is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?
Some months ago, in casual conversation, Tom mentioned to me that he had been shot a number of times while on duty as an Officer of the New York Police Department—my recollection is a bit hazy, for we were just passing time, but I think I remember him saying three times. He said that they trained for such an eventuality, and that the knowledge he gained from other officers who had the same experience in the past was very beneficial, but that it was the kind of thing that no one could really be ready for. In training, they didn’t shoot live rounds at one another. It was different having the knowledge that death might be imminent, and that the gunfire was intended personally for him.
Tom went through a similar experience in the events that culminated this past Sunday in the little hours of the morning. It was an experience for which one could never be quite ready, but one which every man and woman knows to be our inevitable lot in life. Yet, I would like to suggest two things to you this morning, concerning Tom’s untimely passing.
The first is that Tom did not lose the battle. Death was in no way victorious over him; this was not like a gun battle on a side street, where the good man goes down to defeat, and the bad man gets away into the night. The second thing is that, as younger policemen benefit from the experiences of their elders, there is something in Tom’s experience from which we, who come behind him, can benefit.
I say that Tom did not lose the battle, because death is a part of life. It is common to all living things, from the grass and the trees, on up to the birds and the animals, and including all of us and our neighbors and friends and loved ones. We are material creatures, made up of many parts which must work together to sustain life. And all material things eventually break down and wear out over time. Indeed, the more complex they are, the more they are prone to damage. Just think of anything that you bought bright and shiny, new, thirty years ago—a new car, a new dress, a watch, or even a piece of jewelry—eventually all of these things lose their shine and break down. You may have discarded some of them years ago. That is the fate of all material things.
But there is a part of man that is not material, and not subject to decomposition—his spirit—his soul. Does man have a soul? Of course he does! It is not hard to recognize the soul in man, for man is much more than just the material parts; much more than the sum of his molecules, if you will. We know this to be true, for man—like God and the angels—has both intellect and will; that is to say that man is capable of both thinking and of loving.
Among all the creatures of the earth, man is capable of reasoned analysis of the things going on around him, and of discovering ways to control those things or to mitigate their effects. His reasoning power allows him to forge tools, and to build homes, which he keeps warm in winter and cool in summer. Together with others, he forms society for the common good. He is aware of himself as existing and taking part in his world. He can also look down into his own heart, where his conscience dwells, and where he knows the Holy Ghost to reside. He can also look above on a clear winter night, and recognize in that order and beauty the handiwork of God. He is more than the sum of his molecules.
Among all of the creatures on earth, man is capable of willing the way he wants things to be in the world around him. He is capable of desiring such abstract things as truth and justice and freedom. Above all, he is capable of compassion and love. Something far more than just his material being is capable of going our from him to the poor and the sick and the confused. His love for his wife and family and friends is above and beyond his material being. Again, man is more than the sum of his molecules, for his soul, the seat of this reason and love—like God and the angels—goes on forever.
Now, some will ask why God made man out of the same complex, and therefore breakable, materials as the rest of earthly creation. We can speculate about God’s reason, but we know from God’s revelation that He intended somehow to preserve men and women from the disintegration suffered by the lower creatures. He gave Adam and Eve special gifts which protected them from sickness and toil and even death. They and their descendants would have lived forever if they had not lost those special gifts through sin. (Lest anyone be tempted to complain that this was unfair to their descendants, first recognize that none of us has done any better than Adam or Eve.)
And, even in their sins, God did no abandon His children. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, true God and true man, into the world to heal the rift between God and man. By Jesus’ death on the Cross, mankind as a race is redeemed from the sin of Adam. Through the preaching of Jesus’ public life we are made aware of God’s Commandments for our behavior, and made aware of the things which God wants us to know and believe about Himself. By the Sacraments which Jesus established, we are capable of taking that belief, and earning the graces that will bring us to eternal life.
Eternal life! Death is not the final end of man! The human soul, that non-material part of man, which reasons and loves, goes on forever. It is simply not capable of decomposition. While the body, which is not permanent, may grow old and suffer and die; the soul which is permanent, lives forever like the angels. As we will hear today in the Preface of the funeral Mass:
What did Saint Paul just say to us? Just as Jesus rose from the dead, so will those “who have fallen asleep through Jesus ... the dead in Christ shall rise ... and we shall be caught up together with them in the air, and we shall ever be with them with the Lord.”[iii] Martha, the sister of Lazarus, knew that her brother would “rise in the resurrection on the last day,” for this was already known to God’s people—and Jesus would further explain: “I am the resurrection, and the life; he who believes in Me, even if he dies, shall live.”[iv]
Elsewhere, Saint Paul tells us that “death is swallowed up in victory ... for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise again incorruptible.”[v] We know that on the last day, Almighty God will raise us from the dead and restore our souls to a glorified body; one no longer subject to sickness and death. It matters not that we died young or old, weak or strong; or even that in this life we may have lost a limb. It matters not that our graves are marked with a fancy stone, or that our remains are lost in obscurity. In any case, God will raise us up, whole once again.
And if we have kept His commandments, we shall share some of God's glory in heaven, and our resurrected bodies shall enjoy the newfound pleasures of heaven.
But woe to the one who dies in his sins! A soul intended to be with God, as all souls are, but eternally denied His gaze. A glorified body, intended for the delights of heaven, left to feel the pains of Hell.
But here again, we see that God has conquered death in another way. He has conquered not only the death of the body, but also the “death” of the soul. By virtue of our Lord's life, death, and resurrection, He has even conquered sin.
Look at how good He was to Tom:
Yet, still, it remains for us to reflect on those words we heard from the Old Testament: "It is therefore a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins."[vi] While sins and the punishment due to sin may be forgiven during this life, our Lord speaks of sins forgiven "in the world to come."[vii]
We pray for the dead that God will swiftly cleanse them of those small sins and imperfections that might keep them temporarily from enjoying the glory of heaven. That, by His mercy, He might quickly forgive the punishment that is due to their sins in Justice.
But, we also pray for the dead, that we might receive something for ourselves; that by reflecting on the realities of life and death, of heaven and hell, we might be more motivated to keep His Commandments and receive His Sacraments in order to ensure our own eternal salvation. These are things not just to talk about, for they are realities; we might even say the only realities, for nothing else matters if we lose our souls.
Finally, we pray for the dead, so that they will pray for us. The souls in Purgatory need our prayers, for which they are eternally grateful. Remember that they are God's saints, soon to share the glory of heaven with Him; powerful intercessors on our behalf. Let us not forget those who have gone before us, lest they forget to pray for us.