There is a rather simple story about death that I heard several years ago. Because it captures so concisely how I think we as Christians feel about death, I usually tell this story at every funeral I celebrate, either at the funeral home prayers or in the homily at Mass.
The story simply goes like this:
A preacher was preaching to a congregation. He said, “if anyone wants to go to heaven, please stand up now.” Everyone in the congregation stood up. He then said, “if you want to go now, keep standing.” At this point, everyone sat down.
We Christians know that we are a pilgrim people. Scripture tells us that “our true homeland is in Heaven, and we are awaiting a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). Once in Heaven, we know that we, and our loved ones, will never suffer again and will enjoy happiness for all eternity. Despite this, most people do not wish to go to Heaven “now” or to see a loved one depart to go there “now.”
It seems to me why none of us wants to go to Heaven at the present moment, or to see one of our loved ones go right now, is that God has created this world so beautifully that no matter what our trials and difficulties, we are all attached to our life in this world. Each human being is so beautiful, that even when her or his life has been diminished by sickness or old age, we still see in each person a human being made in the image and likeness of God; one for whom we care very much.
This world is so beautiful that letting go of it in order to obtain the gift of eternal life which Christ has won for us can be a challenge, and a spiritually difficult endeavour, for all of us. With death comes the fear of suffering, the unknown, and a leap of faith into the loving arms of the God who awaits us and has prepared a home for us in our true homeland of Heaven.
For all of us, the call to let go of anything that we love, even when we know in faith, it is for the higher good of Heaven, involves suffering. We suffer when a loved one dies; when we have an illness that threatens to separate us from life and our loved ones; and when we must choose to do good at a cost to ourselves and our loved ones. In order to follow Jesus, and to have the fullness of life that He call us to, at some point each one of us must choose to do God’s will and let go of our will. This choice is reflected in the words that we hear Jesus speak in this Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew, as He states: “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
In order to inherit the eternal life that Jesus has come to share with us, each one of us will be called to lay down our own life and will and to follow Christ.
Now as Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ prediction that He will undergo suffering makes clear, none of us likes the idea of suffering; whether it be suffering for ourselves or for someone we care about. Peter’s reaction to the news that Jesus will suffer is similar to that which each of us would likely have said: “God forbid it, Lord! This will never happen to you!!!”
Thank goodness for the humanity of the saints!
It is so comforting to know that St. Peter, who has just professed his faith in Christ as the Messiah, was frightened and saddened by the news that Jesus must suffer, just as would any of us have been. Despite his deep faith, Peter is frightened by the news that Jesus must be handed over, crucified, die and on the third day be raised. His reaction is the same as that which most of us have in the face of suffering, “God forbid it.”
So how are we as Christians to understand why suffering and departing from this life to our true homeland in Heaven always proves to be such a trial and tribulation for all of us?
It seems to me, that in order to understand this, we need to look back to the Garden of Eden and to the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Adam and Eve were created to live in communion with God. Before they turned away from God, they lived in communion with Him and feared nothing and knew no shame. It is only after they turn away from God through sin that they are frightened and no longer lived in communion with God. Many theologians say that while Adam and Eve would have passed from earth to Heaven, even if they had not sinned, their passing would not have been one that caused them suffering or anxiety, because they would have made the passage in communion with God. This communion with God’s will would have allowed them to do so in peace. Having God as their source of life and peace in this world, their passing from here to Heaven would not have involved a separation from one to another, but a mere passing to heaven in peace. Because they turned their back on God, their passing, like ours, involved anxiety and dis-ease.
The Blessed Virgin Mary, who was conceived without sin, so that she might live in that condition of grace known by Adam and Eve at creation, lived her own life in communion with God and was able to become the Mother of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Her life is intended as an example of what God hopes to do for all of us if we live our lives in communion with His Son, Jesus our Saviour. Because Mary lived her life in communion with God, her passage to Heaven was peaceful and without fear and anxiety. We celebrated this on August 15th on the Solemnity of the Assumption, when we remember that Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven. What God does for Mary at the Assumption, He will do for those of us who accept His will on the Day of Judgement. Mary is celebrated as Queen of Heaven on August 22nd in order that we all might be reminded that by following her example, Christ also wishes to share with us the Kingdom that He has prepared for all of us. As Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: “For the Son of Man is to come with his Angels in the glory of His Father, and then he will repay each according to their work.”
The fact that Heaven is our true homeland means that each one of us is on a pilgrimage. This is not our true homeland. For all of us, this means that at some point, and in different ways, we are going to have to let go of our lives here—give up our lives— in order to gain the life which Christ has won for us.
Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life, has come among us to show us the way to Heaven. He calls us to do God’s will and to accept that God is our creator and the only one who can give us eternal life. The way to eternal life is through Christ.
In order that He might show us the way to Father, Jesus takes up His cross so that He might pass from this world to the Father and through His atoning sacrifice open for us the Kingdom of Heaven. Through His death, Christ has opened for us the Kingdom of Heaven and re-established us in communion with the Holy Trinity by sending the Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers. By His cross and resurrection, Jesus has set us free.
Christ’s cross is the sign of God’s unconditional love for all people. It shows us how we are to be free and make our passage from this life to Heaven. On the cross we see the One who destroyed death and who offers us life eternal.
For some people, when they see Jesus on the cross, they think that it is a bloody sign that should be avoided. However, understood correctly, the cross proclaims, that even if this happens to any of us, no matter how we die, Jesus will raise us up. The cross beautifully proclaims that because of God’s love, nothing can harm us on our pilgrimage.
I have been amazed at the comfort that people who are suffering have found in the cross. When filled with pain from cancer and on their deathbed, they have looked at the cross and known in faith, that just as Jesus died, He will raise them up. The loved ones of a deceased person cling to the cross given them at a funeral, knowing that Jesus who died for all will also raise up their deceased loved one. Many people facing their own trials and uncertainties hold a cross, and without knowing what the future holds, they are certain that if they take up their cross with the Lord, they will find their life, the strength to persevere, and much more.
Peter was scandalized by the idea that Jesus had to take up a cross in order to pass from this life to the next. As many of us say in the face of suffering, Peter, at the thought of his friend suffering, exclaimed: “God forbid it.” However, Jesus knew that He must take up His cross in order that you and I might be able to take up our crosses when we are called to let go of this life in order to have the eternal life that awaits us in our true homeland of Heaven.
God has made all things good. This world is a place filled with many amazing blessings. We are to enjoy these gifts as God intends, to share them with others, and to use them for building a just and humane world. In the end, however, this is not our true homeland. We are all pilgrims passing through. At some point, and in many small ways along the journey, we will have to let go of these earthly blessings in order to come to our true homeland and allow others also to go. Each goodbye involves a little sadness for all of us—even for people of great faith like St. Peter. In order that we might know how to let go and do the saving will of our Father, Jesus came among us and showed us the way. On the cross, He opened His arms wide in order to let go of everything in this world and receive all that Heaven offers. If we wish also to receive eternal life, we too must be able to let go of everything, take up our cross, and open our arms to all that God has to offer us in the Kingdom of Heaven. Through the cross, we pilgrims are to find our passage to our true homeland in Heaven.
Let us pray that we, like Peter, despite our fear of the crosses of life, may trust in Christ and His presence in our lives throughout our pilgrimage to our true homeland.
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Church—Toronto.
This reflection based on the readings for the Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12: 1-2; and Matthew 16: 21-27.