22 APRIL 2001
Scriptual Reference: John 20:19-29

What Happens to Us After We Die?

       My family bought a VCR right after my youngest brother was born some 14 years ago. What we didn't know then is that pre-school children in the 1980's would quickly form a propensity to watch the same video over and over and over and over again. My brother's video of choice at age 4 was the TV version of "Beetlejuice." This is a whimsical look at what things are like in the afterlife. Interestingly, people in the Beetlejuice afterlife resemble their former self, but usually, there is some indication of how they died. For instance, a football players who died in an accident are seen in their jerseys and helmets. You can imagine how the director depicted a man who had been hit by a bus. All in all, Beetlejuice is a fanciful, if unrealistic, look at the afterlife. It tries to answer a very intriguing question: What happens to us after we die?

       So what does happen to us after we die? That's a question that has been asked by countless people through all ages. During the Triduum and throughout the Easter season, we have been looking at what happened to Jesus when he died. Today we hear about an appearance that he made to the disciples after the Resurrection. There is a lot for us to learn from Christ's Resurrection appearances about our own future in the afterlife.

       Our Christian tradition affirms that we human beings have both a body and a soul. The body is created by the parents at conception, the soul is created by God and infused into the body at the same time. We know that when we die, our soul is separated from our body, which we know will disintegrate after we bury or cremate it. Then, according to tradition, our soul has one of three experiences. Heaven, of course, is when the soul blissfully finds itself in the all encompassing presence of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Purgatory is defined in the tradition of the Church as an experience of purification. Many take that to mean punishment, but the Church affirms that purgatory is an experience of enlightenment, for those who have something more to learn about God before they enter completely into his presence. Hell, simply defined, is an experience of complete and utter loneliness. A soul in hell is completely cut off from the warmth and love of God and the comfort of his other creatures. Interestingly, our tradition affirms the reality of hell and the Church insists that we acknowledge that reality. However, we are not compelled to believe that anyone is in it.

       Heaven, hell and purgatory. We could spend an eternity talking about each one, I suppose. But there is something far more interesting to discuss today in the light of the resurrection appearance we heard about in the gospel. Most folks can affirm the reality of the soul's separation from the body, and affirm the presence of heaven, hell and even purgatory. But that's not the end of the story. There's "Afterlife: part 2, the sequel." After Jesus died, and after his soul was separated from his body, he rose from the dead and could be seen in a body that was somehow familiar and somehow new. Jesus had a resurrected body. What was his resurrected body like? Scripture gives us some clues. The gospel today indicated that Jesus, in his resurrected body, could pass through locked doors; he could appear and disappear. Jesus must have looked somewhat different in his resurrected body; the disciples did not recognize him on the road to Emmaus, and in John's gospel, Mary thought at first that the Resurrected Jesus was the gardener. Yet his resurrected body was not completely different; today Jesus shows Thomas the nail wounds and the pierced side of his crucifixion. Luke's gospel affirms that the Resurrected body of Jesus consisted of flesh and bones. Matthew's gospel relates that his body could be touched and embraced. Jesus, in his resurrected body, even ate fish.

       The resurrected body of Jesus is the most important clue that we have to understanding what will happen to us after we die. Each week we say in our creed that we believe in the Resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. That means at the end of time, when Jesus comes again, our souls will be joined again to our bodies, not our old bodies, obviously, since those will be long gone. We will be given Resurrected bodies. Tradition tells us that the final judgment will occur then, and we have great reason to hope that we will be counted among those worthy to enter everlasting life. Our eternity will be spent in our resurrected bodies, bodies that are like the body of the resurrected Jesus: bodies which can be seen and sensed. Bodies that will somehow resemble our earthly bodies, but will somehow be radically different. It would be fun to speculate on just what our resurrected bodies will be like. What will I look like? Will I be fit and svelte? Or the most important question, Will I have a full head of hair in the afterlife? Alas, our faith tradition holds no answers to these specific questions, nor can we completely understand just how God will carry out the resurrection of billions of bodies from the dead.

       In the Wizard of Oz, another video favorite of our family in years past, Dorothy comes to an all important revelation. Home was right there with her all along while she was in Oz. When we think about the afterlife, it seems like it will be something completely foreign to our experience here on earth. In many ways, this is true; we can't really know or comprehend all that the afterlife has to offer us. But we do know from our gospel account today that the continuity between the earthly body of Jesus and his resurrected body has a lot to tell us about our own lives after death. There will be some continuity for us as well. That means that we can understand a lot about everlasting life from our own bodies here on this side of heaven. Whenever we feel the warmth of the spring sun or a gentle breeze carrying the scent of lilacs and spring flowers or taste the creamy smoothness of frozen custard, we have a glimpse at our future experiences in our Resurrected bodies. Today, as we continue our celebration of Easter, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is Risen from the dead, Amen, Alleluia. And someday, so shall we rise from the dead, Amen, Alleluia!  +

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