Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man (Lk 5:8). I think that we can all relate to St Peter’s reaction, there, in the face of the miracle wrought by Jesus. It’s a miracle of fish that could have changed Peter’s financial fortunes immeasurably in one day. Yet, he sees beyond the miracle of fish, to the person who has effected it: the person of Christ, the Holy Son of God. And before the face of God he shrinks back, conscious of his sinfulness. But Jesus’s call to Him is genuine and repeated: come, follow me … Jesus wishes to forgive Peter’s sins, and call him to a new life in grace.
This is, in a way, an image of our whole life in Christ — the miracle, the call, the response, the forgiveness, the new life. The Lord may give us great gifts and successes in this life, but in fact, the real gift is in the life to come. Just as St Peter in effect ‘turned down’ the earthly gift, or was converted by it, so we too should see the earthly gifts of God as passing things — gifts to be given thanks for, but, all the same, temporary … in view of the life to come, the fullness of grace offered in eternity.
Today’s homily on the Catechism brings us to the end of Part I of the Creed, the final sentence of our profession of faith: I believe in “the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting,” or, in the Nicene Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” This is the goal and destiny of our life as Christians, life with Christ for ever.
A belief in the Resurrection, or in any form of afterlife, was a matter of debate for the Jews. Some believed in such a thing, others did not; and the Scriptures of the OT make only fleeting reference to any strong belief. In the period closer to Jesus’s time, however, there are some Jews whose belief in the Resurrection was quite developed. Certainly those of the Maccabees who were willing to be martyred rather than perform sacrilege and deny their faith draws on a very strong belief in the fact that in the life to come they will be rewarded by God. Jesus Himself, of course, taught repeatedly the facts of heaven and hell, the consequences of our choices for or against God in this life. And not just that, He associated that life to come with Himself. To His friend St Martha, as He was about to express His power over life and death in raising her brother Lazarus, He made that direct connection: I am the Resurrection and the Life, whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Jesus’s own Resurrection, therefore, on Easter Sunday, not as a ghost or mere spirit, but a full resurrection of the body, is the fullest expression of all that hope. Jesus, as the Son of God, can and does, offer life beyond the grave, and no-one else in all human history can even pretend to do that. When the apostles were choosing someone to replace Judas Iscariot, they insisted that whoever it was to be had to be someone who was a witness of the resurrection of the Lord: this was the key to their preaching, that they had seen the Lord risen. It was for this that St Paul was laughed at in Athens; and ill-treated so many times … for the proclamation that Jesus had risen from the dead, offering us also life eternal.
When we die, our bodies and souls suffer a separation. Except for Our Blessed Lady, whose perfect sinlessness meant that she was not subject to that bodily corruption, our bodies shall lie in the grave. As bodiless spirits we shall be judged according to our lives. Those who have reached perfection (‘living saints’) shall go straight to heaven; those who need purification shall go for a time to purgatory to prepare for heaven; those whose sins are grave and whose lives have deliberately been opposed to God’s grace shall go to hell. The Church teaches that certain people are undoubtedly in heaven; but teaches that no specific person is in hell: only God knows someone’s heart and their inner desire for Him, and for forgiveness. But hell remains a reality: Jesus Himself taught of hell; and it is a demand of free will (if someone chooses definitively to refuse God’s mercy, then what can God do?).
At the end of time, when God brings all things to an end, then there will be the Last Judgment and the Resurrection of the Body. Our ultimate destiny — what we called to be — is not a bodiless spirit, cared for by God in that way, but to be reunited with a glorified body. This will be a body like Our Lord’s in His Resurrection, or like Our Lady’s in the ways that she appears in her apparitions. It is not a body that will age or die again, it is something eternal, in which we can be fully ourselves again, and enjoy the happiness of God’s presence. God made us for this: to be fully human in His glory, where the Lord Jesus in His Resurrection has led the way. A famous Catholic work, called The Imitation of Christ has a beautiful passage on death, and it’s quoted in the Catechism:
“Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience … Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow.”