The Wages of Sin is Death (Sermon for All Souls, 2023)
I was called once to the hospital, to minister to the family of a woman who had just died of cancer at the age of 41. Her son, daughter, and sister were there. I did my best to console them, to bring the light of God’s mercy and love into their sorrow. I had been there before, in the same hospital, perhaps in the same room in the oncology wing, with other families preparing for such a tragic loss, or reeling from its consequences.
The young woman who had just died was from a large family from Puerto Rico. They had tried to arrive in time, but many had not quite made it – in most cases, by a matter of minutes. Family member after family member walked into the room, expecting to say goodbye to their stepdaughter, sister, aunt, and found only her lifeless body. The reality of death confronted them not as an abstract consideration, but in starkly concrete particularity. They cried, gasped for breath, collapsed on the floor, or threw themselves over her body.
Catholics like to talk about being pro-life from conception to “natural death,” but there is no such thing as “natural death.” Anyone who has ever felt the sorrow and utter helplessness that confronted that family in that tragic moment know that all too well: Death is not natural.
Death was not a part of God’s original plan. Our first human parents were not supposed to taste the pains of death. They were created with the preternatural gift of immortality – meaning not that they necessarily would still be walking this earth today had it not been for their original sin, but that their transition to the life of the blessed would have been painless and joyful, where death would have no sin. We live in a world that is not as it should be.
Last Sunday I emphasized that we do not sufficiently understand the gravity of sin. Sin, I told you, is the disruption of this order and harmony of the universe. We object to the application of punishment – either to ourselves or to those experiencing the purgation of their sins in purgatory – because we do not appreciate the gravity of sin. Sin is literally “the worst.” The physical evils we experience (loss of life, loss of income, sickness and suffering) introduce a difficulty in achieving our life’s end, but sin makes it impossible. Sin is the only thing directly opposed to the proper ends of human life – holiness in this life and beatitude in the next.
The original justice and harmony we were created to enjoy, then, were lost through sin. But that does not mean that they are lost forever. All Souls Day is our yearly chance to commemorate all the faithful departed, to plead with our merciful savior that those who have felt the sting of death as a consequence of Adam’s sin and ours might one day be called to join the blessed. It also particularly behooves us to call to mind another important theme contained within the liturgy of All Souls: that death holds sway for now, but that it shall not have the last word.
The ancient Roman liturgy of this day invites us not only to enact devout suffrage for the poor souls in purgatory, and not only to consider the state of our own souls, but to marvel before the promised second coming of the Lord. November is the month of the dead because it is the last month of the liturgical year, when we contemplate an important aspect of our Lord’s second coming: the general judgment, that “Dreaded day, that day of ire, / When the world shall melt in fire, / Told by Sibyl and David’s lyre.” On that day, the hour of which is unknown to all, “Fright men’s hearts shall rudely shift, / As the Judge through gleaming rift / Comes each soul to closely sift.”
At the general judgment, the deeds of all shall be made known: “When the Judge His seat shall gain, / All that’s hidden shall be plain, / Nothing shall unjudged remain.” (All this from the evocative “Dies Irae,” which used to be sung before the Gospel today and will make a cleverly appropriated appearance in today’s recessional hymn.) But why does this general judgement exist? If each soul has already received her own particular judgment at the hour of death, has already been assigned to the fires of Hell, the purification of purgatory, or the eternal delights of the heavenly banquet, why is this final judgment necessary? Is it to satisfy our curiosity to know the fate of each and every member of the race of Adam? Surely not. The final judgment is about a definitive promulgation of the Lord’s redemption. It is the moment when the words of Lord to the prophet Hosea, as quoted by St. Paul today, will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? … O death, I will be your plagues, o grave, I will be your destruction.”
The final judgment is incomplete without the Resurrection. Today’s Mass points out not only towards the contemplation of the sufferings of the souls in purgatory and the healing effects of the blood of the Savior poured out upon them at this Holy Mass, but towards the day when their suffering and ours will be no more. “For this corruptible body must put on incorruption, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” Even the souls in Heaven long for this day when the bodies of the faithful shall rise, “in an instant, at the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
The immorality that Adam and Eve lost in the garden, that immortality shall be ours when Christ comes again in glory and the mysteries of God’s providence are finally made known. “For this corruptible body must put on incorruption, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
Yes, my brothers and sisters, today’s commemoration of all the faithful departed brings us face to face with the gruesome reality of death. But it also invites us to join with the prophet and St. Paul to laugh in death’s face: “But when this mortal body puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the word that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory! O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” One day, this victory will ours too, “When the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was the beginning.”
Death is real, but we have already tasted its cure. The medicine of immortality is before us in Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity present in the Most Holy Eucharist. Here, “between the hither and father shore,” the blood that was shed for us while we were still sinners, is poured into the chalice of salvation. Only because of that can we be confident that for all the faithful departed and for us, “All shall be well, and / All manner of things shall be well. / When the tongues of flames are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, A.D. MMXXIII
Image: The Archangel Michael weighing a soul