Thirty Second Sunday Year (C)
(2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16 – 3:5;
Luke 20: 27-38)
In the first reading from the second book of Maccabees you heard the words:
Ours is the better choice, to meet death at men's hands yet relying on God's promise that we shall be raised up by Him; whereas for you there can be no resurrection, no new life.
Today, many people who do not frequent Church might think on hearing those words that they were from some Muslim source, for on TV and in news bulletins we – not infrequently – see and hear of predominantly young Muslims shouting out defiance of the West with hatred for America and Israel in particular, and boasting of their willingness to die for what they say is the cause of Islam, believing that thereby they would slaughter some enemies and subsequently, as patriots or perhaps martyrs, ultimately enjoy a heavenly survival.
Here, we must first of all recognize that we are dealing with religious people supposedly aspiring to a better life to come. They challenge us to learn and to practice something more about the type of commitment our faith requires of us.
I mention this because, in Western society, we are normally surrounded by people so sated with possessions and with the diverse pleasures of life here on earth that they have but the faintest hope or desire for a heavenly life to come, since its appearance on the horizon could only herald the end of their earthly satisfactions. Many even of our religious, God-fearing, people, professing belief in and hope for a heavenly life to come, seem to be spiritual wimps in comparison with these young Muslims apparently so eager to suffer and willing to die for the Prophet, while they show themselves to be hesitant, wavering, and fearful, in their response to the call of Jesus, even though they acknowledge Him as the Lord of Life and Conqueror of Death for all mankind. We should, in short, as religious Christians, have a certain measure of admiration for these zealous Muslims around the world together with a large measure of shame for our own faint-heartedness.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that their zeal seems to be closely identified with fanaticism, springing from ignorance and frequently subject to political manipulation, and long-kindled by historic circumstances mingled, at times, with humiliations and deprivations of various sorts. The fires of hatred, having been thus effectively stoked, now burn so hot, within and around these zealots, that their minds are no longer able to clearly appreciate, nor can their hearts calmly meditate, the faith they would promote; and whilst proclaiming ultimate reverence for the message of the Prophet, it is the present preaching of radical mullahs and the satisfaction of their personal feelings of hatred, that actually rule their lives and claim their allegiance.
This is a warning for us Catholics and Christians: for we have to be strong with a strength that comes from commitment and obedience to Christ in the Church, not from human passions or political motivations.
If, bearing in mind the prominence given to martyrdom in the current political situation, we consider carefully today's Gospel reading, we can hopefully learn something about the nature of our Christian hope and expectation for the resurrection and the promised life in heaven.
The Muslim zealots whom I have mentioned seem to be looking forward to a heavenly life filled with blessings of a distinctly earthly sort: anticipating an abundance of sensual, and even sexual, delights as their reward. This stems from the ignorance which afflicts them, as I said. On the other hand, the ignorance of many Catholics, and indeed, Christians generally, leads them to harbour a faint and fragile, but, still seriously false, image of a heavenly experience totally at variance with, and opposed to, anything we know of life as experienced and loved here on earth. And so, whereas we have Muslim zealots eager about a heavenly future they fondly imagine to be sensual and sexual in such a way and to such a degree as to perpetuate some of the worst aspects of human society and life here on earth; conversely, many Catholics and Christians have no enthusiasm or longing for what they conceive to be a heaven apparently unable to offer comfort in, or fulfilment of, their present human experience.
Therefore, many modern Christians are not willing to publicly declare the reality, let alone the extent, of their heavenly expectations; and, indeed, rarely do we come across those who sincerely and devoutly hope for the future rewards of heaven more than they enjoy the pleasures, or struggle with the cares, of their present worldly experience.
In this situation it is obvious that we should enquire something about the true nature our Christian hope for the Resurrection. Let us therefore turn to Jesus speaking to us in the Gospel reading:
The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are counted worthy to attain that age (to come), and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; nor can they die anymore, for they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the Resurrection.
