The first generation of Christians thought that Jesus would return from heaven during their life-time. They all expected to be alive when he came back. But as time passed, the first of them began to die. So, the rest began to worry: did that mean the dead person would not be saved?
This is the pastoral concern facing St. Paul in today’s first reading. His answer to the Christians in Thessalonika is very clear: you must not grieve for those who have died as if they were lost. Instead, because Jesus died and rose, our hope is certain that those who have died in Jesus have gone to be with him and will come back with him when he returns. To die in Jesus means to have loved, believed and hoped in him during your life.
At the time of Paul, the pagans mourned despairingly because they had no belief in eternal life the way Christians do. Christian mourning combines the real grief of loss with the certain hope of return and resurrection. That is why we can still experience comfort even in our grief. It is also why we can have confidence for our own personal future even in the face of the natural anxiety about death. Those who have died in Jesus will live with him and with all others who have done the same.
Many today have regressed from having Christian hope to being agnostic or even atheistic when it comes to life after death. The hidden despair that instils is anaesthetised by living for the moment or, at most, by limiting one’s goals to what’s merely earthly. But the reality of death calls the bluff of this self-reliant outlook; it embarrasses it; it unmasks its self-deception. The notion of being personally judged after death by God is a no-no, because it would then mean having to take responsibility for our moral and spiritual lives now. That in turn would mean that we would have to change the mantra of our life from “I can do what I like” to “I must do what God likes.” It would require conversion of heart and of life.
Our Western culture has a contradictory attitude to death. On the one hand, death is mentally suppressed because it denies the notion that man is self-sufficient. On the other hand, death is invoked as an enlightened choice when the newly conceived is unwanted or when we want to avoid suffering for ourselves or for others. It’s as if abortion, suicide and euthanasia express man’s control over death and life: I will use death before it abuses me. This dangerous game of playing God with life and death lays bare a total loss of any sense of God and therefore a more than tragic vacuum of true love of self.
Others feign indifference to death. They are like the foolish virgins. They know the moment will come, but they don’t consider it something they should particularly prepare for – until, that is, it is too late. In words which ought to stir us deeply, Christ not only shuts the door firmly in their faces but also denies ever knowing them. Why? Simply because they could not be bothered getting ready for him with any degree of commitment or sincerity. Their preparations were half-hearted, ill-equipped and short on prudence and common sense. Getting ready for death amounts in the end to getting ready for Christ.
Worse than the rejection of Christ, is apathy towards him or an attempt to cut him down to suit our size. Paul holds out the beacon of hope for those who have died in Jesus. But that first means that we truly want to and do live in Jesus. The nature and outcome of our encounter with him after death depends on us.
Every human life, irrespective of a person’s religion or any other thing, willingly or unwillingly, ends in the encounter with Christ. May his love for every human life be welcomed by every human life during every human life, so that beyond every human death Christ’s love will raise all who have longed for him to share in the blessedness company of Paradise.