This is an interesting time in the liturgical year, which really corresponds to the natural year. In the early spring, we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection at a time of year when the earth is ‘rising’ from the dead of winter and visibly bursting into new life. By early summer, we have entered into the Season After Pentecost or Ordinary Time, when we concentrate on the implications of a Christian life as we strive for holiness in the Church and the world. Then as the later autumn comes around, though there is not a separate liturgical season for this time, the focus of the liturgical year does noticeably shift into a more eschatological mode.
At a time when the leaves are rapidly falling or perhaps already gone, when the earth is getting colder, and the days noticeably shorter, the liturgical readings and prayers also begin to focus on the inevitability of death and the end times. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are important features of this time. As the earth is ‘dying,’ the Church invites us to be mindful of our own eventual death.
Of course, the Church does not give us this season merely for the sake of being morbid. Death is not a comfortable topic to think about, but it is wholly necessary to do so. All of us must eventually die. Some of us are closer to that time than others, but at one time or another all of us must face it. It is very natural and inevitable for us, as human beings, to have some dread and fear regarding it. One reason is simply that it will be completely strange and unknown. Unlike any other change, positive or negative, that we experience in our lives, we will not be able to consult anyone else who has already been through death when the time comes. We will not know at all what to expect. We can only rely on what has been revealed, and this is why it is very important to keep these revealed truths ever in mind.
Actually, the revealed truths surrounding death are, in essence, what our very faith hinges on. Death as we know it was not part of God’s original plan. It happened because of sin. That would explain why there is also a natural horror surrounding death, one that goes far beyond even fear of the unknown. Having been created alive, we are meant to live, and there is a horror surrounding the time that we will live no longer, when the very purpose of our existence, according to nature, shall have been lost and defeated. Furthermore, there seems to be an innate sense that the realm of the dead is somewhat unhappy, gloomy, and scary- as is seen by considering the religious traditions of almost all pre-Christian peoples. And in fact, this lines up exactly with our Christian understanding of what death would be- were it not for Christ’s salvific sacrifice.
Yes, the main focus of our faith is that death has been redeemed in Christ. Christ, by dying Himself and rising from the dead, has conquered its hold on us and instead transformed it into the passage to eternal joy, eternal life in Him! The knowledge of Christ’s victory over sin and death is the only thing that makes our faith meaningful. This is why it is so appropriate to celebrate All Saints’ Day at this time of year- the feast celebrates all those who have already achieved the glory won by Christ, thereby celebrating Christ’s victory over sin and death. It also reminds us that the same glory is in store for us, that we too hope to be among their number, that this is what our own death is meant to lead us to. Hence, there is a surprising parallel between this time and Easter. The ‘rising’ and the ‘dying’ times of the year both provide their own unique perspectives from which to appreciate Christ’s victory.
However, the theme of the season isn’t all joy and triumph as is Eastertime. We must also remember the plight of the Poor Souls in purgatory, who have already passed through death but are still being purified from their sins and waiting to receive the crown of glory. (This topic will be discussed further in the next post.) And of course, we must remember that our own salvation is still not guaranteed. When we die, we will be judged on how we have lived, on whether we have been faithful to our Christian vocation, on whether we have truly sought to follow Christ. Only if we pass that judgment will we receive Christ’s gift of eternal life. That is also why there is a theme of destruction and judgment in the liturgy at this time. We must remember well that not only heaven, but also hell, is very real, and we must strive mightily to avoid it. We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
So, let us use this time to ever strive to recall the Four Last Things of Death, Judgment, and Hell. Let us remember that we will die as we have lived, and therefore let us live as we hope to die. Let us ever strive to live a worthy life in the hope of being saved. Memento mori– remember you will die! Here are some good resources for studying and considering the Four Last Things (these are affiliate links for which I may receive a commission):
The Last Things (DVD)