Sunday, November 7, 2010

Allegiance to the King of the World

The Resurrection from the Dead and the Life of the World to come

“Some Sadducees – those who say that there is no resurrection – approached Jesus and they put this question to him…” (Whose wife will she be?)
          There’s little doubt where the Sadducees were coming from and where their hopes or expectations for this life resided. No doubt as well they have their counterparts in our day and time! One possible read of the message for this Sunday (Luke 20) would have less to do with critiquing those who can’t get beyond the here and now, and more with inviting us to choose or to express more clearly or decisively our allegiance to the Lord of Life.
          I have to admit that I always shudder when I read the Maccabees passage which is assigned as the first reading for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C. The gory details of the entire passage describing the torture and death of all eight come vividly to mind each time I read even a part of it. Such brutality against these seven young men, boys some of them, and their mother, just because they would not abandon the traditions of their ancestors and eat pork! They chose sacrificing life and limb, literally, for their hope in God’s promise to Israel and they clarify the content of that promise: life forever with God in the glory of the resurrection.
Here we have an Old Testament book witnessing to the faith in the resurrection of the dead (in B.C. times certainly a controverted article of faith which the Sadducees refused to accept), the faith we profess, which took on substance and clarity in Jesus’ teaching and in His victory over sin and death (A.D.). It is in this sense that the Letter to the Hebrews certainly has also in mind the heroism and faith of this mother and her sons and how by faith they saluted from afar the Risen One (Heb. 11:13-16; 32-39):
 “Inhuman fiend, you may discharge us from this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up, since it is for his laws that we die, to live again for ever… 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.” (2nd Maccabees 7)
          The mother and her seven sons suffered brutal torture and death confident that their victory was in the hands of the King of the world whom they worshipped. For them nothing was to be gained by winning the favor of any worldly king or potentate who cannot restore life to the dead or preserve himself from that obligatory passage through the gates of death. St. Paul (as we read this Sunday in his 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians) likewise knew all too clearly that ultimately at issue in the fight were not custom, usage or moral message, but that sure hope which comes from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ himself. He is God of the living, not the dead, for in Him all are in fact alive.
          Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire just reviewed a recent Clint Eastwood film called “Hereafter”. It would seem that the object of the movie is to make a statement about “life” or “something like existence” beyond the grave. It would seem the movie tries to do so without reference to God. The mother and her seven sons from Maccabees, St. Paul and we too must stand speechless and sad that anyone, including Clint Eastwood, would make an effort to comfort people as they face the big existential question, while denying the power and presence of the King of the world.
O Comforter, to Thee we cry, Thou Gift of God sent from on high, Thou Font of Life, Thou Fire of Love, and sweet Anointing from Above…
Hollywood has once again shown its allegiance and opted for the favor of worldly potentates, opinion makers, of those sad creatures skulking about, hell-bent on poisoning the well, or as it says elsewhere: seeking the ruin of souls.
          “Jesus replied, ‘The children of this world take wives and husbands, but those who are judged worthy of a place in the other world and in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as the angels, and being children of the resurrection they are sons of God.”
          The Sadducees opposing Jesus saw nothing except the here and now; even today and beyond Hollywood there are many who live only for the moment. I can remember as a young priest in the late 1970’s hearing some writer or prominent Catholic speaker promoting a more serious or committed approach to marriage preparation as an antidote to divorce. He held the opinion that the ordinary form of marriage preparation back then in the U.S. was a bad first marriage. The problem is not so simply described. With time and experience we have learned that only exceptionally does the second attempt net better results than the impetuous first try. Marriage preparation, no matter how long or how excellent, cannot always supply the deficiencies of a faith upbringing cut short, or cope for the lack of support most couples and families have to face when trials or hardships come their way. Nor does it successfully confront a lifestyle bent on a measure of quality which does not surpass the moment or the celebration of the here and now.
The Sadducees are as good a reminder as any that our own day and time has no corner on the market of short-sightedness or the urge for immediate gratification. Many would insist that faithfulness in marriage, for instance, is imposed from outside; few people are convinced of the overarching value of “sticking it out”, of really living the marriage vows as recited. Common parlance would insist that the law and social pressure kept my grandparents (for whom wedding bells rang over a century ago) together a whole life long. The longer I live the more I see the half truth in all of this. The mindset of the Sadducees is what is really telling. Faith in the resurrection from the dead, hope in the sovereignty of the King of the world, love for Christ, Who gave Himself up for all of us, it is in such that the everyday heroism of faithfulness in matrimony and much more is grounded. Too bad there aren’t statistics concerning O.T. divorce among Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, as opposed to Pharisees, who did!
          Many out there would insist that more believing does not necessarily mean more faithful, whether it be to a partner in marriage or to Christ Jesus Himself. But that is not really the point. The point has to do with perspective and where my hope lies. Most places in the world fewer young people are presenting themselves for marriage. Some hastily tack a signboard on the phenomenon which reads: FEAR OF COMMITMENT. More accurately perhaps we might be said to find ourselves standing speechless before the general tenor of a society worse than that of the Sadducees, who at least attempted to live on in their progeny, children and grandchildren, who before dying and returning to dust brought them the joy of seeing themselves young again or at least their same color of eyes or their dimples or the way they gimp along repeated, the spitting image of his dad or of her mom even as different as we snowflakes are from one another. The notion of a culture of death makes many bristle, but what is it when you encounter so many today who without God in their world or hope of a world to come go one worse than the Sadducees and also deny themselves the joy of seeing themselves in their children.
          In a sense, there is no crossover or reconciliation between the mother and her seven sons and their executioners; there can only be contrast between the Sadducees and Jesus: “Jesus replied, ‘The children of this world take wives and husbands, but those who are judged worthy of a place in the other world and in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as the angels, and being children of the resurrection they are sons of God.”
          In both cases, however, we as third parties, as witnesses have the choice of choosing whether to rally to the standard of the King of the world or to conform our lives to the dictates of the movers and the shakers for whom there is no resurrection. It’s too easy to make a desperate attempt to cling to the glitter and the fanfare; the invitation is to choose life really, life in its fullness.
The month of November, which commends to our prayers the Poor Souls in Purgatory, reminds us of the choice which is ours as well, that life is much more both here and now and in the glory of the resurrection:
“In him, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven. And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim your glory and in their unending hymn of praise…”(Preface of Christian Death I)
          The clarity and determination of the mother and her seven sons from the book of Maccabees might be a rarity in the face of social pressure, but this does not excuse us from striving to enter by the narrow gate, of opting for the road less traveled, of throwing in our lot with the King of the world.

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