09 November 2010

Life, Death, and Life to the Full

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 7 November 2010

Readings: 2 Mac 7:1-2, 9-14; Ps 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15; 2 Thes 2:16-3:5; Lk 20:27-38

As we come nearer to Advent, the readings talk about the “last things”, eschaton in Greek: death, after life, heaven, hell, purgatory, judgment day, the resurrection. Both the first and Gospel readings teach about the promise of the resurrection.

But before we come to that, let us first reflect on realities closer to home…

1. Life and Death

The two different stories in the first and Gospel readings start with the theme of life, especially a blessed life, as symbolically underscored by the number 7, the number of God, the perfect number. Both stories feature seven brothers. The mother in 2 Maccabees would be considered in those times to be blessed for having seven boys, her pride and joy, and her life support later in life. The first brother in the Sadducees‘ story, though dying early and childless, could count on the next eligible brother among his six siblings to take his widow as wife and “raise descendants in his name”. In the tradition of the Jews, having one’s lineage grow to generations counts as fullness of life.

However, this otherwise blessed life in both stories was tragically foiled by death. The first reading was in fact a narrative of the martyrdom of seven brothers on account of their Jewish faith during the period of the Seleucid Greeks' occupation of Israel and Palestine. The Sadduccees’ trick question foisted on Jesus was premised by the death of all seven brothers and then of the lone (and childess) widow.

The popular notion on death then (and even now for some) is that it is the end of everything, the terminal point of human existence. In much of Old Testament, there is no clear definition as to what happens after death. Sheol is mentioned in a few writings as the place of the dead, considered to be a gloomy place where the spirits of the dead dwell in some form of diminished existence. Sheol does not evoke much hope in the after life. Only in relatively later writings such as the books of Daniel and Maccabees, that the hope in the resurrection of the dead is expressed. (And 1 and 2 Maccabees are not even recognized by Jews as among the inspired books of Sacred Scriptures).

The Sadducees, a small but influential group in Israelite history, profess to follow only the Torah, the Books of the Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, which does not have a clear teaching on what happens after one dies. Thus, as a group they teach that there is no life after death and no resurrection. It would be a constant topic of debate between them and the Pharisees who happen to believe in the resurrection.

Jesus is clear which side of the question He favors. He teaches about the resurrection. He teaches about Himself being resurrected on the third day, the first fruit of all creation.

2. The Resurrection

Resurrection means not just breathing life into a lifeless body. What happened to Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, is a resuscitation not a resurrection. Resurrection means attaining a different level of existence, far superior than our present earthly existence. Simply put, it means being fully transformed according to our dignity as beings created in the image and likeness of God. It means attaining the fullness of life that God’s love intends us to live.

a) Our earthly categories and worldly perspectives would fail to describe it. Jesus exposed the silliness of the Sadduccees’ position when He told them: "The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.”

We have been accustomed to stories that speak of heaven in terms of golden highways, infinite golf courses, grand mansions, and overflowing banquets – even of departed pets living in their own version of bliss. The angels must be chuckling at the silliness of our limited imagination. St. Paul says in 1 Cor 2,9: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived -- the things God has prepared for those who love him.”

b) Death, or our understanding of it, is radically changed by the promise of the resurrection. Death is no longer a thing to be dreaded. Certainly, our instinct for life moves us to still avoid it, and we do feel sorrow over the death of loved ones. But death no longer has its former hold on us. Instead of being a door shut on our existence, a spiritual prison that snuffs out hope and happiness in life, death becomes an open door, a portal to life eternal, a bridge that leads to greater union with God. Jesus in key Gospel passages teaches about the paradox of death and dying as necessary in order to live life to the full.

Thus, we understand how one of the martyred brothers in 2 Maccabees 7, at his dying moment, can confidently say: “You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying." Centuries later, St. Paul will also write in Rom 8,18: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” And again in 1 Cor 15,54-55: "Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

c) Not everybody will receive the fullness of the heavenly reward. Another martyred brother said this at the point of death: “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." Remember too the parables that tell of how people will be judged and separated as wheat from chaff, as sheep from goats.

By His death and resurrection, Jesus obtained for us salvation from sin and death. But this Good News needs to be taken to heart, the gift of salvation needs to be accepted, the cross needs to be taken up, His call needs to be heeded, His will needs to be followed – by us. Our life choices and actions determine whether we are traversing the path to eternal life or the path to an endless death.

Now that we know what life, death and resurrection mean, our knowledge should be able to inform us, that is, influence our views, thoughts and actions. It should also conform us, that is unite us to the will of God and His plan for us.

How faithful are we in following the God of the living? How prepared are we to face life, then death, and then life eternal?

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