By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
We are now at the halfway point of the month of November, a month that majestically begins in our Catholic tradition of faith with the feast of All Saints along with the hope-filled commemoration of All Souls. During this time of year, our hearts and minds are naturally and spiritually drawn to the end of time and space, as we know it, to the mystery of eternal life.
“We are God’s children now. What we shall later be has not yet come to light. (1Jn3). We see things dimly now, as in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face,” (1Corinthians 13). We are called to be in eternal communion with living God, through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. “I believe in the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting,” are the statements of faith that conclude the proclamation of creedal belief that we proclaim on Sundays and feast days.
The seasons of the year, God’s gift of creation, speak to the seasons of human life, and the inexorable engine of time. Autumn provides the natural setting in the Northern Hemisphere to reflect upon, and embrace the reality that mortality has the upper hand in this life. Even in Mississippi as the daylight hours diminish the early autumn mornings can be brisk, bordering on cold.
During these southern November days, I am delighting in the fall foliage, and the brown grass, and the leaves that cover backyards and fairways, a full month after NEPA (Northeast Pennsylvania). The natural world in manifest ways is dying to self, preparing to rest in winter’s dormancy. In a paradoxical way there is a unique beauty with dying and death in the natural world that can draw us deeper into the finitude of our own lives.
So it is with the seasons of human life. Developmental psychologists have made enormous contributions to our understanding of life’s challenges and opportunities at every stage on the journey, beginning with life in the womb up to the moment when the sun sets on a person’s life. Early on we seek to establish our identity.
Upon this foundation we continue to build the structure of our lives at the onset of adulthood. At mid-life, stagnation frequently comes knocking at the door, and we must dig deeper to remain loving and productive. With the onset of old age wisdom can be the welcome guest, or a person could succumb to various forms of despair. “Therefore we do not lose heart. Although our outer selves are wasting away, our inner selves are being renewed each day,” (2Corinthians 4,2).
It is true that the gift of faith in Jesus Christ blesses us with the promise of eternal life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Yet, there is sober reality all around us slogging through time, even while we possess the sense dof the eternal. In the movie, “The Hobbit,” Gollum and Bilbo Baggins go head to head with riddles that entertain, but also confront the viewer with life’s somber reality.
It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under hills,
And empty holes it fills.
It comes out first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.
The answer is darkness. A poignantly clever riddle, no doubt, but in faith one that succumbs to the powerful words of the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” (John 8,12).
Gollum’s final riddle stumps Bilbo, and he needs more time to solve it.
This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.
Bilbo needed more time to realize that the answer to the riddle is time. Sometimes people are given more time to get it right, or to right wrongs, and sometimes not. Time is fleeting (tempus fugit); it passes quickly. “Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die,” (Psalm 103,15). Yet, once again we have the words that are eternal in the face of the conquering worm. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die,” (John 11,25).
Jesus once said to the Sadducees, non-believers in eternal life, who were trying to trip him up: “You are so wrong. Our God is the God of the living, not the dead,” (Matthew 22, 32). The Catholic Church celebrated the promise of eternal life in the recent canonizations of Saint Pope John Paul II, and Saint Pope John XXIII. We embrace the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting.
As we pray for our beloved dead with greater attention and intention this month, and ask the intercession of the saints, may their love and prayers on our behalf inspire us to live a life worthy of the calling we have received by virtue of the three gifts that last, faith, hope, and love.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz