Today’s readings: 2 Maccabees 7,1-2.9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2, 16 - 3, 5; Luke 20, 27-38.
The first reading from Maccabees today deals mainly with the Jewish struggle for religious and political independence. The author was concerned for the faith which he perceives to be at stake in the struggle between pagan infiltration and ancestral custom. The reading, which dates to circa 124 BCE, is important for its affirmation of the resurrection of the dead. It was relatively late in the day that Judaism formulated its belief in life after death.
This belief about the resurrection of the dead, contested even in today’s gospel account by the Sadducees, is pivotal to the entirety of the Christian faith. Yet it is not the easiest aspect of our faith to speak about, let alone to explain or to convincingly transmit. This is particularly the case if we take the same stance of the Sadducees confronting Jesus, whereby they practically seek to understand the resurrection as if after death there is simply an extension of life here on earth.
Unfortunately, very often this has been our way of going about it, seeking to depict how our ‘earthly’ life would linger on in an imaginary world where, after all, there is no time and space. We need to be extra cautious here because we are threading on delicate ground, so we cannot afford to sound ridiculous or nonsensical.
It is quite understandable that in the context of the culture we live in, much of what we have always perpetuated as doctrine on this aspect of our faith needs revisiting and much rethinking. Jesus in the gospel actually refrains from replying directly to the Sadducees’ objection. He switches to another wavelength because we cannot speak about the afterlife in the same bodily categories of life here on earth.
In this context, even the struggle of the Jews as narrated in Maccabees sounds very timely. How can we today speak about the resurrection of the dead without simplistically imagining ourselves just relaxed for eternity on comfortable couches doing nothing, not even waiting for time to pass? This belief in ‘life everlasting’, as we say in the Creed, is basically our belief in God who is the God of the living, who could not have created us simply to melt down to nothingness one fine day.
We are presumably all lovers of life. We hate all that disturbs the harmony of living and whatever dampens the true sense of living. In our digital age when we still face startling existential questions, we have first and foremost to grasp the aesthetics of human living and dwell more on the idea of wholeness in order to speak sensibly on the resurrection of our bodies. Believing or not believing, we all acknowledge that at the moment of our death the process of decomposition in our bodies starts.
This is simply stating the facts. Belief concerns deeper truths and goes beyond the empirical. This is not a way of secularising discourse about the resurrection or of making it refer merely to this side of life. But I consider it of utmost importance to grasp that Christianity, while providing us with a way of seeing the world as it is, provokes us to aim and hope to transform it. Resurrection boils down to the completion of our redemption which has its beginning in our earthly life and in our bodies.
As Russian author Valentin Tomberg writes in his book Covenant of the Heart, the life of the world to come is the life of the resurrected world which through Christianity is proclaimed, prepared, introduced, believed in, hoped for, and striven after. The future world is the process of resurrection in the spiritual history of mankind and the world. It is not to be seen simply as phase two following phase one but separated from it.
The resurrection we believe in is the transformation of our history, of a cosmos groaning with pain like that of childbirth. It is the antidote to all that can be decadent in the way we live and in the way our lives are constructed and shaped. It is the transfiguration of all that disfigures God’s image in creation and in us; it opens a window on God’s saving presence, which is essentially what constitutes the beyond.