In a cemetery in Singapore, a visiting British citizen was laying a bunch of flowers on the grave of his relative, when he spotted an Asian-looking man putting a small bowl of rice in front of a nearby tombstone. With a sarcastic note clearly apparent in his voice, the Brit asked the local man: ‘When will the deceased eat the rice, then?’ The local man answered politely: ‘When yours will be smelling the flowers.’
Throughout the world, across all cultures and religions, people show respect to those who have passed away. The traditions, customs and ways of showing respect can vary, but the common aspect is that we try to remember them as we ourselves would wish to be remembered when our time comes. A few weeks ago, the media reported the archaeological discovery of some ancient human remains of ‘homo naledi’ in South Africa, intentionally buried in a cave in a way previously considered as having been reserved solely to modern humanity. Since the moment when – as the human race – we became aware of our own individual existence, we have had to cope with its unbearably inevitable finiteness. Somehow the desire to avoid the inevitable has been, and still is, the driving force behind medical and scientific developments since time immemorial. The average lifespan in the developed countries has significantly increased, almost doubling in comparison with the life expectancy of the Middle Ages. But despite that, death inevitably looms in the future for each individual. As I heard it announced on the radio recently: The longer we live, the more likely we will die.’
In the Catholic Church we have two special days when we remember those who have passed away: All Saints, celebrated today, and All Souls on the following day. The former is focused on the heavenly glory of those who have already reached the fullness of redemption, while the latter is devoted to prayers for those who yet await it – in old-fashioned language we call their state ‘purgatory.’ Somehow it seems to be a bit easier to associate ourselves with those in purgatory, as we don’t consider ourselves to be saintly or holy. In fact, we sometimes use this phrase in arguments or quarrels. Oh, how wrong we are…
According to common perception, holiness or sainthood is identical to some kind of moral perfection twinned with consummate emotional self-control and divine piety – that’s what we’ve learned from the lives of the saints. To most of us these ‘high standards’ seem to be totally out of reach, and to some of us (myself included) not all that attractive. The problem is that we can find people with high moral standards who are not Christians, or not even religious. The assumption that Christianity is all about sticking to moral rules is wrong. First and foremost our faith is about the Son of God becoming man in order to redeem us from our sins and, in this way, to renew in us the state of holiness intended by our loving God the Father. As I have mentioned a couple of times in my sermons recently, sticking to moral rules is our personal response to such an incredible gift of new life freely given to each one of us in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The vision that we heard about in today’s first reading, of a crowd too vast to count standing in front of God’s throne in heaven, is the destiny of each and every one of us. You and I have been made holy: we ‘washed our robes white again in the blood of the Lamb’; we are ‘called God’s children and that is what we are.’ Saint John in the second reading elaborates upon that further on: ‘we are already the children of God, but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed.’ It’s an active-passive situation in which God has initiated the whole process of his own will, and each one of us has to develop it in his or her own individual way. Sainthood is not an option for you or me: it’s our ultimate destiny.