He will sit as a refiner and of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver till they present right offerings to the Lord.
Origen, St. Irenaeus, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome all thought this was an exact description of purgatory.
Image by Josefka
By Tim Trainor
My reflection this week has two parts. The first contains a more complete answer to the question that came up last week in our discussion, “ Is Purgatory in the Bible?” I sourced the Catholic Catechism. The second part will contain a reflection on our Gospel reading from Matthew, which can be tied back to the Purgatory question.
What is Purgatory and where is it in the Bible?
As Christians, the two most fundamental truths that we hold are the Trinity (Three Persons in one God) and the Incarnation (where the eternal Son, at one point in history, took on human nature and became man like us in all things but sin). The words “Trinity” and “Incarnation” are nowhere in Scripture. The words aren't, but the teachings are. This is the same for “Purgatory.”
Purgatory is an important teaching because Scripture directly teaches us of heaven, the new Jerusalem, and the temple within heaven's confines. Look carefully, “Nothing unclean shall enter it” (Rev 21:27). Almost all of us die unclean, don't we?
The relevant paragraphs crossed-referenced to Purgatory in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are:
#1023: Those who die in God's grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they, "see him as he is, face to face.”
#1024: This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity, this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed - is called "heaven." Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.
#1030: All who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
#1031: The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. ... The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a cleansing [or purifying] fire. [Thus the Church was led to give this process the name Purgatory]
#1031: He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. “From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but maybe certain others in the age to come.” (From St. Gregory the Great) So, Church Father's, who are part of the Apostolic Tradition, such as:Origen, St. Irenaeus, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great all saw and wrote descriptions of purgatory into their homilies and other works that we still have copies of to read and study on this matter today.
#1032: [Now we begin to cite Scripture] “This teaching (Purgatory) is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore Judas Maccabeus made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. So, from the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all [during] the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.” (2 Macc 12:46)
Dave Armstrong, on his National Catholic Register Blog, on May 7, 2017 posted an article entitled, “11 Descriptive and Clear Bible Passages About Purgatory.” I offer four of his eleven Bible quotes to support the Church's teaching on Purgatory:
Revelation 21:27: But nothing unclean shall enter it [Heaven], nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. [So, I liken this Purgatory 'setup' to be kind of Heaven's Mud Room!]
Malachi 3:3: He will sit as a refiner and of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver till they present right offerings to the Lord. Origen, St. Irenaeus, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome all thought this was an exact description of purgatory.
Matthew 5:26: Truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny. The “prison” alluded to in verse 25 is Purgatory, according to Tertullian, St. Cyprian, Origen, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome, while the “penny” represents the most minor sins that one commits.
Matthew 12:32: And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. If this sin cannot be forgiven after death, it follows that there are others which can be, and this must be in purgatory: precisely the interpretation of St. Augustine, Pope St. Gregory the Great, the Venerable Bede and St. Bernard, among others.
And the best for last, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15: For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 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 [and this is important] he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
This last scripture is a clear and obvious allusion to, or word picture of, Purgatory. St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, Pope St. Gregory the Great, Origen, and St. Augustine thought the same.
Augustine wrote with his usual insight: “Because it is said, he shall be saved, that fire is thought lightly of. For all that, though we should be saved by fire, yet will that fire be more grievous than anything that man can suffer in this life whatsoever.” (Expositions on the Psalms, 38, 2)
Please note, especially from Augustine, Purgatory will not be a walk in the park!
The hidden mystery behind the teaching of purgatory is our calling to get our souls ready to live in Heaven with God for all eternity. Because, Matthew 5:48 requires us “Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Even with deep faith, the Christian life is difficult. We are called to manifest heroic virtue or generosity, and yet generosity hurts in this life. No matter what we’re asked to give, we seem to run out—of time, of energy, of money. God calls us to acknowledge this weakness, this poverty, and to turn to Him and cry out for help that He might clean us up and fill us with His grace, either in this age (the people who do this are called Saints) or the next! My reflection is entitled, “Fear not, as you are worth more than many sparrows,” for this very reason.
In ten Gospel verses, Jesus repeats three times, “Do not be afraid” as He sends His apostles to preach the Kingdom of God to a world full of hostility. He knew very well the weaknesses and strengths of the people He is sending, just like He knows each of ours.
There are enough reasons for His Disciples to be afraid. Missionaries are not welcomed in many parts of the world. Preachers and priests are martyred. Even ordinary Christians like you and me are ridiculed and persecuted by forces seen and unseen.
Christianity is sometimes called a religion of fear. But here we hear Jesus assure us. Not the tiniest of bird falls to the ground without the Father’s knowledge. And, “Every hair on your head has been counted. So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than hundreds of sparrows.”
Jesus reminds us that we would not be that most precious of creatures if we did not have in our hands the destiny of our undying soul. Aware of this privilege, we must not allow such a treasure to be lost.
Here I am drawing on CCC #363, which states:
In Sacred Scripture the term "soul" often refers to human 'life' or the entire human 'person'. But "soul" also refers to the innermost [or eternal] aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God's image. "Soul" signifies the 'spiritual principle' [or gold] in man.
Taking this knowledge back to our reading, we see that we are to trust that the guidance of our eternal souls is as much in the hands of a loving Father, as is the guidance, for good, of any of his creatures. The message is childlike trust. A growing child comes to fully appreciate and care for the value of its life, while at the same time recognizing that the parent is going to take care of him/her.
The sparrow was one of the smallest and cheapest of creatures in the market, yet the Father’s attentive and protective care extends to it also. This simple image reassures us that no matter how small, vulnerable and insignificant we may feel at times God loves us. Our essence, our spiritual foundation mentioned in the Catechism is housed in our soul. We are always supported and valued by our loving, caring God.
The underlying takeaway of these various sayings of Jesus is encouragement: Be not afraid. When events go against us we are still to remain confident, trusting in God’s care. We are not to be deterred in the face of opposition. Why? Because Jesus is always with us as our soul's buddy so-to-speak when we are doing His will.
Matthew captures the careful attention God showers over all His creation, especially us. Matthew does this by going from small, to large. God's awareness of a sparrow alighting on the ground versus how much more of His attention we enjoy. Given that we are the apple of His eye (see Deuteronomy 32:10), we are created in His image and likeness. As Our Father, His loving regard extends even to the hairs of our head.
Whatever happens, I am not to be afraid. In the end, all will be well for me either by God's Plan A (via me displaying heroic virtue/sanctity in this life and becoming a Saint) or, if necessary by His Plan B (the not so easy Purgatory process)
Remember St Agustine's comments. The gold of my soul is perfectly refined and purified if I maintain childlike trust in Him.