When Christ died on the Cross, Mary lost a Son and John lost a friend. For them, the Passion of our Lord was more than a religious drama. They had to endure the loss of a Loved One. And it would seem that the same conditions of life and death would apply to them as it had applied to countless people before them; the main condition being that human flesh would serve as a barrier between the living and the dead. Because of this barrier, those in the flesh despaired of having any relationship with deceased loved ones after death.
But on Good Friday, when Christ gave up his spirit, the Temple veil or curtain tore in anticipation of what would transpire on Easter morning. Indeed on that morning, the veil of human flesh, which was thought to separate the living and dead forever under the Satan’s dominion, was taken up and glorified by Christ. With this, the destiny of souls- the happiness of heaven and the misery of hell –would be revealed to mankind. In the years to come, the Apostles, Martyrs and Saints would bear witness to immortality of the soul.
However, before the time of Christ, life after death for the ancients was not a well-established belief. In fact, the conventional wisdom was that when the body expired, that was the end of life. As far as most were concerned, deceased loved ones were forever a thing of the past, never to be seen again. As such, death was the cause of considerable grief and despair.
The Jews, on the other hand, believed in the immortality of the soul but the afterlife, nevertheless, was an enigma to them. They did not have a clear conception of heaven, purgatory and hell. Hades, often mentioned in the Old Testament, was a doctrine (similar to purgatory) that held that there existed an abode of the dead; a temporary holding place for the righteous and the wicked who would later inherit their reward or punishment.
Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, in his work, Discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades, represented the Jewish idea of the afterlife as understood in Old Testament when he wrote the following:
"...Hades is a place in the world not regularly finished; a subterraneous region, wherein the light of this world does not shine; from which circumstance, that in this region the light does not shine, it cannot be but there must be in it perpetual darkness. This region is allotted as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary punishments, agreeable to every one's behavior and manners.”
This, no doubt, is a murky account of the afterlife. But the book of Wisdom (written some 200-300 years prior), which the Catholic Church honors as the inspired Word, gives a more luminous account. In fact, the closer we get to the birth of Christ, the more developed the Jewish doctrine on the afterlife becomes. In any event, the book of Wisdom provided rays of hope; that the soul outlives the body; that the friends of God do, in fact, see another day- a happier day! –after their death:
“But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace. For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality…In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble…”
Then, during the public ministry of Jesus, the immortality of the soul was more clearly expressed in his parables and teachings. In fact, it served as the main incentive for living a holy life as well as laying down one’s life for God. Even on the Cross, Our Lord preached that physical death is beginning of everlasting life. He told the Good Thief that he would be with him, on that very day, in paradise. But the living proof that death is not the end of life was when our Lord had risen from the dead and appeared to his family and friends during the forty days that followed.
The Resurrection of our Lord is a living reminder that our life and death has great meaning. It is a reminder that life itself is but a prelude to a more blessed life in heaven; one that is reserved for the friends of God. As such, it gives the average person a real, tangible hope that the veil of human flesh does not permanently separate us for those loved ones, who, through death, are no longer clothed in human flesh. Indeed, the Resurrection not only gave courage to Martyrs and strength to Saints, but it gave inspiration to soldiers who would be called to die for their country.
One such soldier was a man by the name of Sullivan Ballou. He was a major of the Rhode Island division during the Civil War. Through a kind of premonition, he felt as though he would die during the first battle of Bull Run. In fact, that is what happened. But a few days before the battle, on July 14, 1861, Sullivan, a husband and father two boys, took the opportunity to write to his wife Sarah. He knew that death would not forever deprive him of seeing his wife. He wanted his wife to know that even though his lifeless body should lie on the battle field, his soul would never be far from her.
Sullivan Ballou’s faith inspired one of the most touching love letters in U.S. history. It reveals why he could lay down his life for, not only his country, but for his family. Towards the end of the letter, he writes:
“If I do not [return] my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness...But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again....”
The hope of meeting again those who passed before us is the greatest of consolations- the greatest of gifts –that the Risen Lord came to give us. He makes the veil of human flesh a little thinner, a little more transparent so that in faith we can almost see the friends of Christ, our loved ones, waiting for us and praying for us on the other side of the veil.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.