Jesus is speaking here, with total realism and complete absence of sentimentality, of the root condition of humanity on earth, which is, that human beings inevitably die and therefore they marry in order that, through new birth -- the fruit of married love and commitment -- death might not become destruction. That is the condition of humanity in its present, earthly, state before God.
Now, those who are counted worthy to attain the age to come and the resurrection will not marry because their life will no longer be imperilled by death, Jesus said. Does that mean, therefore, that the ice-cold, totally sanitized, picture of heaven is confirmed? Far from it, for the direct implication of Jesus’ words, is, on the contrary, that those who attain to the coming Kingdom of God will no longer be ordinary human beings capable of merely ordinary human joys and fulfilments, but rather, they will be, as Jesus said:
Equal to the angels and sons of God.
Their life will be immeasurably enriched, having been born again -- not of flesh and blood -- but of God, as St. John tells us in his Gospel:
As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
Resurrection in Jesus, therefore, will mean a transfiguring re-birth for human beings, who, thereby, will become children of God: no longer subject to earthly limitations of human frailty, incursions of sin and death’s depredations, but finally able to appreciate, and respond wholly and unreservedly to, heaven’s personal fulfilment, transcendent joys, and eternal blessedness.
That fulfilment, those joys, that blessedness, of heaven will not be alien to our human mind and heart, because they filled and fulfilled the mind and heart of Jesus Our Lord and Saviour, Who, in His sacred and perfect humanity on earth delighted entirely in God the Father:
If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. (John 15:10-11)
And Jesus assures His disciples and us that ‘abiding in His love’ will mean:
That My joy remain(s) in you, and that your joy be full.
Just consider: the joy that filled Jesus’ own human heart will, He promises, abide in us and will gradually, as we open ourselves up to it, bring our joy to the supreme fullness of our capacity for receiving and giving love, so that eternity for us will be the timeless instant of an ecstatic sharing in the love which, as the Holy Spirit, binds Father and Son eternally. And how can we now begin to open ourselves up to such a treasure? By thinking on it appreciatively in our mind, and treasuring it lovingly in our heart; by following its lead in loving aspirations and grateful acts of thanksgiving to God; by acts of joyous commitment to God’s will and the service of our neighbour in all things.
It has been rightly said by Dr. Johnson that, for the most part, Christian people do not so much need to be told what they have never heard, as to be reminded of what they have already heard but have now, in fact, forgotten: for the most part they need to be helped to recognize what they have not previously tried to distinguish or appreciate. And above all that means that too many do not try sufficiently to appreciate what Jesus has won for us and what the Father gives us through the Spirit. Listen to a passage from our Scriptures, written in the earliest years of Christian development, when some supposed Christians had been living in and for the world long enough to have become half-hearted in their faith:
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.
What was the trouble? It was the same trouble that so many of us Westerners suffer from today:
Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'--and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. (Rev 3:15-17)
People of God, our readings today, heard in the context of modern events, have something to say to us which these very events we are experiencing might hopefully encourage us to take notice of:
(God) is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him.
The Father is God for those who are striving to live in Jesus by the Spirit, wanting, praying, to be led ever forward by the Spirit; the lukewarm prefer to remain where they find themselves comfortable and with easy, earthly, options to hand, and they are in grave danger of suffocating themselves and suffering rejection by God.
There is another such passage from today's second reading, where Paul prays for his Thessalonian converts saying:
May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience of Christ.
That Is, he prays, that Christ's love of the Father, that Christ's continuance in that love through thick and thin, might characterise his converts. He wants none to be spiritually idle, lukewarm and dying; he wants rather, that they live ever more fully, as Jesus said: steadfastly waiting for God and trusting in His Spirit, resolutely loving Jesus with their whole mind, heart, soul, and strength, in and through all life’s circumstances.
People of God, the teaching of the Scriptures before us today and the baleful examples of both fanatical excess and supine indifference in our modern multi-cultural society, can and should give us a most-needed and salutary spiritual jolt to wake up and strive afresh to live as true Catholics and Christians.