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Thank God for Purgatory

Purgatory, a concept absent from my understanding for nearly forty years, parallels the time Israel spent wandering in the wilderness. Now that I recognize purgatory in scripture, it’s akin to suddenly seeing a car everywhere after buying it, revealing its existence in unexpected places. This morning’s Mass readings bring forth unmistakable revelations of purgatory. In seeking similar interpretations online, I assume the Church Fathers comprehended what I now read. Surely, the Church deliberately unveiled this mystery to me during my readings, understood by its loving and holy body. How did I, as a Protestant, overlook these insights for so long? It’s November, dedicated to the souls in purgatory and heaven, reminding me of tradition’s enduring presence.

Reflecting on the Book of Wisdom, authored by the same writer of my beloved Proverbs, Solomon, whose wisdom inspired this book. A single and powerful verse that I have tried to live by,

Proverbs 3:5,6

Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.

As a Catholic, we use the Book of Wisdom in funeral services, offering solace in grief. It’s a continuation of his guide for spiritual maturity. Today’s reading from Wisdom 2:23–3:9 portrays God forming imperishable man in His image. Despite the devil’s envy introducing death, the souls of the just, in God’s hand, remain untouched. Though perceived as dead by the foolish, they find peace, having undergone testing or purgation in life. Their hope is full of immortality, and God, like gold in the furnace, judges them, placing them in peace, exempt from the torment of sin.

My Protestant inclination would dismiss this as describing heaven until I read Luke 17:7–10, where Jesus emphasizes that after our worldly toil, we continue serving, implying spiritual maturity extends beyond physical death.

Jesus said to the Apostles; “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he rather not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”

Connecting this with passages like 1 Peter 1:7 and 1 Corinthians 3:12–15, purgation becomes apparent. Wisdom’s lines reveal a process before heaven, challenging my Protestant assumptions. Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:43–48 underscores consequences and responsibilities, negating a simplistic view of salvation.

Pondering 1 Corinthians 7:24–30 and John 13:12–17, the call to serve post-worldly existence emerges. Whether through purgation or heavenly worship, the duty to serve Christ persists. Suffering, a consequence of sin, remains even if salvation is attained.

1 Corinthians 7: 24–30

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

John 13: 12–17

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

We will encounter purgation either in this world and during our earthly existence or in the state of rest as we sleep in Christ. Failure to choose Christ leads to succumbing to sin and enduring eternal separation from God. Reflecting on the suffering deserved as a consequence of our sins, my past Protestant perspective suggested that, due to Jesus’s death on the cross, believers were no longer meant to suffer in this life. This was often presented as a complete payment for sins, discouraging the continued offering of personal suffering to God to avoid diminishing the significance of Christ’s sacrifice.

Regardless of whether I’ve obtained “salvation” according to the definition of “faith alone” through “Christ alone,” sin persists. The devil continues to pose threats, and my sins generate consequences resulting in suffering. Removing the concept of “salvation” leaves me with the responsibility to model my life after Christ. The distinction lies in following Jesus’ commands. When I actively pursue His teachings, my suffering becomes intertwined with His. Even in my physical death, the residual damage from my sins remains, emphasizing the ongoing responsibility to reconcile with neighbors, enemies, and God — whether in this world and in life or through the concept of purgatory.

In my previous belief system, life presented two outcomes: heaven (salvation) achieved through a relationship with Jesus or hell, signifying eternal separation from God for those who rejected Jesus as Lord and Savior. The impact of my sins on my soul beyond death depended on whether or not I was “saved.” Works reflected those of Jesus and served as a disciple’s response to salvation, leading to a continual effort to align actions with His teachings, even though the effectiveness of these works varied in preventing a return to sin.

The Protestant dichotomy of heaven or hell oversimplifies. Luke 12:43–48 implies varying consequences for all, whether aware or unaware of the Gospel. Purgatory, as a state of cleansing, aligns with both faith traditions, emphasizing continuous spiritual growth beyond mere salvation.

Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required, and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

In this parable, all the servants believe or know the master. The severe consequences of being “cut in pieces” and placed with the unfaithful signify the most extreme negative outcome. The second slave, aware of what they were supposed to do but failed to act (a manifestation of sin), suffered punishment. Notably, this consequence did not lead to heaven. The final servant, unfamiliar with the Gospel and committing wrong, received a milder sentence than the second servant.

A Protestant perspective might assert that these consequences unfold on earth. However, the “Jesus paid it all” theology faces a challenge here. The parable doesn’t state that the beatings from the Master were prevented by an intermediary like a Warden or Judge. The consequences set by the Father were not obstructed by the Son, raising questions about the theological assertion that Jesus entirely absorbed all consequences.

In essence, both Catholics and Protestants may be conveying similar truths through salvation and purgatory. Catholicism asserts that judgment is uncertain until the end, acknowledging a perpetual journey toward salvation. Purgatory, then, is akin to cleaning one’s bedroom.

The Father provides guidance on organizing our bedroom. He enters our room, demonstrating the prescribed behavior, illustrating the proper way to pick up and store toys in the closet. Along with written instructions, an older sibling checks in periodically. Failing to tidy up may result in missing a weekend birthday party invitation, and additional consequences may follow. If the day ends and we run out of time to clean our room, the responsibility remains.

In Protestant theology, the perspective is that when the light runs out, the task of cleaning our room concludes. Belief in Jesus and vocal confession secures our attendance at the anticipated “birthday party.” Cleaning our room becomes a response to the assurance of attending the event. Once the day ends, we are removed from our room, and the mess left behind is deemed inconsequential. Some strands of Protestant theology suggest that Jesus cleans up our room, and we await the celebration, posing a challenge in explaining why and how one might persist in creating a mess post-salvation. Notably, this viewpoint lacks an explanation for the ongoing significance of personal actions, as the aftermath of sin after salvation is considered to carry no real consequence. While some may sincerely strive for cleanliness out of love and respect for Jesus, it’s acknowledged that others may primarily be motivated by personal pleasure associated with the impending party.

A Catholic perspective emphasizes the ongoing responsibility to clean up the room. Jesus, instead of securing our place at the party, covers the cost of our attendance and alleviates immediate consequences from the Father for incomplete tasks. If the day concludes or we run out of time to clean the room (symbolizing physical death), purgation begins to finalize the cleaning process. Purgatory is akin to Jesus joining us in the room, aiding in the cleanup, providing a deeper understanding of its importance. Importantly, this doesn’t negate that Jesus already paid for the party and bore the brunt of suffering for our shortcomings in sin. Purgatory, in this context, serves as a transformative process for a more profound comprehension of the significance of our actions.

Observing both scenarios, it’s evident that the ultimate destination is the birthday party. However, one of these scenarios aligns with the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, validating the comprehensive importance of our actions. In contrast, the other scenario implies that everything beyond belief in Jesus is optional, potentially overlooking the broader significance emphasized by Jesus in his teachings.

Regardless of the perspective, both envision reaching the ultimate destination — a concept that reinforces Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. Purgatory, in this light, upholds the significance of everything beyond faith in Jesus, making each aspect integral to the journey toward the ultimate celebration. Grateful for purgatory, I strive to be a saint, seeking intercession from those who’ve attained the divine presence, with hope in purgation for my shortcomings in the pursuit of a complete relationship with Jesus.


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