The Abyss Between Heaven and Hell

(Twenty-Sixth Sunday, Year C)

"Between you and us there is fixed a great abyss, so that those who might wish to cross from here to you cannot do so, nor can anyone cross from your side to us." (Lk. 16:26)

One of Jesus' hardest teaching is about heaven and hell. He makes it clear that even tho things are muddled in this life, one day there will be a sorting out. Each person can seem like a confused mixture of good and bad, but God sees more deeply into our souls. The person who looks so good might be walking hand in hand with the devil. The one who appears totally corrupt may be struggling with a dramatic choice. We are all making decisions which are like the first rumblings of an avalanche, soon to become unstoppable. They will lead either to eternal separation from God or eternal union with him. At the moment of death it will be fixed forever. There will be no turning back.

St. Francis of Assisi describes that choice at the conclusion of his Canticle to Brother Sun and Sister Moon. After praising God for his marvelous creatures, Francis expresses gratitude for bodily death:

Praised be You, my Lord for Sister Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm.

Death finds a person either in the state of mortal sin or the state of grace (doing God's will). This is something hard to face. I remember once visiting a man in the hospital. He described in great detail his disease and its advance. With some awe he spoke about the treatments he had received. He still hoped the doctors would save his life, but was disappointed with the results so far. I asked him how he felt about death, if he were prepared to die. "Oh, yes," he said as if it were just one more procedure. "I have made out my will."

Like so many people today, this man had no real thought of the afterlife. The machines monitoring his vital signs seemed more urgent to him than what might happen when they stop recording. It struck me that he combined in his own person the two characters in Jesus' parable. On one level he was like the rich man, surrounded by expensive and dazzling things. But on a more realistic level he was like Lazarus: disease ridden and hoping for some small scrap. The question was which one would emerge as his real self: the rich man blinded by his wealth or Lazarus who recognizes his total dependence?

That is the one important question for you and for me. The answer we give determines our eternal fate. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis cuts thru much of the fog. He takes up the usual objections to the doctrine of heaven and hell. While our life here always appears to be shades of gray, he shows that when all is said and done gray is simply a mixing of black and white. As if pulled from each other by a powerful color separator, they will stand apart. Jesus himself describes the sifting of wheat from chaff, the scrap fish from the profitable ones. What looks confused now will become clear on that day. The four last things are: death, judgment, heaven and hell (cf. Catechism 1020). After we die, each one of us will be judged and that judgment will involve either heaven or hell*.

Having said this, I do not want to give the wrong idea. Judgment is not final until the moment of death. I say this because there are people who have already assigned themselves to either heaven or hell. About those certain they will go to heaven and consider there is no chance they could wind up in hell, I will only say, Beware of presumption. Even St. Paul said he worked out his salvation in fear and trembling.

I would like to address myself more to those who have concluded they are lost, that there is no chance for them. They have fallen into despair. (Archbishop Flores once said that despair is the only real sin. A hyperbole, but expressing a great truth.) In my years as a priest, I have been amazed by how many people consider that they have committed the unforgivable sin. It may have been some act of blasphemy or sacrilege. It may have been adultery or pedophilia. Perhaps the most common today is the woman who has procured an abortion. She feels that because she has killed her own child, she is eternally condemned. That there is an uncrossable abyss between her and God. This Sunday I have invited to Holy Family Parish a woman who discovered that is not true. Her testimony is not just for women like her who have undergone an abortion. She is a reminder that while we live in this body, there is always hope. Jesus can pick us out of the abyss and bring us home to the Father. I ask you to give your attention to this representative from Project Rachel, to warmly welcome "Liane."

--September 27, 1998.

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*There is of course a temporary state of purification called purgatory. It should not be looked upon as a "shade of gray" between heaven and hell. Rather the souls in purgatory are saved. Their eternal union with God is secure.

Text of Liane's Presentation

From Archives (26th Sunday, Year C):

2013: Geography of Faith: The Threat of Exile
2010: The Choice: Heaven or Hell
2007: Why Was the Rich Man Condemned?
2004: He Dined Sumptuously
2001: An Eternally Unbridgeable Chasm
1998: The Abyss Between Heaven and Hell

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday Homilies

My bulletin column (Sept 19, 2010)

St. Mary of the Valley Album

(September 2010)

New Archbishop of Seattle: “To be Catholic Means to be Pro-Life”

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru

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