Dear brothers and sisters,
We were reminded this past Sunday of something we too often forget, namely, that “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wisdom 1:13). But because we experience death each day in one way or another, we presume that death is a natural consequence of life; that we are born and die seems as normal as eating, drinking, and sleeping, but this does not make the experience of death any easier to bear.
From the beginning it was not so, “for God formed man to be imperishable” and only “by the envy of the devil [did] death enter the world” (Wisdom 2:23, 24). Death, then, is not natural, it was not part of the original plan of God, yet he has nonetheless brought it into the workings of his Providence. Indeed, death was first given as a divine punishment, but “a divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained.”
Because God does not rejoice in the destruction of the living, he sent his Only Begotten Son among us. He willingly abandoned the glory of heaven and took on our frail humanity; he lived our life and he died our death, giving his life for us on the Cross. Yet his death was not to be the end. He was raised from the dead by the power of the Father and his Resurrection destroyed forever the bonds of death. This is why the hope of the souls of the just is “full of immortality” (Wisdom 3:4). The just look to the Risen Lord, confident that he will raise their mortal bodies from the dust, as well, that they will live with him forever.
Yet despite this hope, despite our confidence that “the faithful shall abide with him in love,” death still causes us great pain and anguish even as it raises many questions (Wisdom 3:4). Very rarely do we ask why we have to die; we have accepted it as a simple reality from which we cannot escape, and this is true, as far as it goes. We do ask, though, why our loved ones must suffer before death, especially if their suffering extended for a length of time, especially when their suffering extends for a span of several years. Why could they not simply have been given a quick and painless death, we ask; why must it have been drawn out?
This is a question, of course, without any obvious answer, but that does not mean we cannot say something about it. Certainly, it is never easy to watch a loved one suffer and it was not easy for you to watch Shirley suffer these past many years, but your love for her and her love for you kept you together and allowed you to suffer with and for each other. Was this suffering – her suffering and yours - meaningless, or might there have been an unseen purpose to it?
Before the Lord Jesus ascended the throne of his Cross, he said to those who would be his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). From this it follows that just as the Cross was the only means to the Resurrection, so, too, is the Cross – however it is presented to each of us – the means by which we will attain eternal life because our own crosses are a sharing in the Cross of Christ. This is why Saint Peter encourages us, saying,
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (I Peter 4:12-13).
The suffering that Shirley endured was an invitation to share in the sufferings of Christ, to complete in her flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church (see Colossians 1:24). If we seek to unite our sufferings together with the sufferings of Christ, our sufferings, like his, can be redemptive, both for us and for others; they can bring about a good unseen and even unlooked for.
This is why King Solomon wrote that “chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself” (Wisdom 3:5). We have gathered here today, the family and friends of Shirley, to pray for her, to implore the Lord Jesus to count her among his flock and to welcome her into his pastures. We have come to pray that, since Shirley was tried as gold in the furnace, that she may now know the fullness of the grace and mercy of God and dart about as sparks through stubble, that she may always be with the Lord (see Wisdom 3:6, 7, 9; I Thessalonians 4:17).
If we are honest, each one of us will recognize that we have a longing that extends beyond the realms of this world, a desire for something greater than this life can give; we have a yearning for life without end, but not simply an unending life as we know it now; such a life would be unbearable. We long, rather, to be with the Lord, to look upon the face of the Creator who alone can fulfill the deepest aspirations of the human heart.
In one of his letters to his son Michael, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote beautifully of this desire: “There is a place called 'heaven' where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled, are continued. We may laugh together yet...” This is why we have come today to the altar of God, to pray that we may one day laugh with Shirley again, that our hopes may be fulfilled, our stories completed, and our good works finished. But how can this be?
Earlier we said that death, which was first a punishment brought about by the envy of the devil, is, paradoxically, also a gift that brings about something otherwise unattainable. What do we mean? The unexpected consequence of death – the unexpected gift of death – is heaven:
With this term "Heaven" we wish to say that God, the God who made himself close to us, does not abandon us in or after death but keeps a place for us and gives us eternity. We mean that in God there is room for us.
Before our expulsion from Paradise, before we rebelled against God and set ourselves up as his equals and rivals, God walked with us in the garden in the cool of the evening (see Genesis 3:7). Now, though, through the death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, God does not simply walk among us but has opened himself up to us; now we can live not simply with God, but in God. And because there is now room for us within the One who is Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, within the One who is Love, the deepest yearnings of our hearts can be satisfied and fulfilled; indeed, they will be satisfied if we die in friendship with him.
To understand this reality a little better let us look at our own lives. We all experience that when people die they continue to exist, in a certain way, in the memory and heart of those who knew and loved them.
We might say that a part of the person lives on in them but it resembles a "shadow" because this survival in the heart of their loved ones is destined to end.
God, on the contrary, never passes away and we all exist by virtue of his love. We exist because he loves us, because he conceived of us and called us to life. We exist in God's thoughts and in God's love. We exist in the whole of our reality, not only in our "shadow".
Our serenity, our hope and our peace are based precisely on this: in God, in his thoughts and in his love, it is not merely a "shadow" of ourselves that survives but rather we are preserved and ushered into eternity with the whole of our being in him, in his creator love.
It is his Love that triumphs over death and gives us eternity and it is this love that we call "Heaven": God is so great that he also makes room for us.
The Saints live now in God and experience the fullness of his love. May Shirley be admitted this day to their company to know the fullness of happiness, joy, and peace for ever. Amen.