Our readings this week cause us to ask, “What happens next? This question is one we all need to contemplate in our lives, from beginning to end—in our youth and as we age. And there are different meanings and answers we come to as we move through our lives. As young children, we were thoroughly engaged in life, discovering all there was to know, getting our simple needs met, hopefully—enjoying our existence. Hopefully too, as a child, we knew a certain amount of love so that growing into adulthood; we felt good about ourselves and as a result, were able to make a contribution to our world. Not everyone finds themselves in this situation and then, life can be a struggle. If we didn’t receive all the nurturing needed in our younger years, hopefully we found it later on in our lives and are able now to give back a measure of what we have received.
As the years of our lives go by; we begin at some point reflecting, with more urgency, whether there is life after this life. We see parents, spouses, and siblings die, and we begin to realize that we are the next group that will experience this awesome passing over and the thought may bring some trepidation—hopefully less and less as we age. Scripture and our faith tell us that we can’t imagine what God has prepared, yet our human nature wants instinctively to hold on to what it knows.
Separations come in life, from death and other causes, and yet, life continues to move on—there is no stopping it. It is all a mystery and we all can only pray to understand and accept it somehow.
We all understand the passion for life that underlies the readings today, especially in the gospel story. We too instinctively want life to continue. We know this fact most personally, in our own lives, as we watch our families grow and change, take on responsibility and carry life forward.
This passion for, and value that we place on human life can be seen in the practices that have arisen in different cultures through time—burial rituals for instance. Because we consider life to be sacred, the places that we commit our loved ones to become sacred as well. These places become “sacred” because people deem them as so, leaving proclamations from church officials that differ, null and void. Some cultures commit their loved one’s remains back to the ground or the sea—lift them up to the heavens—according to where they believe the person came from.
The inevitability of death makes us reflect upon the meaning of life—what am I here for?—what is my piece to do?—a very spiritual question. I am working with a couple preparing them for marriage in the spring and the man in the couple comes out of a background that didn’t include a religious upbringing—he has no problem with those who do espouse a religion, it is just not something that is important for him.
I indicated to him that even though this was the case, that he doesn’t claim a particular faith, he was no doubt a spiritual person. I explained that each of us is a composite of the physical, emotional and spiritual. Explaining the spiritual piece; I told him, it is what we get up for each day, the code of ethics by which we live—it may even be what we live and would die for. Given that explanation, he conceded that he is a spiritual person. I gave him an exercise to do entitled, “My Spiritual Journey” wherein I think he will answer questions for himself like, “Why am I here—what am I to do with my life?”
Continuing our thinking then around life and death presented by the Scriptures today; we are told that the Israelites did not have a clear idea of an afterlife—they believed that the dead went to a place they called Sheol, a place of neither reward nor punishment, a shadowy, underworld place. They didn’t have a notion of an immortal soul like the Greeks who came after them. The Israelites believed their God was “of the living,” not the dead, so this would fit their thinking that discounted an immortal soul. The Israelites did not venerate gods of the underworld as other nations did. Even though their belief didn’t include an immortal soul; they didn’t believe that death was the end.
The reading from 2 Maccabees, while incredibly violent, serves to inform us of several important points in understanding the Israelite people and their way of thinking. This reading comes out of a time of persecution when the occupying Greeks are trying to force the Israelite people to renounce their religious practices. The reading shows the valor of those being tortured, because from three of the victims who speak, we learn of their belief that God will one day “lift them up.” It stops short of claiming a belief in an immortal soul, but clearly is speaking of the resurrection of the dead. This reading is the earliest reference to some form of existence after death.
It is this belief that one day we will see our loved ones again that gives each of us hope in the loss of loved ones and too, as we contemplate our own deaths. This past week, I was called to the hospital to minister to a young couple whose marriage vows I had witnessed last fall. Their 39-week old daughter was still-born. As you can imagine, it was a very sad time—one day the baby was jumping in her mom’s womb and the next day, there was no movement. We spent time together, sharing, caring, anointing—baptizing this little one with our tears and I know the thought if not there at the moment, will come for them—we will see her again, one day!
In the gospel reading, Jesus deals with the same theme, that of the resurrection of the dead. Because the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead; they try to make a sham of it in the scenario they raise of the seven brothers all marrying the same woman—an ancient marriage practice to keep the family line going, all through the male, of course. Jesus exposes their mockery by insisting that there will be no need for marriage in the next life because there will be no death. He also restates the traditional belief that their God is, “of the living,” not the dead.
Even so, Jesus, as is always the case, is presenting something new. Here, it is his understanding that God is God of the living and not the dead and the fact that it means something different to him than what the Israelite people have always believed. In the original meaning, “God of the Living,” simply meant, those who were alive now, whereas Jesus was talking about the resurrection of the dead and that those people would then be alive in a “new” way.
We continue then, to question through these readings, where the belief in the resurrection of the dead comes from because we know it doesn’t come from the Greek belief in the immortal soul. Upon further reflection, we realize this belief for them, so passionately displayed in the torture of the Maccabees is their ardent belief in covenant—the promise made to them by their God—“I will be your God and you will be my people.” So, my friends, it was all about their trust in their God—they believed the bonds that bound them were so strong as to be unbreakable. That was the foundation for their faith. A good place for us to contemplate how strong our faith is and to what extent we would go for that faith!
This is carried forth into Christian belief as Paul writes to the Romans 8:38-39, “neither death, nor life…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” For us friends, it is the same, we believe. As Paul says today to the Thessalonians, “May our Savior, Jesus Christ, may God who loved us and in mercy gave us eternal consolation and hope, console [our] hearts and strengthen them for every good work and word. The young couple I mentioned, grieving the loss of their daughter will go on holding tight to each other and continue to choose life.
The readings clearly reflect end times as we liturgically move in our church year toward its end. November is a good time to reflect on all that this means as we literally watch our earth and surroundings change before our eyes. Many people are putting their yards and gardens to bed, so to speak, for the season. Days are becoming shorter—with less light. For some of you, I know, this brings sadness—it brings change—it slows life down—others are ready to rest in the slower pace.
I believe the Church, in God’s wisdom sets us up liturgically each year to go through these changes along with our earth. Here in the Midwest; we truly see these stark contrasts of change. These changes allow us to reflect on life, its goodness, and its finality, and strive as we look toward a new Church Year, as Advent begins in a few weeks, to always, always keep our focus on Jesus who came to show us the way, the truth and the life. Our readings today call us to the finality of life, yes, but also to the promise of everlasting life. Amen? (Response) Amen!