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Life Is Changed, Not Ended  
Catherine Dooley  
    In him, who rose from the dead,
our hope of resurrection dawned.
The sadness of death gives way
to the bright promise of immortality.

Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended.
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death
we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.


-Preface for Christian Death I (P77) Excerpt from the English translation of the Roman Missal © 1973, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. (ICEL). All rights reserved.

"What is Heaven?" "Where is it?" "How do we get there?" These questions are natural for Christians. It is part of the human psyche to ponder the afterlife.

Our prayers, and especially our liturgical prayers, use a variety of words and phrases to describe life after death. We refer to life everlasting or eternal life (Matthew 18:8 ff), the world to come, seeing God face to face (1 John 3:2), being with Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:17 and Romans 2:23), a sharing in the Resurrection of Christ (Ephesians 4:12), and a place that rewards the faithful (Matthew 25: 34).

Among various faith traditions, similarities are found in the understanding of the afterlife. Many believe that it is an experience of happiness with a reunion of loved ones, a place of peace, forgiveness, and eternal joy in the presence of God. Many religious traditions also hold that the way in which we live this life determines the next. All who speak about heaven, however, recognize the inadequacy of language to portray a reality they want to express and understand.

The liturgy of the Catholic Church offers a response to queries about heaven. The preface "The Hope of Rising in Christ" (P 77) of the eucharistic prayer in the Masses for the Dead proclaims:

In him who rose from the dead,
our hope of resurrection dawned.
The sadness of death gives way
to the bright promise of immortality.
Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death
we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.

In him who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned.
This affirmation of faith comes to us from one of the earliest creeds that Saint Paul recites to the community in Corinth:

Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve."
(1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

Paul's listeners knew and believed this creed. He is reminding the community of the reason for their faith and hope: Christ has been raised by the power of God. The good news that Paul preaches is based upon the death and Resurrection of Christ. The Resurrection of Christ cannot be separated from the resurrection of all believers. "For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised" (1 Corinthians 15:16).

It is the resurrection that enables the community to live in hope. Hope is the desire for eternal life, "placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our strength but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit" (CCC, #1817). Hope does not imply passivity. Neither does it imply an acceptance of the status quo. Many of the Corinthians that Paul addressed seemed to hold and manifest those in their celebration of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Christian hope unfolds from the beginning of Jesus' preaching in the proclamation of the Beatitudes (CCC, #1820). Hope becomes a reality when individuals and the community live out the beatitudes.

Life is changed, not ended
This proclamation is expounded in the readings of the Liturgy of the Word and of the prayers of the Mass. Our loved ones who have died are with us in a different way. Saint Paul asserts that "we shall be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). He firmly states that just as Christ possesses a resurrected body, so, too, will the bodies of all Christians be transformed. "This corruptible body must be clothed with incorruptibility, this mortal body with immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:53).

The gospel narrative of the Transfiguration of Jesus gives insight into this transformation. In Luke's account of the gospel, Jesus asks the disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" Peter replies, "The Messiah of God." Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer, and that if they truly want to be his disciples, they must take up their cross daily and follow him. Eight days later, Peter, John, and James witness the Transfiguration.

While Jesus was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzlingly white. Suddenly, two men were conversing with him-Moses and Elijah who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:29 - 30).

The conversation with representatives of the law and the prophets calls to mind the Israelite Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, from slavery to freedom, while underlining the passover of Jesus from death to Resurrection and Ascension that will take place in Jerusalem.

The Transfiguration both manifests Jesus in his glory and is a lesson in discipleship. In his eagerness (and in his misunderstanding), Peter wants to prolong the moment of glory by constructing three tents. As the apostle speaks, a cloud envelops them and a voice says, "This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him." The cloud, the symbol of God's presence, recalls the cloud that went before the Israelites on their journey to freedom (Exodus 13:21, 16:10). Jesus will show the disciples that the way of the cross is the path to glory.

Saint John Damascene said, "Jesus was transfigured, not by acquiring what he was not but by manifesting to his disciples what he in fact was; he opened their eyes and gave these blind men sight" ("Second Homily on the Transfiguration," cited in Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship [Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1988], p.60). In other words, the change was not a change in Jesus, but as Jean Corbon notes, it is in the disciples. Jesus "reveals himself by giving himself and he gives himself in order to transform us into himself."

