Heaven, Hell, Hallmark, Holy Week

I have often used the expression “sneak preview of hell” to describe activities I don’t like to do; frequently saying that I will be eternally condemned to be filing, ironing, and simultaneously teaching “For unto Us a Child Is Born” (Handel, “Messiah”) to a volunteer choir of non-music readers, all while wearing a tie. (Based on my experience, I highly doubt that any of those good non-music-reading volunteer choir folks will be languishing in the flames with me.)

For pretty much that same stretch of time I’ve been noting a growth in the terribly egocentric and earth-bound operating vision people have developed for heaven. This is quite often expressed in terms of being able to indulge in dietary behaviors without consequences, or perpetually partaking in favorite (often athletic) activities, and/or being reunited with family members. Music in my heaven is by Mozart, in yours by Dizzy Gillespie. I get to drink alfredo sauce by the bathtub-full while you devour a steak as thick as you are tall. While I’m taking piano lessons with Beethoven (who apparently has to spend eternity working, just to satisfy my desires), you’re on a golf course with infinite greens, and so on. I cannot possibly be the only one who has seen the impact and presence of this trend in funeral liturgies.

Heaven, certainly, has always been envisioned with sensate expressions—primarily food, music, and light—but most often in a corporate sense (choirs, banquets). The turn I’ve noted is toward heaven being a place of individual gratification, not participation in communal enjoyment. (Though the celestial family reunion, some people have observed, would not necessarily be “heavenly” for everyone!)

I’ve recently come to the realization that my flippant envisioning of hell is every bit as ego-centric as what I’ve decried in others’ vision of heaven. The surrounding culture, it seems, decreasingly views either place in terms of the presence or absence of God.

Is this because heaven and hell themselves are less “real” to the surrounding culture? Thanks in large part to the greeting card industry, everyone—in the manner of an Oprah give-away—passes immediately into eternal bliss. (“You get to go to heaven! And YOU go to heaven! And YOU…”). I see this phenomenon amplified on social media, wherein at the passing of any loved one (or the anniversary of their passing), certitude about them being in eternal glory, reunited with (fill in name), is regularly expressed. As with a good number of the Roman rite funeral liturgies I’ve experienced in the past decade, social media has increased the number of casual canonizations. In the week or so that I’ve been writing this piece, I’ve counted eleven such posts (and even more similar comments) on Facebook. I’m sure that this is an expression of confident faith, but it is also a manifestation of the values of the surrounding culture having adverse/unintended consequences. Those values seem to be flowing into church culture more than the church’s are flowing out. In the surrounding culture’s value system, heaven seems to be a super-duper participation award, given for merely playing along.

This isn’t the view of Christian liturgy, however. What’s missing is the hopeful but humble faith of the hymn In Paradisum: “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your coming, and lead you to the holy city, Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, no longer poor, may you have eternal rest.” The tone is humbly hopeful—an expression of what MAY happen, yet acknowledging that the final dispensation of our eternity lies with God.

In a church culture that is increasingly saturated with this severely diminished (in my opinion) view of heaven, and an over-confidence in our certain attainment of it, it is only natural that a correspondingly diminished—perhaps vanishing—belief in hell has accompanied it. It strikes me as something of a soteriological equation.

I am old enough to have learned, along with my Baltimore Catechism, the expression “by my hope for heaven and fear of hell.” As the Church hears increasing reports of the falling-away or non-joining of increasing portions of the population, I have found myself wondering if, for generations, that hope/fear-heaven/hell dynamic wasn’t largely what kept the sanctuaries filled. (By no means do I intend this observation as a way to look askance at the faith or discipleship of those generations—who were essential for the single human institution that did more to teach, heal, and feed the world than any other.)

One of the ways I’ve come to envision the Church is as a sphere, with Christ at its center. Part of what we’re experiencing in our time, I believe, is a disintegration of a hope/fear shell that kept everyone intact; a shell kept strong by ongoing indoctrination, and by the sense that it was also a protection from the external danger presented by “the world” and by other world religions (including, for Roman Catholics, other Christian denominations).

Part of the disintegration of that shell is an increasing inability to propose successfully to others that the Christ event is the sole/exclusive means by which salvation can be attained, especially as more and more people come to experience (whether first- or second-hand) the goodness that occurs in the world via other Christians, other religions, and even through those who profess no religious tradition or faith whatsoever. (The Pelagianist undertones of that view notwithstanding.)

So what is to keep that sphere—keep US—together now, and into the future? The Holy Spirit, of course—but the Spirit also utilizes our engagement, involvement, and cooperation. We certainly are held together by an attraction to Christ, who is at the center. That center, however, is found by others through the vibrant witness and joyful, fervent discipleship of those who have come to Christ, and have remained with him.

