THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – 2 Mac 7:1f.,9-14 2 Thes 2:16-35 Lk 20:27-38 – Is This Life All There IS?
The Resurrection of the Body; Life after Death; Resurrection to Life; This World and the World of Resurrection. Ghosts and goblins — and life after death — are an attractive source of stories, novels, and movies. Many famous people have wrestled with the idea of life after death. “If there is no immortality, I shall hurl myself into the sea,” wrote Tennyson.
Bismarck was calmer. “Without the hope of an afterlife,” he said, “this life is not even worth the effort of getting dressed in the morning.” Even Freud called the belief that death is the door to a better life “the oldest, strongest and most insistent wish of mankind.” Some modern literature is different. In Ionesco’s Amedee, the plot concerns a corpse that blows up larger and larger until it floats away in the shape of a balloon — a balloon that’s on the way to nowhere.
It is no wonder that we have concern about something so important as life after death. we haven’t experienced it, and it seems to exceed the bounds of reason. But many important things exceed the bounds of reason — our parents’ love, for example, and the trust of children, and genuine friendship — to all of which we give great attention. Now, as the end of the Church year arrives in two weeks, it is natural for our thoughts to turn to life after death. The Judeo-Christian tradition has a lot to say about it. Belief in a bodily resurrection after death started even before-the events of today’s liturgy.
With the Maccabees in today’s First Reading, the belief reaches a definitive statement. These events took place when the Seleucid Antiochus IV, King of Syria from 175 to 164 BC, ruled the Holy Land. Antiochus decided to eliminate the Jewish mindset by introducing pagan Greek thought and ways into Palestine. Like Alexander the Great before him and other ethnic purist dictators since, he wanted one culture for his kingdom (Hellenism), one language (Greek), and one religion (the Greek pantheon). That culture included the Greek dramas, which were really liturgies offered to pagan gods and goddesses. It included the athletic games and the gymnasium; these were in the nude, which was offensive to Jewish morals. Worst of all, Antiochus blasphemously erected a statue of Olympian Zeus in the Temple itself — the ultimate desecration (the “abomination of desolation” referred to in Dan 8:13 and again in the Gospels).
As with any such attempt, there was a group willing to cooperate to save their prestige, their wealth, and their lives. But most Jews resisted. So Antiochus’ armies attacked them. 80,000 Jews died and another 80,000 were sold into slavery. It became a capital offence to possess a copy of the Mosaic Law; mothers who had their children circumcised were crucified with their children hanging around their necks. Antiochus turned the Temple, courts into brothels, pilfered the Temple treasury, and turned the Temple’s great altar into an altar to the Greek god Zeus, on which he added the further insult of offering pigs’ ﬂesh to the pagan gods.
The Jewish resistance fighters were led by a single family, the Mattathias — or, as they were called, “The Hammers” — the Maccabees. Today’s reading is part of the inspiring story of their bravery. (For the sake of the squeamish, the reading omits verses 3 through 8, telling the details of their inhuman martyrdom — cutting out the tongue of one who had spoken up, scalping him, cutting off his hands and feet, and frying him while still alive; and with a second, tearing off the skin and hair of his head.) Each of the seven brothers, as he approached death, was inspired by their mother. She urged them all to be strong, put their faith in God, and die like men. Their hope was in the glory of the resurrection to come.
The Maccabees and their band won their epic struggle. Joyous lights were put up in the Temple and in every Jewish home, giving the feast its second name, the Feast of Lights — appropriate because of its meaning to the light of freedom. Judas Maccabaeus decreed that the days of the rededication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary every year for eight days (1 Mac 4:59). The feast is still commemorated as Hanukkah, and to this day Jews celebrate it with lights in their windows.
