the passage from Chapter 5, Paul tells us that “Hope does not disappoint.” That through Jesus’ suffering, we have been reconciled with God. In the passage from Chapter 6, Paul reminds us that by our own Baptism in Jesus, we too are baptized into his death. While this might not sound very comforting, Paul continues by saying that just as we share in Jesus’ death, we also share in his resurrection. In both these passages we learn that although there may be suffering in this life, there is resurrection and reward in the next life.
Our gospel, as often occurs with special celebrations, comes from John. In this passage we have Jesus addressing the crowds, teaching them that he is their conduit to the Father. That his power and authority comes from the Father, and that salvation (that is, being risen on the last day), also comes through him. Jesus is establishing himself as the official go-between… sent from the Father to bring others to the Father, and therefore it is through following Jesus that we have eternal life.
During All Souls Day we remember all those who have passed on before us. Ever since we were children we have asked what happens to us after we die. In times of loss we like to comfort ourselves with the idea that “they’re in a better place.” Our readings today reinforce that understanding.
You may have heard the phrase that “Jews don’t believe in Heaven.” Like so many other “beliefs” and stereotypes we learn through popular culture, this idea is but a broad brush being painted over a highly diverse people with varying teachings with regard to the soul and the afterlife. There are some Jews that don’t believe in an afterlife. There are some that do have some concept of an afterlife, but perhaps not to the extent of how we Christians understand Heaven and Hell. What we do know is that the ancient Jews struggled with this question throughout their history, just as we do when we were children, and little by little, through the wisdom of the prophets and others, grew to understand that there was much more to us than our mortal coil, and that understanding continued to evolve through Jesus and the Apostles.
When we pray in the Creed that we believe in the “communion of saints,” the special nature our All Souls Day celebration becomes clear. That we all can attain eternal life.
All Souls day is the conclusion of what we referred to as the triduum of Hallowmas, a celebration that honors the dead (saints, martyrs, and all the dearly departed). It begins with All Hallow’s Eve, celebrated the night of October 31st as the vigil celebration of All Hallow’s Day… what we now call All Saints Day… which is celebrated November 1st. This is followed by All Souls Day celebrated on November 2nd. Our neighbors in Mexico celebrate this time as Dia de los Muertos… the day of the dead. All these traditions have their origins in pagan mythology, but as with many pagan celebrations, they translate to Christian theology in a way that enlightens our faith, while maintaining certain cultural heritages.