Preachers and teachers struggle to find analogies to explain this reality, often using the metamorphosis of the caterpillar to the butterfly. To show continuity and discontinuity between this life and the next, Saint Paul turned to the seed and the plant. The seed buried in the ground has one form, and the plant that springs from the ground is in another form. The old life form must give way for the new life form to emerge. The continuity between the seed and plant is accompanied by discontinuity or radical change. Paul uses this image to contrast the resurrected body with the physical body: what is sown corruptible will be raised incorruptible; what is sown dishonorable is raised glorious; the weak will be raised powerful (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

The Paschal Mystery is the underlying theme in Paul. For Saint Paul, mystery is God's plan that is revealed and made known in the saving death, Resurrection, and glorification of Jesus Christ. Several documents from the Second Vatican Council, but particularly the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (CSL #5-6), renew the emphasis in the preaching of fourth-century mystagogues such as Saints Cyril of Jerusalem and Ambrose of Milan. The documents affirm that Christ gave glory to God "by the paschal mystery of his blessed passion, resurrection from the dead and glorification." CSL mandates that the funeral rites express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death.

What are we to understand by "Paschal Mystery"? Are we to see it simply as Christ's saving event that brought about our salvation? Clearly, it is that and more. The Paschal Mystery is not just a past event. Through the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the liturgy and the sacraments, it is present in the life of the Church. The Church proclaims and celebrates this mystery of Christ "so that the faithful may live from it and bear witness to it in the world (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1068).

The word "mystery" may suggest a reality that is inexplicable. Paschal Mystery is a "shorthand" way of summarizing God's self-gift in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Paschal Mystery is about relationship, about what it means to be loved with an everlasting love. Perhaps only those who have had the experience of being forgiven when they did not deserve forgiveness, of being loved when they were not particularly lovable, and of being cared for when unable to care for themselves will be able to understand the nature of the self-giving love of God.

Through Christ's death and Resurrection, all who are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are incorporated into the body of Christ. As members of this body, they are empowered by the Spirit and nourished and strengthened at the eucharistic table. The proclamation and celebration of the Paschal Mystery in the liturgy gives meaning and coherence to the life of the Christian. Having celebrated the Paschal Mystery sacramentally, Christians are called to make this reality living and active in their actions and attitudes. It is the Paschal Mystery that marks the beginning and end of a Christian's life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church names death as the Christian's last Passover. It is the beginning, at the end of the Christian's sacramental life, of the fulfillment of the new life begun at Baptism (CCC, 1682). It is all from one piece.

The Church celebrates the death of a Christian because of its certainty that death is neither the end of life nor of the relationships that encircled the person. "If one member suffers in the body of Christ which is the church, all the members suffer with that member" (1 Corinthians 12:26). The Order of Christian Funerals asserts that those who are baptized into Christ and have shared the same eucharistic table are responsible for one another (OCF, #8). At the celebration of the funeral Mass in particular, the Christian community expresses the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints. "Though separated from the living, the dead are still at one with the community of believers on earth and benefit from their prayer and intercession"(General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals, #6). As in all liturgies, the Christian community celebrates the funeral rites to give praise and thanks to God. In this ritual for the dead, we offer thanks for the gift of a life that has been returned to God, who is the giver of all good gifts. It is in Christian hope that the Christian community commends the dead to the mercy and love of God for the forgiveness of their sins. The belief in the communion of saints that we profess in the Apostles' Creed is apparent in all the ritual moments of the funeral rites. Even though the dead are separated from the living, they are nonetheless still united with the living and benefit from their prayers and intercessions. The faith that believers share has come from the apostles. Those who go before us have given us faith. Just as we are baptized in the faith of the Church, we are united in that faith in death.

In the Rite of Final Commendation and Farewell, the community acknowledges the reality of separation: "In the sight of the world, he/she is now dead; in your sight may he/she live for ever." The rite recognizes the spiritual bond that exists between the living and the dead. It proclaims that all the faithful will be raised up and reunited in the new heaven and new earth, where death will be no more.

When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death
we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.

In a third-century sermon on the kingdom of heaven, Saint Cyprian reminds his listeners that the things of the world are not lasting but the one who has done the will of God will live forever. Christians are expected to be single-minded, firm in faith and steadfast in courage, ready for God's will, whatever it may be.

Banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows it. That will show people that we really live our faith. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time . . . . Who, stationed in a foreign land would not want to return to their own country as soon as possible. We look upon paradise as our country and a great crowd of our loved ones waits us there, a countless throng of parents, brothers and children long for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!

Saints Paul and Cyprian and so many others have asked the eternal question through the ages. The query challenges us to understand more fully that the Paschal Mystery is our life. We participate in that mystery through the celebration of the liturgy and sacraments, and a recognition of the exodus of our daily lives that are lived in care and concern for others, in trust in God's faithful love here, and in a life everlasting.

Catherine Dooley, OP,
a member of the Sinsinawa Dominican order, teaches liturgy and catechetics at The Catholic University of America.
 
         
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