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Breath of the Spirit

Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.

Breath of the Spirit is our electronic spiritual and liturgical resource for our members and potential members. Nothing can replace your chapter or other faith community but we hope you will find further support here for integrating your spirituality with your sexuality and all the strands of your life.

Essay for Feast of the Ascension can be found on the DignityUSA website.



Acts 7:55-60
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20
John 17:20-25

One of the things about which I was certain as a child were the events that were going to kick in the moment I’d die. The catechism was black and white on the issue, and, one way or another, our religion teachers constantly reminded us of it.

First, at the moment of death, each person would undergo a “particular judgement.” Jesus (or “God”) would personally evaluate us on how we’d lived our lives. Three options were on the table: heaven, hell, or purgatory. Though we preferred heaven, we presumed none of us were instantly worthy of such a place.  We were simply content to avoid hell and be assigned to purgatory. We were warned we’d have to suffer the same tortures as hell, but unlike hell they’d eventually end – quicker if our friends and relatives said a lot of indulgenced prayers for us or paid to have Masses said for the repose of our souls.

Next, when the world finally ends and the risen Jesus returns in the Parousia, there’ll be a “general judgement.” Purgatory will be taken off the table. Only heaven and hell will remain. Everyone who ever lived will be judged – even those who already went through a particular judgement. Of course, those who had previously been sent to purgatory will now be sent to heaven to join all the other saints in praising God forever. Such a general judgement will give an opportunity for everyone to join in the glory and shame of those who had either lived their lives correctly or had really screwed them up. (My belief in such a spectacle started to wain after I sat through my first large high school graduation ceremony.)

Though this two judgement scenario is tight and tidy, nowhere is it found as such in Scripture.

The earliest Christian belief in what happens after we die is in I Thessalonians 4. Paul states his belief that we simply stay in our graves until the Parousia when Jesus comes to take us with him to heaven. No judgement seems to happen before Jesus’ Second Coming.

Neither Mark nor Matthew seem to have anything in their gospels which would contradict Paul’s belief. Only after several generations, when a delayed Parousia becomes a problem, does staying in one’s grave for that length of time also become a problem.

That seems to be where Luke – and today’s first reading – comes in. Notice what happens as Stephen is dying. “Filled with the Holy Spirit, (he) looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God . . . .” Then, at the point of death, he calls out, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” No grave, no delay. Stephen instantly experiences his “personal Parousia.” No reason to have a later judgement. Everything’s taken care of at the moment of death.

Scholars point out that John carries Luke’s theology one step further, as we hear in today’s gospel passage. He believes in “realized eschatology:” in other words, what we’re expecting in the future, we already have right here and now. Those who think we’re only going to be “one with the Father” in heaven must realize that anyone who is already one with Jesus in his or her present life is already one with the Father in this present life. We don’t have to wait until our physical deaths to experience that part of heaven.

It’s clear that ideas about the afterlife evolve throughout the Christian Scriptures. Perhaps that might be why it’s better to trust in our relationship with the risen Jesus than in our relationship with catechisms. Certainly where I’d put my money – and my life.


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