As we shift from external shell to internal attraction, I will confess that I—as a baptized disciple—have found the Christian enterprise much more demanding. Not because I am not attracted to Christ at the center, but because it demands more of me to express that attraction in ways that will attract others. For those who strive to bring (attract) others to Christ, we have to be able to witness to our faith, and back it up with the testimony of our lives. If we are no longer able to offer the Christ event as sole/exclusive, we at least have to be able to offer Christ as a normative and desirable guide for living.

I always get a bit of a neck-hairs-on-end thrill at the renewal of baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil—that intentional community, including the newly-baptized, resoundingly affirms “I do” to each article of faith. There have been a few years, though, when I’ve wondered what the response would be, or how boldly it would be affirmed, if the assembly were asked “do you believe that anyone who believes differently is not saved?” This has challenged me to re-focus my own life in a way that is less inwardly concerned with my personal salvation, but more concerned with having a firm foundation, centered in Christ, from which to launch an outward witness, filled with care and concern for others and the world around me.

At our entrance to Holy Week, I believe that these shifts we are undergoing can have a substantial impact on how we prepare, celebrate, experience, and live out our remembrances of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though the rites, texts, and symbols remain the same, as a pilgrim people moving forward through these surrounding times of change we cannot help but be somehow different as we once again move through these days of grace.

As the Spirit leads us through the liturgies of Holy Week, we can also be lead back to the profound and intimate connection between this life and the life beyond this life that was constitutive of Christ’s teaching. Re-immersed into the Paschal Mystery—as we were at Baptism—we re-establish Christ as the center of the transformation of our own lives, are empowered to transform the lives and the world around us, and are prepared for our final transformation, that day of hope when angel choirs may welcome us to paradise.

19 thoughts on “Heaven, Hell, Hallmark, Holy Week

  1. Good stuff. I take the Ignatian development of the importance of desire that our desire here are meant to lead us and form us towards their ultimate fulfillment in union with God. In the words of Flannery O’Connor’s omniscient narrator of the vision of the Parousia in the indelible ending of “Revelation”, even our virtues may be burned away.

  2. More clergy should consider saying the funeral Mass in requiem black. Yes, the use of white vestments is not uncommon among certain Byzantines, and white is the color of mourning in some cultures. White should be used where it is culturally warranted, most certainly. One should know that the use of white vestments for funerals in the Byzantine tradition is well established, while white vestments for funerals is not truly native to the Roman rite.

    Black, in “western” culture, is the color of the unknown and somber reflection. White may, and often does, project the notion of instant heavenly entry of the deceased. This insta-canonization is often promoted by priests who give a eulogy at the homily rather than an admonition about the mystery of Christian death. I am beginning to doubt that most seminarians receive formation for homilies for the dead. Perhaps a homiliary on the Last Things, an anthology of saints on this topic, should be widely circulated and preached at funerals. Instead, priests who barely knew the deceased make up a narrative of the deceased’s life which has nothing to do with preaching on Christian death.

    The Dies Irae should be allowed again voluntarily, in its former role as a sequence. The Dies is not morbid. The sequence is a meditation on the possibility of the loss of the beatific vision, wrapped in clever word-play.

    Many priests are cowards and do not want to include anything in the funeral liturgy which could offend. We must be scandalized to live the Christian life more boldly!

  3. Jordan Zarembo : The Dies Irae should be allowed again voluntarily, in its former role as a sequence. The Dies is not morbid. The sequence is a meditation on the possibility of the loss of the beatific vision, wrapped in clever word-play.

    At least the Dies Irae can still be used as a hymn. Preferably the English version so everyone can get a sense of the importance of the Last Things. But, I’m all for bringing it back formally as a required sequence.

    1. @Steve Hartley:
      I believe there is warrant to consider the Dies Irae an *optional* sequence that may still be licitly used *as a sequence* in the Ordinary Form. It remains in Roman Gradual, IIRC, as a sequence (it’s just not in the Lectionary), and not expressly part of the Order of Christian Funerals – but I don’t think the silence of the Lectionary and the OCF would conclusively trump the Gradual on this point. Most parish music ministries, of course, do not use the Gradual as their primary reference point for propers, so this tends be an out-of-sight-therefore-out-of-mind issue, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant as a governing ritual book. In this context, if mourners expressed a wish for the Dies Irae to be used as a sequence, I would caution pastoral staff not to dig their heels in against it on grounds of liturgical law (in other words, tread lightly with the “it’s not done that any more” method of silencing congregants). (Especially if said staff tends to use ambiguities in the ritual books to do things the way they prefer to do even if they are not clearly contemplated by them. Pastoral generosity can mean enduring things being done in ways we’d not prefer.)

