“Ammachi,” I ask my grandmother, “why do you pray for Appachan?”
“Monay,” she said, “I pray for him because I love him and God loves him.”
I never met my grandfather. He died more than a decade before I was born. And I didn’t really see the point in praying for him. After all, he wasn’t even Christian—he was Hindu. So for my little Evangelical mind it was a foregone conclusion that he faced only damnation, far beyond the reach of any prayer. In the Calvinist theology I grew up with, the cosmos was a courtroom and death was a trial. We humans were miserable sinners—sinners in the hands of an angry God. And so I dreaded judgment as a prelude to torment and I dreaded death as an inevitable deadline.
“Ammachi, why do you pray for Appachan?”
It wasn’t until much later that I finally understood her answer.
“Because I love him, and God loves him.”
See, those Puritan preachers were right about one thing (pretty much ONLY one thing… but still!): We ARE in the hands of God. God is never far from us. The psalmist today calls to God from the depths. And elsewhere he reminds us that God is present with us, whether we climb up to heaven or make the grave our bed. We are always held in God’s hand—already in this life—whether we’re conscious of it or not.
But today we remember that what we see in part, our departed loved ones see in full. In the end, when death has stripped away everything we use to distract ourselves and numb wounds, we stand before God, transfixed by Christ’s gaze.
This is the truest meaning of “judgment”: to come face to face with the God who knit each of us together in the womb. The judgment proclaimed to us in the Gospel is not to stand trial—gripped in the hands of an angry God. Judgment is to be held in the hands of the One who has loved us since the beginning of time. Judgment is to be held in the hands of the One who became human to meet us in the midst of our brokenness. Judgment is to be held in the hands of the One who promises to restore all things to wholeness and health. Judgment is to be cradled in the hands of that fiery love—God’s ardent, passionate, unflinching love.
Judgment in this sense is indeed an awful (awe-full) thing—an awe-inspiring thing. We’re right to be daunted by it. Honestly, I can think of few things so excruciating as being known, fully and completely —being seen exactly as we are, flaws and all—and being loved unconditionally for it.
But judgment is awesome—NOT terrifying. Because that fiery love is not the fire of shame, or punishment, or destruction by a vengeful deity. It is the fire of pure and purifying love—love that casts out all fear and burns away the wrath we project onto God and the dread that closes off from accepting forgiveness. It is a fire that transforms us—gradually kindling love in our hearts until we become like burning sparks in dry grass, spreading the flames of God’s passionate care everywhere we go.
Because God does love us. God loves each of us—each of you. God has always already forgiven us and embraced us. And in the end, we all find ourselves held in God’s hand, as we come face to face with that fiery love.
We Christian’s don’t actually know all that much about the End Times or Last Things or what happens to us after we die. As finite creatures, we really can’t know much. Theological snake oil salesmen might try to sell us on speculations about raptures and limbos and (constantly changing) timelines. But at her best, the Church has steered clear of making rigid pronouncements about how God’s will plays out after this age.
However, we do know some things which God has promised at the heart of the Gospel:
We know that in the end, somehow, some way that surpasses our understanding, we will see God—not dimly, as though through a mirror, but with unveiled faces, beholding the love that creates, sustains, redeems, and renews us.
And we know that we are bound together in a fellowship of love with all those who have gone before us. We are all knit together in Christ, who gathered all of humanity into himself. And so we stand together with them in the hand of God. We dwell together in the embrace of God’s fiery, fiercely unconditional love.
Those are things the Church does proclaim boldly as part of the Gospel hope we hold in trust for the world.
And that is why we pray for the dead—tonight above all nights. We don’t pray because we fear for them, or because we hope beyond hope that they’ll be spared from damnation. We pray for the dead because we love them, and because God loves them. We pray for them because we are growing in God’s love, right alongside them.
When we come in prayer to the holy altar, to share in Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of love, we offer our living sacrifice even as our departed loved ones offer theirs. And we open ourselves, together with them, to the fiery love that sets us ablaze and transforms us until eventually we see as God sees and love as God loves.
So as we approach the altar tonight: Pray for the dead. Pray for those we love and see no longer. And give thanks together with them. Because they are face-to-face with God, who made and embraces the living and the dead, and who holds us all safely in hands of fiery love.