If Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, then our union with Him in this mortal life means we are already united with eternal life. Because of that, we can look at death in a way that is not possible for those who do not believe. Jesus himself tells us how to look at death when he says, “I shall return to take you with me.” Death is the final encounter with Jesus coming to take us by the hand to his Father’s house. God did not create the human being to be torn apart, soul from body. And so, we rightly abhor what has happened to our loved ones.
But the whole point of Christ is that such death does not have the last word. By uniting us to his body in this mortal life, our soul in death lives on in Christ’s Risen Body. This is a very deep but very beautiful mystery. By receiving Baptism, we belong to the Risen Body of the Lord; by receiving the Eucharist, our union with Christ’s Body is deepened. The powerful words of Jesus come to mind, “anyone who believes in me, even though he die, yet shall he live.” We die because of our mortal condition, yet we live because of our union with the immortal flesh of Christ.
In death, Jesus therefore somehow substitutes his own eternal Body for our mortal body. We live in His Body until the resurrection of the body of every human being at the end of time. When we die, he takes us to Himself, to dwell in Him and in God. Only when creation is made new at the end of history will his power restore us to our own risen bodies, never again to be torn asunder from our souls.
Jesus says that He has gone to prepare a place for us. What that means is that from his place in heaven he is preparing us here and now to enter those many rooms in his Father’s house. What are those rooms? Surely, it’s a way of speaking of the unique perfection of each one of us which the Father has planned from all eternity. Our room in heaven is that condition in which we are most fully and blessedly at home with ourselves, with God, with all men and with creation itself. It is the full blossoming of our eternal potential.
Jesus prepares us for that in the here and now. He does it by drawing every strand and strain of our being towards himself through the power of the Word of his Truth which he has given us in writing, in the spoken word of his preachers, in the beauty of creation, in the events of love and goodness which surround us every day, in the faces and features of our families, our friends and our neighbours, in our sufferings and repentance, in our weakness and in our yearning for lasting happiness. He also draws us through the sacraments, actually giving us Himself, his Spirit, his power and grace, his unfailing and life-giving love.
It follows that He can only take us to Himself if we have first taken Him to ourselves, or rather, if we have let Him give Himself to us. It is our daily interaction with Jesus, our openness to His presence, our concern for his will for us which weaves a beautiful and unique pattern of authenticity in our deepest being. That is Christ preparing our place. That is Christ getting our room ready.
For this to happen, of course, it means that Christ must become, over the course of our life, our principal preoccupation. That’s not easy in a world in which there are so many competing attractions, even good ones. It’s not that we are to lay aside our legitimate duties, as parents or workers. It is that we are to fulfil those duties under the gaze of Christ, or with our own eyes turned to Him. Lord, what can I do to love you today? How can I serve my spouse and children so that they draw closer to you today? Christ can all the better prepare us for Himself if we involve Him in the exercise of our responsibilities. How do you do that? First, by asking Him to do so in prayer, but also by getting to know His Word, what His Church says to us about parenting, family life, marriage, social justice, dealing with illness and failure, strengthening our spiritual life. Christ cannot prepare us for the Father’s house, if the concerns of Father and Son are only marginal to our daily lives.
What, then, of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith? Are we to think the worst? No, we must hope the best. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid, says Jesus, trust in God still and trust in me. We entrust our deceased to the Father and to the Son. Will we ever see them again, would they want to come back to us, do they know and see our care for them, do they know what’s happening to us here and now? These and many other questions in many ways simply show our love for them. And that is grand. Let me offer some thoughts, maybe not so much answers, to such questions about things beyond our mortal reality.
Would they want to come back to us? The French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, wrote a meditation on the assumption of the prophet Elijah into heaven. In it, he speaks of the prophet Elisha, the one Elijah left behind, crying upwards after him, “my father, my father, come back to us!” But he then writes that Elijah, possibly experiencing a slight tug to return as he begins to ascend, hears the sounds and language of heaven towards which he is going. The beauty and glory of heaven so draw him that he simply could no longer return to earth. He now belonged to a new reality, the reality for which he was created. It is, I think, likely that our dead who have died in the Lord have experienced what Elijah did in Fr. Teilhard’s meditation. They will not return to us, but we shall all hopefully in due course go to them. Then, we will definitely see them as they will see us, without the veil of mortality on our faces, but resplendent with the immortal life of Christ.
It may be that they, and we, must be purified between the moment of death and entrance beyond the hallway into the Father’s house. We traditionally call that Purgatory. Purgatory is not some awful torture chamber, but an intense state in which we experience the power and love of Christ asking us to let go in freedom of the sins and inordinate attachments which we may still bear when we die. And in that connection, our deceased and purified relatives who are with the Lord are now quite simply saints, and the saints intercede for us because they know through Jesus our pains and sorrows and problems and sins. Remember that when a saint is canonized it’s because God has worked a miracle in a very down to earth situation of sickness through that saint’s intercession. I think it safe to say that your deceased relatives know and love you now more and better than they ever did in this life, but only because of our union and communion in Jesus Christ.
So, do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in the Father and trust in Jesus. Let them prepare you now for your eternal mansion so that when Jesus comes to take you to himself, you will be as ready as you can be to meet Him, the Father and all those you have ever known and loved and who have died in His peace.