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        The Dies Irae is not in the Graduale Romanum. It’s in the Liber Hymnarius as an optional hymn for the last week of the year, split into three parts for use each day at Office of Readings, Lauds, and Vespers.

  4. Churches using the Byzantine (sic) rite (specifically Ukrainians and Ruthenians) normally use dark vestments (usually red but purple and black are not unknown) for the rites that accompany death and burial, Paschaltide being an exception.

  5. Great post, Alan.

    This week I’ve been teaching the Divine Comedy to a particularly bright group of First-Year college students. In the past I’ve only taught the Inferno, but after years of distorting Dante I’ve decided to go for the whole Commedia. And what has struck me is how joyful Dante’s vision of Purgatory is, particularly following upon the account of hell. The souls in Purgatory seem to be constantly reveling in the amazing prodigality of God’s mercy. Purgatory is filled with song—the Miserere mei and Agnus Dei, but also the Te Deum. I think if we could somehow convey Dante’s joyful sense of Purgatory to people, we might be able to offer something more than rather unrealistic (and, I suspect, unconvincing) promises of immediate bliss to the families of those who have died, who know full well the faults and flaws of their beloved dead.

    As for me, I’ve specified purple vestments for my funeral, as well as the Dies Irae (maybe as a hymn at the preparation of the gifts, if it has not been restored as an optional sequence by the time I die).

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
      Ditto. The Purgatorio is the most lyrical of the three parts (the Paradiso is denser theologically).

      Note that violet vestments now not only signify penitence but also hopeful expectation, given the additional postconciliar gloss on Advent. Which seems perfectly suited to funerals.

  6. As someone who has accompanied the mourning and bereaved family members through the church’s funeral rites for nearly 45 years, I have a differing perspective from some of the posters today. I would first of all agree with Alan as regards the influence of pop culture that leads many Catholics to think of heaven as a kind of entitlement. Everyone can look forward to social security and to eternal security as well. After all, death most commonly follows a period of deteriorating health and a considerable measure of suffering. Maybe not the best time to raise the prospect of a purgatory inspired by the visions at Fatima. So, do I avoid instant canonizations in the interest of paying closer heed to the proscriptions of God’s Word? Most of the time I certainly do, but I have been blessed to bury more than a few individuals whose witness to Christ has been so exemplary as to encourage family members who are quite sure that “mom/dad”, “grandma/grandpa” is moving on to live with God in his everlasting kingdom.But I never do that through a eulogy but by preaching from the lessons which the family chose. And, most importantly, I preach the Paschal Mystery which celebrates the events that give us all hope of eternal life. But most of the people I have buried I did not know as particularly exemplary Christians. Doesn’t mean they might not have been, but that was not came out of the visits with family members. Alas, most people die having fallen far short of the glory of God. In those homilies I give reason for people to hope that their loved one has not come to a bad end and I encourage them to pray for God’s mercy. And while I don’t issue an altar call as in the Baptist tradition, I do call mourners and friends to reflect on the connection between how we live our day to day lives and what we may expect from God’s providential mercy as we seek a closer tie with him. As for the color of vestments, I have worn purple for those who took their own life, but I commonly use Paschal Mystery colors. That is what it’s all…

  7. Excellent essay. Instant canonizations have become ubiquitous in Catholic funerals, and I imagine that if you asked a sample of typical Catholics what happens when you die, they would all say you go to heaven. Purgatory has been forgotten and Hell is reserved for Hitler. I do think that the revised Mass of Christian Burial, white vestments, and the allowance of eulogies has enabled this misperception. The framers of these rites aimed to express hope in the resurrection and move away from “wrath” and “mourning.” But in practice we have skipped past hope and gone to instant canonization. I know a priest who says at every funeral, “The funeral is not for the deceased, we know they are already in heaven with God. The funeral is for us, his/her friends and family, to rejoice in his/her new life in heaven.”

    Not to discount the great cultural shifts of the past fifty years, but this changed understanding of what happens when we die has helped to empty out the churches. People used to believe that their actions in this life, including regular Mass attendance, would be judged and there was a real possibility they could end up in Hell. Gaining Heaven and avoiding Hell may not be the noblest motivations for living a moral life and participating in the sacraments, but it kept people coming and likely saved many souls in the process. Today going to Mass is perceived as recreational-some people enjoy going to church on Sunday morning, others enjoy playing golf or going to brunch. Gone is any sense of moral obligation or impact on one’s final destination.

    1. @Scott Pluff:
      I think you’re spot on for the most part, Scott, but I will say that people going to Mass out of fear of Hell isn’t really an effective way to get to Heaven, either. More people in pews does not (necessarily) equal more people in Heaven.

    2. @Scott Pluff:
      I would venture that one problem is that hope is misunderstood and poorly valued in practice in American culture at least. It’s been replaced by expectation in the sense of premeditated resentments (which are never of God).

