32nd. 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:
It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by Him; but for you there will be no resurrection to life.
Today, people who do not frequent Church might have thought on hearing those words that they were from some Muslim source, for on TV and in news bulletins we so often see and hear of predominantly fanatical Muslims shouting out defiance to the West and boasting of their willingness to die for what they say is the cause of Islam in the hope that in the process they might slaughter as many enemies as possible and subsequently, as patriots or perhaps martyrs, win themselves a life of anticipated delights in heaven.
Here, we cannot avoid the fact that we are dealing with people whose religious belief is very strongly orientated towards a better life to come after death on earth, and in that they challenge us to appreciate more and to practice better what commitment our faith in Jesus Christ risen from the dead for our eternal salvation requires of us.
This is most salutary for us because, in Western society, we are surrounded today by people so sated with possessions, so occupied in the business of life and with the multitude of diverse pleasures available, that they have but the faintest desire for a heavenly life to come, since its appearance on their horizon would necessarily herald the end of the earthly occupations and satisfactions in which they are so engrossed. Even apparently devout religious people who openly profess their belief in a heavenly life to come seem, in comparison with the afore-mentioned zealots, to be spiritual wimps in so far as they show themselves so hesitant, wavering, and fearful in their response to any call of Jesus that would lead them to prepare seriously for their heavenly fulfilment, even though, as I say, they acknowledge Him readily enough in words to be the Conqueror of Death and Lord of Life for all who believe in Him.
There is also very prominent, of course, that pseudo-belief in heavenly life regularly and somewhat sickeningly manifested by non-Church-goers when a loved one (of whatever character) dies and the mourners are so openly sure he or she is ‘in heaven; looking down from heaven now’.
The fact is that Christian doctrine is intimately attuned to our humanity; and those who have suffered child loss most acutely appreciate that the Catholic and Christian hope arising from Jesus’ own Resurrection and His promise to us of life eternal, is so beautifully responsive to our human experience (loved ones departed but not lost; loved ones still able to be touched and helped by our prayers) that without it human life can potentially become so bitter that the godless escape-hatch of suicide is never far away.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that the zeal of many self-sacrificing militants seems to be closely identified with fanaticism, springing from religious ignorance, political manipulation, long-kindled memories of humiliations and deprivations of various sorts in past history currently being stoked up into religious intolerance and a burning desire for racial and personal revenge. Such fires of hatred now burn so hot in these zealots, that their minds are no longer able to clearly appreciate, nor can their hearts calmly meditate, the faith they claim to promote; and whilst proclaiming ultimate reverence for the message of the Prophet, it is the present preaching of radical fire-brands and the satisfaction of their personal feelings of racial hatred that actually rule their lives and claim their allegiance.
Now all this is a warning for us Catholics and Christians: for we have to be strong with a strength that comes from the unquenchable hope arising from our commitment and obedience to Christ and His teaching in Mother Church, to His Personal presence and the sure, intimate, guidance of His most Holy Spirit in the details of our lives, not from blind human passions or political motivations.
If then, bearing in mind the prominence given to martyrdom in our current political situation, we consider carefully today's Gospel reading, we can hopefully learn something more about the true nature of our Christian hope and confident expectation of resurrection after death and eternal life to come in heaven.
The ignorance of many Catholics leaves them with thoughts (and fears) of a faint and fragile heavenly experience totally at variance with, and for some opposed to, anything we know of life as experienced and loved here on earth. And so, whereas we have gun-toting 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 little or no enthusiasm or longing for what they conceive to be a heaven, long in extent but short in content, so to speak; a heaven that can hardly even begin to be imagined and is therefore quite unable to afford any appreciable comfort in, or fulfilment of, their present human life experience. In this situation it is obvious that we should learn something more about the true nature our Christian hope for resurrection and life to come.
Let us therefore turn to Jesus speaking to us in today’s Gospel reading:
The children of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the Resurrection.
Jesus is speaking there, 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, according to God’s plan, marry in order that through new birth -- the fruit of married love and commitment – the death of individuals might not bring about the depredation or even extinction of mankind as a whole.
Now, those counted worthy to attain the resurrection and the age to come will not marry because human life will no longer be imperilled by death, Jesus said. Does that mean, therefore, that an 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 life in the eternal Kingdom of God will no longer be ordinary human beings capable of nothing better or greater than merely ordinary human joys and disappointments, fulfilments and losses, but rather that they will be as Jesus literally said:
Equal to the angels and sons (in Jesus) of God.
Their life will be not merely enriched but transfigured; 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 and members of the family of God: no longer subject to the earthly limitations of human frailty, the daily incursions of sin, and death’s relentlessly advancing depredations, but finally able to appreciate and respond wholly and unreservedly to heaven’s offer of personal fulfilment, transcendent joy, and eternal blessedness, together with like-minded brothers and sisters all as one praising the glory and goodness, the beauty and truth, of their heavenly Father.
That fulfilment, those joys, that blessedness, of heaven will not be alien to our human mind and heart, because they filled 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 what ‘abiding in His love’ will mean:
I have told you this so that My joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.
Just consider: that death-embracing-and-surmounting, heaven-ascending and home-going joy that filled Jesus’ own human heart as He rose from the dead and returned to His Father’s side will, He promises, abide in us and will -- as we open ourselves up to it -- gradually bring our joy to the supreme fullness of our own personal capacity for receiving and giving love, so that eternity for each of us will be the timelessly abiding instant of an ecstatic sharing in the sublime love which is the Holy Spirit eternally embracing and holding the Father and His only-begotten Son in the oneness of divine Trinity.
How can we continually open ourselves up to such a treasure?
By thinking on it more deliberately and appreciatively in our mind (for example, do you recall any of the many occasions of Our Lady coming down from heaven and being seen by thousands and heard here on earth? do you read any of the numerous saints who have learned from visions of the living Jesus?) and treasuring it more lovingly in our heart by devout aspirations and grateful acts of thanksgiving to God, acts of joyous commitment to His will and the service of our neighbour. And above all by making your own the words of Jesus telling of His Personal longing to be once again with His Father in heaven; and telling us of the family and home, feast and fulfilment, awaiting us in God’s Kingdom as His adopted children.
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, largely forgotten. That means that too many do not try sufficiently to appreciate what Jesus has won for us and what the Father offers us through the Spirit. Listen therefore to a passage from our Scriptures, written in the early years of the growth of Mother Church, when some Christians – like the seed sown on rocky ground in Jesus’ parable -- living in the world and too much for the world, had 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 spit 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. (Revelation 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.
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 presently find themselves comfortable and with easy, earthly, options to hand, and yet they are in very grave danger of suffocating their faith and incurring personal 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 to the love of God and to the endurance (patience) of Christ.
That is, Paul 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 wishes rather, that they live ever more fully, as Jesus said: steadfastly waiting upon God and trusting in His Spirit, resolutely loving Jesus with their whole mind, heart, soul, and strength, in and through all the ups and downs of life.
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 but increasingly humanly-uncultured society, should give us a salutary spiritual jolt to wake up and strive afresh to live as true Catholics and Christians.