What Happens? No Nice, Tidy Answer.

One of the first aspects of these after-death experiences that jumps out to the reader is how different they are from each other. How could they all be true, if they are so different? I am going to assume that all of those experiences passed down to us by saints are trustworthy, and yet, even among those, there are many differences.

I find one point enlightening when it comes to these differences: St. Bede passes down three such stories to us, and those three are far from identical experiences. Bede is ok with the differences, and I would think that means we, too, can be ok with these differences. The validity of these experiences does not lie in their similarity, nor were they passed down with such an intention. The differences in St. Bede’s stories seem to be the main reason he recorded them.

We need to keep something in mind, something similar to the angel’s response to one of the individuals in St. Bede’s accounts (Book V, Ch. XII): “I began to think that this perhaps might be hell, of whose intolerable flames I had often heard talk”, but the angel replies, “Do not believe so, for this is not the hell you imagine.” We all come to this topic with a lifetime-worth of presuppositions. We have heard sermons at church; we have heard eulogies at funerals; (and most influentially) we have soaked up the cultural understanding around us. There are many influences in all our lives that make us imagine a particular heaven or hell after death.

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Sent Back for Our Benefit

God has graciously allowed these events for our benefit. That is, he has allowed, somewhat outside of the natural order of things, for a few individuals to come back from a temporary death, like Lazarus did, or in some other way to help relate to us who are still among the living, what awaits us when we die. Some were “sent back”; some spoke of what they saw as they were dying; and in one account—the most helpful—we have a much more complete account, continuing far beyond the few hours after death.

That being said, it is hard to even know what to call these experiences. Near-death experiences? “Near death” does not seem to fit so well, when some of these experiences not only neared death, but passed well beyond it. And I also will try to avoid the word “story”, since that might give it the feel of something fictional, something told around a campfire with a flashlight pointed up at my face. And indeed, many will be tempted to discount these stories, especially for the ways in which they are dissimilar. We will get to that, but the important point to make before we really get started is that these experiences were passed down to us for our benefit. The Lord allowed them for our benefit, and faithful Christians have handed them down to us. Most of these accounts mention this in some way, that they are for our benefit.

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Losing Our Lives for Christ in Our Hardships

For the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Church both prepares us for the feast with a special reading the Sunday before, and also, today, sends us off from the feast with a special reading the Sunday after. This past Sunday’s gospel reading, for the Sunday after the feast of the Cross, is what our holy Fathers want us to take away from the feast.

And actually, there was a reading the day before, too, for the Saturday after the feast, with the same theme. The theme of both of these passages is the practical application of the Cross of Christ to our lives. In Saturday’s gospel reading, Jesus says: When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father taught me, I speak these things.

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Going the “Extra Mile” in Forgiveness

The Gospel passage mentioned in the last post said, …if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. But, going the “extra mile” in forgiveness, in his first epistle, St. Peter says:
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. And James echoes this same idea of “covering” the sins of others: …whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

This covering others’ sins is something we don’t think about much, though it has been around a while…in Proverbs, love covers all offenses, and elsewhere in Proverbs,
Whoever covers an offense seeks love,…

We not only are called to forgive, but to actively use love to cover sins.

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We Determine How Strictly We Are Judged

So much of our society trains us to focus on ourselves, on our rights, and to judge others as respecters or offenders of those rights. This past weekend, in Bend, some alleged social media posts from the shooter who took the life of two innocents revealed this to the extreme. Remembering wrongs others commit against us and the lack of forgiveness is toxic. What we see in Christ’s Gospel is quite the opposite, not focused on the wrongs of others, but on our own spiritual state.

After the story of the man forgiven a massive debt, who turns around and requires someone else to repay him a much smaller debt, resulting in his re-judgment with the same harshness he used, the passage ends: So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.

So, we know what not to do. But what should we do? How should we act?

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