2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
‘He is God, not of the dead, but of the living;for to him all people are in fact alive’ (Luke 20:38)
|The Resurrection (Detail) - Holy Thorn Reliquiary - British Museum|
November is the month traditionally dedicated to prayer for the departed and consequently also for contemplation about the life to come. The month opens with the twin celebrations of All Saints and All Souls, encompasses Remembrance Sunday and it concludes with the Solemnity of Christ the King, when we look forward to all creation being restored and gathered up under the sovereign rule of the Lord Jesus. So, today’s first reading and gospel helpfully lead us to meditate about one of the central beliefs about the life to come; the resurrection of the dead.
If we put aside the gory details of the first reading, the Second Book of Maccabees shows us how a group of Jewish martyrs readily forfeit their lives rather than to break God’s Law, because of their unshakable faith in the reward of resurrection and new life. In the gospel the Sadducees argue against resurrection because of the limits of earthly existence. They, like many people of our times, cannot imagine another possibility for existence and relationship with God. But Jesus promptly corrects their unsound faith by affirming that to God ‘all people are alive’, meaning that death does not preclude relationship with God or the transformation of human existence. But as we look through these texts and we read expressions such as “resurrection” and “new life” it may be easy to overlook their full meaning because we are so used to hear them that we may have become desensitised. At every Mass we also proclaim the resurrection of the Lord; and every Sunday we put our faith in this new life as we say,
‘We look for the resurrection of the dead,and the life of the world to come.’
So, let us look at what faith in the resurrection means. First, the resurrection is a mystery, meaning something which we glimpse in Jesus but that transcends our best and wildest imaginings. So much so that throughout the history of Christianity theologians have advanced many different speculations about the resurrection – some quite helpful, others rather misguided. My favourite one was popular in the middle ages and it stated that we all shall be resurrected at 33 years of age, because that is the age at which Jesus is thought risen.
Second, resurrection is a gift from God to share in his life; it is not individualistic but an invitation to be fully alive with and in God; certainly it is not the belief (quite widespread nowadays) that once I die I’ll have my little cloud or something airy-fairy like that. It is not a vague belief in an afterlife, but faith in attaining direct vision of God in the heavenly Jerusalem described in the book of Revelation.
Third, resurrection is physical, but not about a mere reanimation of bodies; we don’t believe we will be zombies or the actual walking dead. Resurrection is about radical and complete transformation our nature and of the whole of creation by the one who promises ‘a new earth and a new heaven’ (Isaiah 65:17; Revelation/Apocalypse 21:1).
And finally, this transformation is already taking place among us; when we endeavour to live the Christian life – striving to do everything to God’s glory, to be forgiving, generous, faithful, and prayerful – we see the effects of God’s transfiguring power within ourselves. This transformation will go on after death in the purification of our souls and their preparation to enter God’s life ever more fully. Ultimately, this transformation will be completed at the end time, sometimes called the “general resurrection” when we and the whole of creation will be restored to that glory the Father envisaged from the beginning, and “God will be all in all”, as Scripture tells us (Cf. 1Corinthians 15:28).
However, as much as we try to pin down a full picture of the resurrection, we won’t be able to in this life. It is much better to “experience” resurrection through our worship. Yes, experience. At Baptism God raises us from the death of sin to begin to share the risen life of Jesus – or to put it in other terms, at Baptism God enables in us the resurrection-mode. In our vigils, such as the Easter Vigil, we move from darkness into light to manifest the transformation that is happening in us, that we are moving towards the resurrection; in our participation to the Mass we share the Eucharist as a token of that feast which awaits us in God’s presence; and when we pray before the Blessed Sacrament we come into the presence of the Risen Lord, the one who says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25).
A mystery manifested first in the risen Christ and available for us to experience through worship, an invitation to join the life of God, a free gift and reward, a physical and radical transformation of our nature beyond our mortal confinements; these are all ways to interpret the resurrection. To go beyond these with lofty speculations would be to miss the point. The point is that we believe that eternal and fully human relationship with God is possible, for God is the God of the living, ‘for to him all people are in fact alive’.