CONFIDENT HOPE IN SALVATION

SCRIPTURE READINGS: [  IS 25:6-9; PS 26; ROM 5:5-11; LK 7:11-17 ]

The departure of a loved one always brings sadness.  More so when we lose someone we love in this life.  More difficult still when that someone is so dear to you or one whom you depend much on.  This was the case of the widow in today’s gospel who lost her only son.  We can feel with her the pain of loss, not simply because he was dear to her but also because he was her security.  We can therefore understand and appreciate Jesus’ spontaneous response in reaching out to help her.  He felt sorry for her.  So will we, when we come across such incidents.   It is a human response to human tragedy.

Losing our loved ones is just the first experience of pain. In our quiet moments, we think of them and wonder where they are now.  Are they happy?  Do they still exist?  Are they alive?  Or are they gone forever?  Or are they suffering in loneliness, wondering around like hungry and restless ghosts?  For Christians, we are fortunate because we believe in the immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body.  For us, therefore, life continues after death.  Life is changed, not ended.  With the psalmist, our final hope is to be with God.  “I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.  Hope in him, hold firm and take heart. Hope in the Lord!”  People without faith are most pitiable because they have only this life to live.  Once dead, they are gone forever, extinguished from the face of creation.

What is the basis and certainty of Christian Hope in the future life if not in Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life?  Christ is our resurrection and our hope.  In the gospel today, Jesus presented Himself to be a life-giver, one who has the power even to grant life to the dead man.   This is the work of God.  By His death and resurrection, He showed us what our future life would be.  Because of His resurrection, we are confident that we, too, will be raised like Him. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.”  (1 Cor 15:20f)

But why is it that many of us Catholics still live in fear of death and doubt about our salvation, even though we believe in the resurrection of the dead?  The truth is that when we look at ourselves, many of us know that we are not saints.  We have much imperfections and selfishness in us.  Regardless how much we try, we keep falling into sin.  We feel guilty and many of us condemn ourselves.  We feel so ashamed of our sins and count ourselves unworthy to enter into the presence of God.  Because of the emphasis on merits, many labour under the false doctrine of salvation by good works, which teaches that we can be saved only when we do good.  This explains why those converted to the Lord, or those who do evil, seek to do some good works to redeem themselves and pay back for all the wrongs they have done.  If we think we can save ourselves by good works, then none of us can ever make ourselves worthy before God.  Even St Paul himself said, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.”  (1 Cor 4:4f)

What the gospel wants to proclaim is that salvation is the grace of God.  It is not based on good works but on faith in Him as our Lord and savior.  It is this faith in His love and mercy that is the cause of our salvation.  This is what St Paul reminds us in the second reading.  “We were still helpless when at his appointed moment Christ died for sinful men. It is not easy to die even for a good man – though of course for someone really worthy, a man might be prepared to die – but what proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners.”   Good works must spring from the fact of being loved by Christ and His death for us.  It is our response to His love; not the basis for salvation.  Of course, if we truly believe that God loves us, we would want to love Him in return freely, not out of obligation.  This is how we act in daily life.  When people love us, it is natural for us to love them in return.

Consequently, we should not fear death and punishment but trust in His mercy and love.  St Paul urges us, “Having died to make us righteous, is it likely that he would now fail to save us from God’s anger? When we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, we were still enemies; now that we have been reconciled, surely we may count on being saved by the life of his Son?”   Indeed, we are to be “filled with joyful trust in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have already gained our reconciliation.”

Yesterday when we celebrated All Saints Day, we were reminded of the great multitude of people who were saved by the blood of the Lamb.  It is a great consolation and hope for us as well.  What is positive about Christian Hope is that the Church lives in hope that all will be saved.  That is why, whilst the Church has declared that so many have gone to heaven, she has never declared that anyone has gone to hell, except for the devil and the fallen angels.  We can never understand or fathom the mercy and love of God for sinners.  So as St Paul says, it is not for us to judge but to leave judgment to the Lord.  But because the Lord is mercy and compassion, and His desire, as He said, is to save all, we can pray with confidence that the Lord will give us all the grace of repentance.  He said, “It is my Father’s will, says the Lord, that I should lose nothing of all he has given to me, and that I should raise it up on the last day.”  And St Paul also said, “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.”  (Rom 5:15)

Of course, the assurance that we will finally get there does not mean that we do not need to purify ourselves, either in this life or in the next, which we call purgatory.  St John reminds us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”  (1 Jn 3:2f)  Purification however is an ongoing process.  There are many degrees of holiness.  No one can ever be holy like God.  What is necessary is for us to undertake the path to purification of love here and now; and if still not perfected, there is still opportunity after death in purgatory.

In truth, purgatory is another act of God’s mercy.  It is good for us to take note that purgatory is totally unlike hell.  Purgatory is not the half way mark to enter heaven.  On the contrary, purgatory is heaven possessed as hope and promise.  Those in purgatory are not suffering like those in hell who are totally incapable of love but only hatred.  The souls in purgatory are very much closer to God, but until the last residues of selfishness, unforgiveness and fear is removed, they cannot yet enter into the fullness of life.  This is because heaven is a state of love where all the saints live in an exchange of love.   This explains why in the first reading, heaven is portrayed as a banquet of love and life. “On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines, of food rich and juicy, of fine strained wines.  On this mountain he will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, and the shroud enwrapping all nations, he will destroy Death for ever.” Souls in purgatory know that heaven is waiting for them.  But they need our prayers to help them let go of their selfishness and attachment to the world; and especially their unwillingness to forgive and to let go of those who have hurt them on earth.  Only when they are no longer attached to the earth negatively, are they ready to be united with God and the communion of saints.  Because we are in communion with them, we are to pray for them to accept humbly the unconditional love of God, to forgive themselves and trust in His mercy.

What we are saying is not a pie in the sky, as some people think.  St Paul made it clear that “Hope is not deceptive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us.”  Indeed, those of us who have been purified in some degree already experience greater freedom, joy and love.  We also have experienced how the love of God in our hearts, through the Holy Spirit, enables us to live a life of peace, love and joy.  Our hope is in God’s mercy, not on ourselves.  “The Lord is my light and my help. O Lord, hear my voice when I call; have mercy and answer. It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face.  I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.  Hope in him, hold firm and take heart. Hope in the Lord!”