Each new year, as the clock strikes 12, billions of people resolve to change something in their lives (after sharing in a toast… or two of champagne). It’s the fresh start that fills us with the idea of hope. Of course, there are always those Negative Nancys, telling us we shouldn’t wait for a new year to start that diet, or give up smoking – but if indulging in a whole pizza one last time helps you get your health on track, I say, start whenever you want.
Attending church on a regular basis, spending time each morning with God, or somehow growing in faith, is a common resolution. Church on the first Sunday of the year looked like the first day of a new college semester: filled 20 minutes before class by people you won’t see again until finals (or in the case of church, Easter). I didn’t even get to sit in my usual pew. Fellow Catholics out there, you know the struggle.
I don’t mean to join the crowd of Debbie Downers when I say, January 1st isn’t the only time we renew our faith. In taking a Bible study class the last few months, one of the real lessons I’ve uncovered is the truth of Purgatory. A scary word to most Catholics, Purgatory is believed to be the place one gets “stuck,” if unworthy of Heaven, though aren’t immediately sentenced to Hell. Many have grown up, fearful of getting “stuck” in this “in between” for an infinite amount of time.
Studying Corinthians in this particular class, I read, “Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:13-15)
Like a light bulb above a 1960’s cartoon character’s head, I was suddenly faced with a different, and less scary, picture of Purgatory.
Rather than a punishment for your sins, I wondered out loud to my Bible study group, if Purgatory could instead be a place of cleansing. Like fire cleans gold and silver, Purgatory seems to me more of a “second chance” for us sinners.
I believe in a forgiving God, but not a forgetful God. As humans, we all sin. God can, and will, forgive us of our sins, if we ask for forgiveness and truly accept Jesus Christ as the way to and through that forgiveness. But that doesn’t mean we get a free pass into Heaven. I think Purgatory could be a place for us to completely cleanse ourselves of all our sins. Just as we feel exiting a confessional booth, or walking out of a salon after a facial, we can walk out of Purgatory and through Heaven’s Gates feeling stripped of our Earthly wrongdoings. Instead of fearing Purgatory, I started to feel thankful for the chance to present myself to The Lord “whole” and “clean.”
The idea of a complete, fulfilling and healthy life is just what many look toward reaching and achieving when it comes to New Year resolutions, but whether you decide to focus on health and fitness, faith, career aspirations, or something else in 2016, don’t think of small progress each day the way older Catholics think of Purgatory. Progress isn’t punishment; it’s preparation for the perfect presentation of yourself.