Monday, November 02, 2009

Feast of All Souls: The Meaning of Purgatory

II Maccabees 12, 42-45: “And they found under the coats of the slain some of the donaries of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbiddeth to the Jews, so that all plainly saw that for this cause they were slain. Then they all blessed the just judgment of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden. And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought him that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten. But the most valiant Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forasmuch as they saw before their eyes what had happened, because of the sins of those that were slain. And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection. (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain t o pray for the dead). And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them, it is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed form sins.”

1) What is Purgatory?

1 Corinthians 3, 10-15: “…it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each ne has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

Ratzinger: “If…we hold that Purgatory is understood in a properly Christian way when it is grasped Christologically in terms of the Lord himself as the judging fire which transforms us and conforms us to his own glorified body, then we shall come to a very different conclusion” [than J. Gnilka who says: “There is no fire, only the Lord himself. There is no temporal duration involved, only eschatological encounter with the Judge. There is no purification, only the statement that such a human being will be saved only with exertion and difficulty;”Eschatology” J. Ratzinger, CUA (1988) 229]. Does not the real Christianizing of the early Jewish notion of a purging fire lie precisely n the insight that the purification involved does not happen through some thing, but through the transforming power of the Lord himself, whose burning flame cuts free our closed-off heart, melting it and pouring it into a new mold to make it fit for the living organism of his body? … In what does such ‘exertion’ and ‘difficulty’ consist?... Surely these terms must refer not to something external to man, but to the man of little faith’s heartfelt submission to the fire of the Lord which will draw him out of himself into that purity which befits whose who are God’s? One really can’t object that Paul is only talking here about the Last Day as a unique event: that would be hermeneutical naiveté, though exercised in the opposite sense from the type we considered [earlier]. Man does not have to strip away his temporality in order thereby to become ‘eternal;’ Christ as judge is ho eschatos the Final One, in relation to whom we undergo judgment both after death and on the Last Day. In the perspective we are offered here, those two judgments are indistinguishable. A person’s entry into the realm of manifest reality is an entry into his definitive destiny and thus an immersion in eschatological fire. The transforming ‘moment’ of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of ‘short’ or ‘long’ duration on the basis of temporal measurements derived from physics would be naive and unproductive. The ‘temporal measure’ of this encounter lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing over where we are burned ere we are transformed…[1]

“The essential Christian understanding of Purgatory has now become clear. Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where man is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather is it the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with out own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy. This insight would contradict the doctrine of grace only if penance were the antithesis of grace and not its form, the gift of a gracious possibility….Purgatory follows by an inner necessity from t he idea of penance, the idea of the constant readiness for reform which makes the forgiven sinner.”[2]

2) How can a third party enter into this need for internal purification? “How can a third party enter into that most highly personal process of encounter with Christ, where the ‘I’ is transformed in the flame of his closeness? Is not this an event which so concerns the individual that all replacement or substitution must be ruled out? Is not the pious tradition of ‘helping the holy souls’ based on treating these souls after the fashion of ‘having’ – whereas our reflection so far have surely led to the conclusion that the heart of the matter is ‘being,’ for which there can be no substitute? Yet the being of man is not, in fact, that of a closed monad. It is related to others by love or hate, and, in these ways, has its colonies within them. My own being is present in others as guilt or as grace. We are not just ourselves; or, more correctly, we are ourselves only as being in others, with others and through others. Whether others curse us or bless us, forgive us and turn our guilt into love – this is part of our own destiny.”[3]

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Eschatology” CUA (1988) 230.

[2] Ibid 231.

[3] Ibid 232.

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