This weekend the Catholic world will consider two phases of the afterlife. The Solemnity of All Saints on Saturday reminds the faithful of those celebrated and sometimes uncelebrated heroes of the Christian life. The martyrs, monks, missionaries, mentors and married folk who dedicated their lives to Christ both in spirit and in deed are recalled, reverenced and now recruited as intercessors before the face of God. On Sunday, worshippers will recall their own beloved dead who perhaps have gone on to full glory or may still be in need of the Church community’s intercessory prayers to release them from the final residue of sin. Eternity, fully enjoyed by the saints and coveted by the souls in purgatory, should be an equally important part of the Gospel message for those believers still working out their ultimate destiny here on earth.
Nowhere in the Scriptures is the link between daily Church life and the soul’s eternal fate more closely and powerfully linked than in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel account. St. John begins this lengthy chapter with two impressive miracles: Christ’s multiplication of the loaves and his walking on water. The feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness is the only miracle reported in all four Gospel accounts. Its profound impression on the early Christian community cannot be overstated. The miraculous loaves readily recalled the generosity of God toward the Jews in the wilderness. The ancient manna was a tribute to God’s enduring providence and, with deliberate symbolism, it came down from heaven. Jesus’ mastery over the natural world — previously only the prerogative of the heavenly Father — was vividly demonstrated by his dumbfounding steps taken over the waves. This was no ordinary man coming toward the disciples. A powerful, heavenly presence was certainly sensed.
Having made his striking arguments for Jesus’ heavenly connections, St. John now feels that he can make a direct and powerful link between the divine heavenly life which Jesus himself always enjoyed and the bread of heavenly life that Jesus would entrust to his Church at the Last Supper. This link between eternity and the Eucharist in St. John’s chapter six is overwhelming. Consider these direct references, all from one chapter of St. John: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him up on the last day. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” A complete reading of chapter six is even more convincing.
Catholics who this weekend rejoice for the saints in eternity and pray for the souls awaiting eternity would be wise to consider their own personal appreciation of eternity. The Eucharist not only cleanses the believer of the residue of previous sin and joins the believer in charity to his or her fellow worshippers, the Eucharist literally floods the Christian’s mind, heart and soul with the grace of eternal life. The very life of God, enjoyed by the saints, is made readily and abundantly available through the reception of Holy Communion. St. Thomas Aquinas, whose lofty thoughts still fill volumes on library shelves, ably summarized the essence of Eucharistic theology in these terse words: “O Sacred Banquet! In which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is recalled, the mind is filled with grace and the pledge of future glory is given!” The pledge of future glory, the effective promise of life on high with God, is at hand and daily accessible through the Eucharistic sacrament. The regular participation in the Bread of life and Chalice of salvation, if approached prayerfully and purposefully, deepens the believer’s sense of God’s immediate presence, strengthens the disciple’s own will to be faithful, and brightens the prospect of eternity in the Christian’s own mind. The saints already in eternity and the holy souls awaiting eternity would certainly confirm these thoughts.