“Near Death Experiences.” Those three words can generate tremendous interest from the most devout of believers to the greatest skeptics. This past month, there was some extensive coverage of this phenomenon of Near Death Experiences or ‘NDEs,” first with a documentary entitled “After Life” being released in movie theaters around the world and then with the Catholic App called Hallow sharing a 7 part series on this topic. Both shared stories of individuals who experienced physical death – all clinical evidence concluded the person was no longer alive, but they came back to life, fully recovered, and were able to share some amazing things about what they experienced and saw. Some things these people back from the dead shared were empirically verifiable: describing people, places, and things happening in and around them as they were ‘dead’ that they shouldn’t have been able to know, let alone remember and recount. Then were the other things that these witnesses shared, which touched on the most profound hopes and beliefs Christians hold about the afterlife.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the SOLENMITY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, KING OF THE UNIVERSE – November 26, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
Scientists and medical experts interviewing some of the 8 million individuals over the last 50 years who’ve had NDEs and doing further research, comparing and sharing their findings with one another, are able to give fascinating insights into the afterlife. These investigators usually find some common characteristics that include the miraculous circumstances surrounding these incidents and how they align with biblical writings and teachings of faith. The fact that people of all ages from different backgrounds were able to share their stories and that they were able to find a great number of similarities makes this field of “NDEs” something that continues to expand interest in the topic but credibility in the study as well.
Listening to those who have positive experiences where they are seemingly experiencing Heaven, they will qualify things by saying that earthly words and images could never adequately explain it. But they try to use words like love, peace, beauty, and light to describe their memories of their time there. It’s intriguing though hearing the frustration of these individuals who have returned from the after-life as they rattle off those descriptors. Because they sense that people listening to them will think they know what they mean or that they are going to be able to understand the extent of what they experienced by attributing their lists of hopes, characteristics that they will attach to their experiences. Kind of treating this as a blank canvas to project things onto. That’s where you hear people who like to imagine Heaven, seeing it as the most peaceful and luxurious of vacations, with the absence of pain and stress, the greatest of reunions, the most opulent of residences, extravagant of feasts (without concerns over diets), and so on… There are more than enough scriptural references that can feed into all of those ideas for sure, which results in these expectations that appeal to everyone on some level.
But Heaven is much more than just this incredible feast that is all paid for, never ends, and where our every want and need is supplied. Scripture reminds us that it goes far beyond our earthly hopes and expectations – the Prophet Isaiah once wrote (and St. Paul quotes him) saying, “No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you working such deeds for those who wait for him…”
Today’s scriptures are meant to help us imagine Heaven as more than that divinely appointed resort. Touching far more important needs and desires. The first reading helps set the stage for that. This portion from the Prophet Ezekiel is fascinating. Because for a majority of the 40 chapters of this book of the Bible, which covers about 20 years of Jewish History, we hear the Prophet begging the people on God’s behalf to repentance, calling out the corruption and hypocrisy that has overtaken the religious leaders and warning of the downfall of the Temple. After all this sinfulness, destruction, and loss, after God has condemned those shepherds who had taken advantage of the sheep, who ruled harshly, ignored, and maligned them, God denounces those shepherds and promises over and over again that He will address all those abuses and take over. To properly shepherd, restore, heal, and love His sheep. In these five verses, we hear ten times God setting things right, bringing His vision to fulfillment as He says over and over these ‘I WILL’ promises:
– I myself will look after and tend
-so will I tend
-I WILL rescue
– I MYSELF WILL PASTURE
-I MYSELF WILL give them rest
– the strayed I WILL bring back
– the injured I WILL bind up
– the sick I WILL heal
-the sleek and strong I WILL destroy
– I WILL judge
This had been God’s intention all along. Still, God’s people had whined, wanting human kings like every other empire had, and sadly, they experienced the result of looking to human beings and worldly things for fulfillment. After one example of imperfection after another, these words of the Prophet coming six centuries before Jesus’s birth would have been hard to imagine for even Ezekiel himself. How would God be both a Shepherd and a King? What would that tell us about life – what is most important and essential in life – this life and the eternal life to come? That’s why the prophet’s words are paired with this Gospel reading. Jesus gives us a path to encountering Him, experiencing His reign, and insights into eternal life as He tells us:
I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.
Too often, when we hear this Gospel, it is treated as a checklist for us to navigate. We can get uncomfortable hearing this Gospel passage, thinking Jesus is giving us this to-do list on top of our already busy, packed lists. We can argue, doesn’t He know how hungry and thirsty I am… how often I was a stranger and no one welcomed me… that I work hard to pay a lot for my clothes… and sure I care about the sick and imprisoned, but I’m not Mother Teresa, I could never do what she did. But Jesus isn’t asking us to be Mother Teresa. But to learn from her. Now that she’s a Saint in Heaven, do we imagine Heaven for her is reclining on a beach chair in the sun, with sunglasses on? That it’s some sort of an imposition on her reward for a good life, that the perfection of Heaven would be ruined by someone bothering her begging for food, for drink, for welcome, for clothes, for healing, for attention? The reality was she found the reward; she experienced the perfection of eternal life the more she emptied herself and gave to others. Her suffering in this life was most often connected to whatever limitations prevented her ability to do more. That she had physical limitations, and that as much of a giant she was as a living saint to so many of us that she was spiritually limited here on earth. But she knew the Shepherd, she knew the King, she knew Jesus and so she simply gave until she had nothing more to give. She became lost in Him, in His vision, His reign. She never expected every single person she met to drop everything and move to Calcutta and do what she did. But she did want us to follow her example in allowing Jesus’ to reign in our lives. You can hear her encouragement and observations in these lists of short, simple quotes that capture and gently guide us to do the same thing:
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
“We fear the future because we are wasting today.”
“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”
“Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.”
“A life not lived for others is not a life.”
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
Mother Teresa constantly deflected the vastness of her reach and her own personal example by reminding us of these basics. Teaching us how the Gospel is attainable to everyone and that it is accessible in each of our states of life that springs from the seemingly most basic and simple of movements in our everyday lives. Ultimately, that is what is at the heart of this Gospel.
When we sit with Jesus’ words from this parable and let these words penetrate our hearts, we’re not being challenged to go up and down His list and check off how we can defend we have fulfilled that obligation. The parable is meant for us to go more basic and local. With what we have, with where we are, how can we live as people obedient to Christ the King? Jesus tells us that His reign is realized where all those who are struggling find assistance; those who are lost, are isolated are found and welcomed; those who are in pain find relief. When we set about doing these basic things, we don’t simply imagine Heaven; we begin to experience it here and now.
A quick commercial – this Tuesday is #Giving Tuesday – the international campaign that encourages people to donate to different charities and causes. Our Newman Catholic Center at Montclair State University (aka Red Hawk Catholic) is hoping to raise $35,000 for our Annual Christmas Appeal and will kick off this fundraiser with #Giving Tuesday. We appreciate your considering to support us! To donate online, please click our PayPal Link here . (If for some reason the link doesn’t work, you can get to the Donate link on REDHAWKCATHOLIC.COM the link is on the top to the right. Checks can be made out and mailed to Newman Catholic; 894 Valley Road, Montclair, NJ 07043. Thanks so much for your generosity and support! Father Jim