The readings presented to us at Mass during this time of year take on much more of an eschatological urgency, drawing our attention away from the things of this world to what 20th-century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich described as the “area of ultimate concern,” namely God and the things of God.
The readings will focus on what has been traditionally called the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. This is the ultimate reality, and during this season of falling leaves and temperatures, nature echoes the lessons that the church is trying to convey in the readings for Mass.
With our worship of youthfulness and phobia of aging, we may refuse to acknowledge that we are all edging closer and closer to our entrance into what Shakespeare described as that “undiscovered country.”
In our flurry of daily activities, we attempt to seek asylum from the terror of death. But because we cannot stop for death, “death kindly stopped” for us, to paraphrase the poet Emily Dickinson. Yes, each of us will die one day. That reality derives from our fallen human natures, a consequence of original sin.
With that in mind, it is essential that we, as people of faith, perform four tasks: First, live in this world with our heart set on the next; second, pray through the intercession of St. Joseph, the patron of a happy death; third, offer prayers for the dead, most especially the souls in purgatory; and fourth, be sure that we are ready, at all times, with souls free from sin, to be called home by our loving and merciful Lord.
First, we are called to regain that true sense that our home is in heaven. With our hearts set on the Lord, we can realize that all of this on earth is quickly passing away. The concerns and anxieties that weigh us down are nothing compared to the joys that await us, if we live our lives in accordance with the will of God.
Second, we need to pray for a happy and peaceful death for ourselves and for others. Recognizing the reality of our earthly situation, we are aware of the countless numbers of people who die suddenly, tragically and alone. St. Joseph is, in our church’s tradition, the patron of a happy death. “O Blessed Joseph, you gave your last breath in the loving embrace of Jesus and Mary. When the seal of death shall close my life, come with Jesus and Mary to aid me. Obtain for me this solace for that hour — to die with their holy arms around me. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I commend my soul, living and dying, into your sacred arms. Amen.”
Third, we can use this month dedicated to the Holy Souls, to pray for the dead. The catechism teaches us that purgatory exists, and so Christians should pray for the dead, especially through the celebration of Mass.
Fourth and finally, we can be sure that we are in union with the Lord by living our lives in accordance with his will by freeing ourselves from sin through the sacrament of penance.
Yes, this world is passing away, and the month of the Holy Souls reminds us of that, both in nature and in the lectionary of Mass. May we keep our eyes, minds and hearts focused on what truly matters —not in this passing world, but on the world to come.