The Fulness of Time
As the year wears down, the days become shorter, the nights longer and darker. All people, both in our time and in ancient time, turn to questions of human mortality and the future of the earth. For as the year turns and we move into the winter, nature conspires to remind us of the transitory-ness of life, that all peoples, both present and past, have turned their thoughts to questions of our mortality. That is why All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, and Halloween, are all congested at the beginning of November.
In my student days in the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, each year on the 1st November after Mass in the College Chapel, the seminary community would head en-masse to the Campo Santo Verano which is a great monumental cemetery outside the ancient walls of the city. It is located near to the Basilica of St. Lawrence, which is one of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome.
We would gather at the college mausoleum to offer midday prayer and lay a wreath in remembrance of members of the college community who had gone before us into eternal life. The list of names of those interred in the plot is a reminder of how death is indeed the great leveller. Together in that single plot are the remains of at least one Archbishop, monsignori, priests, seminarians, a faithful housekeeper and a homeless Irishman who sheltered in the college in difficult days. One is reminded of the James Shirley poem; Death the Leveller;
There is no armour against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings.
Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
The other aspect that often struck me about the visits to this Roman cemetery was that these November days were not always solemn or somber occasions. There were flower sellers outside the gates, and one was as likely to hear laughter as to witness tears and grief. Families would gather at the resting places of their loved ones, some brought packed lunches and a bottle of wine and there was a sense that those who had died were part of the gathering and not far from those who were remembering them. How often have we been told that those who die, live in God and God is always near.
Are the people who go to Campo Verano and St. Lawrence’s Church actually affirming their faith in Christ and the resurrection of the dead, or are they merely acting out a fantasy? Certainly not the latter, for I recall the words of a priest who suggested, “If you really want to see what Italian Catholics believe, visit our cemeteries.” The All Saints’ Day celebration at Campo Verano is an announcement to the world of their faith in Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and in heaven itself. There is no, “We do not know where you are going, nor do we know the way,” as Thomas said to Jesus’ – “In my Father’s house are many rooms … I go to prepare a place for you that where I am you may be also.”
One of the earliest of St. Paul’s letters, written to the Thessalonians, reveals to us that the early Church was expecting the imminent return of Jesus. We suspect that it was wide-spread among the Church in the first century, because Paul addresses it elsewhere in his letters, and the four gospels deal with it. In fact you could say that the return of the Lord, the end of history, the coming of the Kingdom, are among the major themes of the New Testament.
The church at Thessalonica had a question. “What happens to those who die before the Lord returns?” Paul answers the question in the with these beautiful words: “We would not have you ignorant concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as those who have no hope.” What a wonderful passage. It recognizes that human grief belongs to all of us. Christian faith does not immunize us from the tragedies of life, or from the feelings that accompany those tragedies. What the Christian faith does is give us a great hope, that because Christ has been resurrected from the dead, so also will we.
We have been taught that time belongs to us, time is something we can shape to our own use. We are taught, if you want to be a success, then you make the most of your time. You manage your time. Above all, as your mother told you, do not waste time. We are taught to organize time. One of the most important phrases in the Bible is, “The fullness of time.” That means that when the time is right, God will act. God decides when the time is right, not us. We don’t make it happen. It happens when God wills that it will happen.
Fr. Brendan Quinlivan, Tulla is Vicar Forane of the Ceantar na Lochanna Pastoral Area