      Hope, like faith, presumes a gap, a lack of robotic certitude. Americans have been acculturated to become afraid of gaps, and can be enabled in this unwittingly by preaching and pastoral practice. In our culture, gaps are where the bacillus of anxiety cultures. And consumerism is premised on encouraging anxiety so that it can be *temporarily* ameliorated by consumption of things, services or experiences to be sold and purchased.

      1. Karl, Scott‘s brief anecdote of a priest who considered the funeral liturgy merely to be a memorial service illustrates well your statement that

        And consumerism is premised on encouraging anxiety so that it can be *temporarily* ameliorated by consumption of things, services or experiences to be sold and purchased.

        Indeed, the anomie of wages impels people towards consumerism. If a person has labored to have a “nice” home, a “nice” car, the chance to send her children to a “good” college, etc. then the funeral Mass can be “bought” as well through the ability to select readings, “pick the music”, and so forth. Certainly consumerism is even more evident in nuptial Masses. Heaven forbid the couple chooses Ephesians 5 as their epistle, even though this has been the wedding epistle for centuries (millennia?) and still is in the East. At a very shallow level, the epistle appears to condone androcentricity in marriage. Rather Ephesians 5 explains the duties that spouses have for each other. Yet, the sheen of consumerism and the avoidance of thoughtful scandal results in less intellectually grounded sacraments. This same avoidance of rigor appears in the funeral Mass, where the “purchase” is not the rite itself but the avoidance of scandal, of thought.

        Even this crusty traditionalist realizes that Paul VI did well to reform the sacraments when he did. I cannot put words in his mouth, but I do wonder if his eagerness for reformation stemmed from a keen perception of the anomie of the “modern man”, the worker alienated from wages. The Caroliginian world, saturated with an economy well integrated with piety, is no longer tenable today. “It is apostolic”, Paul spoke a few days before 1st Advent 1969. Indeed, one might argue that the liturgical reformation threw the nets of evangelization farther from the barque, even if this meant scandalizing a few loyal disciples.

      2. In #15, I had stated,

        Heaven forbid the couple chooses Ephesians 5 as their epistle, even though this has been the wedding epistle for centuries (millennia?) and still is in the East. At a very shallow level, the epistle appears to condone androcentricity in marriage. Rather Ephesians 5 explains the duties that spouses have for each other. Yet, the sheen of consumerism and the avoidance of thoughtful scandal results in less intellectually grounded sacraments.

        The Church teaches, according to Ephesians 5: 21-33, that husband and wife become one flesh in marriage. Neither the Church or the people which comprise _its_ Body may enable me to be a dogmatist on other aspects of the passage. I am not to label other viewpoints as “very shallow”, as for some people the possible androcentricity, or some other aspect, of this passage carries significant emotional impact.

        I apologize sincerely for my patronization. God bless us all in the Easter Octave.

        Jordan Zarembo

    3. @Scott Pluff:
      It’s also good to remember that while the church has consistently taught the doctrine of hell, she has never said that any human being has actually arrived there, not even the most notorious sinner and criminal.

      The aspect of the funeral Mass which prays for the dead person and asks for forgiveness from God for their sins is also receding a lot in practice in favour of what you call instant canonization.

  8. ” What’s missing is the hopeful but humble faith of the hymn In Paradisum: … The tone is humbly hopeful—an expression of what MAY happen, yet acknowledging that the final dispensation of our eternity lies with God.”

    Thank you so much for this wonderful reflection.

    I sometimes wonder if our casual certainty is influenced by our funeral rites which describe our hope as “sure and certain”.

    And on the other hand, I also wonder if casual canonizations aren’t sometimes a sort of flippancy in the face of despair. Not an expression of hope so much as mere defiance. Which is very different than genuine hope grounded in Christ.

  9. I really enjoyed this essay. Thank you!

    Here’s the response of my fellow-Irishman, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) to hearing the Dies Irae sung in the Sistine Chapel. It’s one of my favourite sonnets. It gives us a glimpse of just how profound Wilde’s spirituality was:

    Nay, Lord, not thus! white lilies in the spring,
    Sad olive-groves, or silver-breasted dove,
    Teach me more clearly of Thy life and love
    Than terrors of red flame and thundering.
    The hillside vines dear memories of Thee bring:
    A bird at evening flying to its nest
    Tells me of One who had no place of rest:
    I think it is of Thee the sparrows sing.
    Come rather on some autumn afternoon,
    When red and brown are burnished on the leaves,
    And the fields echo to the gleaner’s song,
    Come when the splendid fulness of the moon
    Looks down upon the rows of golden sheaves,
    And reap Thy harvest: we have waited long.

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