One of the many New Testament afﬁrmations of the resurrection of the body is the dialogue between Jesus and the Sadducees in today’s Gospel passage. The only immortality they would accept was for the community of Israel; they didn’t believe in individual resurrection. They posed to Jesus a trick question, disguised in the form of a rabbinical
debate. It was so phrased that Jesus would either be caught in the quagmire of rabbinical casuistry or be forced to deny the reality of the resurrection of the dead. ‘
It was natural that the Sadducees should bring forth the Law of Moses. For them, that was the sole religious authority. What they brought up was the “Levirate Law”, whereby a widow was to marry a brother of her dead husband in order that through their children her husband’s name and family line might not be obliterated (Dt 25:5) — another way of bringing about immortality. Their point was not the Levirate Law itself, which was no longer in effect, but the matter of being raised from the dead. For them, the impossibility of a woman being reunited after death with seven husbands was proof enough that no resurrection was possible. Modern living poses similar cases. How is resurrection of the body possible, for example, for people bombed into apparent nothingness by a nuclear explosion?
In the first part of Jesus’ answer, he took the opportunity to give a deeper understanding of the nature of the resurrected life. He said that we shouldn’t speculate about the other side of the grave in terms of this earth. Life there is quite different. The resurrected life, for example, is the life of a completed human person, no longer deﬁned in marital or generative terms. In the resurrected life, we are not just resuscitated, but resurrected — not the kind of life we have here, but rather a life fulﬁlled on a wholly other plane. When Jesus spoke of the resurrected becoming in a sense like angels, he did not mean that we will no longer have bodies in the life to come, or that we won’t recognize or be interested in seeing each other as well as God. But at that point, any further discussion» with the Sadducees — who were materialists incapable of conceiving of anything spiritual — had to come to an end.
Then, since the Sadducees held only to the Law of Moses, Jesus returned to that, citing the remarkable incident of Moses encountering God in the burning bush. God called out to Moses from the bush, identifying Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex 3:1~8). When Moses heard from God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were dead. Yet God had said, “I am the God” of these three patriarchs — not “I was”, but “i am” their God. So Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still lived! So the creative power of God brings about life after death! The Sadducees became silent. Jesus had met them on their own ground and won.
While we should be concerned about our life after death, we needn’t be over-anxious. That is what St Paul wrote to the young Church at Thessalonica, which was upset because many expected the end of the world and Jesus‘ Second Coming in a short time. Today’s reading, which comes from the centre of St Paul’s letter, preaches peace of soul. The prayer (2:16f.) is that God may comfort and strengthen the people at Thessalonica as they strive to live out the Gospel in their lives. After his own prayer for them, Paul in turn movingly requests the weak Thessalonians’ prayers for himself and his work.
The stories in today’s liturgy present human situations which cry out to teach us the resurrection of the dead. Innocent suffering on behalf of truth, as depicted in the Maccabees, demands that the just God give a final rationale for human suffering. The human situation behind the Gospel story — that is, the attempt to have one’s name remembered and passed on to the future — recognizes a basic human yearning to give life a sense of purposeAll of us have a desire for immortality, which some seek in various surrogate ways. There is the immortality of fame, like that of movie stars whose names live on after death. There is an immortality of influence, like that of rich people who might donate art, politicians who might have a lengthy obituary, and statesmen who have monuments erected in their honour. And there is an immortality of power, usually accomplished through the establishment of foundations or charitable institutions.
Christian belief in immortality, on the other hand, is unique and special. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News of fullness of life in this age, and of resurrection in the age to come. For us death is a door, not a wall — not a wall that ends growth and action like the Berlin wall, but a door into a Christmas—tree room full of surprises. Someone has compared death to standing on the seashore. A ship spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the open sea. She fades on the horizon, and someone says, “She’s gone.” Just at the moment when someone says, “She’s gone,” other voices who are watching her coming on another shore happily shout, “Here she comes.” Or to use another metaphor, what the caterpillar calls “the end”, the butterfly calls .“the beginning”.
When in a moment we say the last line of the Creed, “We believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting,” we are asserting our belief that, in a way that no one fully understands, at our resurrection our body joins with our spirit to continue our existence in eternal life.
So our body as well as our spirit is holy, and for both of them this life is not all there is