(Saint Bernardine’s Church, Regents Park: Saturday 6pm; Sunday 7.30am & 9am)
9/10 November 2013
[Readings: 2 Macc 7:1-2, 9-13; Ps 16; 2 Thess 2:16-3:5; Lk 20:27-38]
Belief in the resurrection of the dead was not something that was part of Jewish belief from the beginning. Basing their belief on what’s found in the first five books of the Old Testament, the dead went to live “a kind of shadowy existence in the underworld called Sheol” (or Hades).  People “lived on” in their descendents, which was the reason for the law referred to in the Gospel: if a man died leaving a widow with no children, his brothers were required to marry her, and to have children, so that property would be handed on within the immediate family.
Belief in the resurrection of the dead was an understanding that developed. It came about at a time when the Jews were under intense persecution. Many Jewish practices were done away with; temple worship was abolished, and a pagan altar set up in the Temple. But most important was the rise of martyrs for the faith. Some were prepared to die for their beliefs, rather than give way, and the reason why they were prepared to do this was because they believed that this life was not the end. We see this emerging belief in the resurrection of the dead most clearly in the Books of Maccabees, from which our First Reading today is taken.
What the seven brothers profess before they are martyred is a far cry from the belief in a shadowy existence in the underworld after death. Their belief turns everything on its head. Their death will not be the end of their life; in fact you get the strong impression that their death will release them for something better. The life they will have after death is one that will last forever. It is one in which things that were lost in this life will be restored. Ultimately, their faith is in an all-powerful God who is Lord even of death, and who has given them a promise that they will be raised up again after earthly death, and that the Lord is utterly trustworthy. Trustworthy enough that they will endure whatever comes their way during this life, trusting in God’s promises.
While some scoffed at this emerging belief in the resurrection – namely the Sadducees – we see that it is something that is taken up by Jesus and affirmed. The belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. And of course, Jesus’ own life is the pattern after which we hope to follow, namely his life, death and resurrection.
During November we traditionally pray for the Holy Souls in purgatory. This practice affirms our connection – in the communion of saints – with those who have gone before us. The souls in purgatory are on their way to heaven, but are experiencing their final purification. The love of God is something that burns away iniquity and anything that is not of God. The Holy Souls need to be set free from any lingering attachment to sin, and they are made pure so that they can enter into the presence of God and see Him face to face.
In praying for the Holy Souls we are celebrating the life of heaven to which God calls us. A life that is without end. It is a life that will surprise us, and perhaps one that we truly don’t comprehend here on earth. So much of what we do, especially in our faith, is a symbol of the life of heaven. But because they are symbols and not the reality, they always fall short, and ultimately will pass away, as symbols will not be necessary in heaven, because there we will know the fullness of God, and not need any images or symbols. We won’t need reminders of his love, because we will be totally filled with His love.
Every eucharist we celebrate points us to heaven, because in it we celebrate the saving death and resurrection of Christ. Every holy communion we make has within it the promise of eternity, because we receive the living body of Jesus, who will raise our mortal bodies after death and make them like his own. It’s like a “seed” of eternal life, planted in our hearts, that will one day burst forth into life, after it is has died in the sleep of death, just as grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die before it springs forth in new life.
Let’s assist the Holy Souls in purgatory with our prayers, sacrifices and fasting, especially by having Mass offered for them. And let us do all that with our hearts joyfully looking forward to the eternity God promises us with Him, an eternal life whose beauty, peace and joy surpasses whatever we can experience or even imagine here below.
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 Terrence Prendergast, SJ, Living God’s Word: Reflections on the Sunday Readings for Year C, Toronto, Novalis, 2012.