Thursday, November 7, 2013

We cannot live without the resurrection

Thirty Second Ordinary Sunday Year C

On his first trip outside the province of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI made known to the world the powerful message left by the martyrs of Abitene. In the year 304, a group of Christians from the town of Abitine in North Africa gathered on Sunday, in defiance of orders from Emperor Diocletian, for the celebration of Mass.  They were “caught” and promptly hauled into court.  When asked why they disobeyed, one of the worshippers, Emeritus, gave this simple and profound answer: “Sine Dominico non possumus(We cannot live without Sunday). Emeritus and 48 others eventually died martyrs’ deaths because they simply could not live without Sunday, without the Eucharist. They died knowing that death was not the worst thing that could happen to them. A worst thing would be a death without the resurrection.

The term ‘dominicum’ has a triple meaning. First, it indicates the Lord’s Day, Sunday. Secondly, it points to the occasion for the celebration of the Mass. This group of Christians possessed the deep conviction that Sunday Mass is a constitutive element of one’s Christian identity and that there is no Christian life without Sunday and without the Eucharist. Lastly, and this is the point we hope to consider this Sunday is the content of the Lord’s Day – it was the day Christians commemorated the resurrection of Christ. Sunday is the day Christians throughout the whole world declare unabashedly their faith in the resurrection, “Jesus is Risen”. This disarmingly simple statement and all that it implies has radically altered the course of human events and inspired thousands of Christians to go to their death, rather than to renounce their faith in the one who promises them eternal life. For Christ’s rising has become the pledge of our own rising and his strength has become our strength.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is calling us to remember that God’s care is not limited to this world, and that the successes and failures of this age are not ultimate. He is calling us to remember that we are not children of this age, but of the resurrection. And Jesus himself and his resurrection are our guarantee that God can overcome all things, even death. In the gospel we are introduced to a group called the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the priestly aristocracy among the Jews by whom the political life of the people was largely controlled from the time of Alexander the Great onwards. The Sadducees were disenchanted with the traditions of the Pharisees, they rejected the extended canon of Scriptures, the concept of the resurrection of the dead, and the existence of angels and spirits, and they leaned heavily on the role of the responsibility of man. The belief in resurrection or the rejection of this doctrine, therefore, became the signature difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees thought of the kingdom in terms of the present, not in terms of the future. The kingdom to them (especially since they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead) is now.

Seen in this light, we can understand the hypocrisy behind the Sadducees’ hypothetical question of the one bride and the seven brothers. This is not a search for the truth. The Sadducees do not expect, indeed, do not want, an answer. They were asking Jesus about something they didn’t believe. Indeed, they were seeking to establish their premise that belief in a resurrection from the dead is both unbiblical and impractical. They hope to stump Jesus, and thus to demonstrate how “foolish” ideas of a resurrection from the dead are. If Jesus, the most noted teacher alive, could be stumped by their question, then He would become (reluctantly) an endorsement for their view. But it would be they who would be stumped.

Jesus’ answer to the Sadducee’s hypothetical scenario is direct and devastating. He speaks of two ages, “this age” and “that age,” which are very different from each other. The kingdom of God will be very different from the way things are now. I recall the words of Pope Benedict, “We could regard the Resurrection as something akin to a radical evolutionary leap, in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence.” There will be no death, there will be no bearing of children, and there will be no marriage. Thus, the theoretical problem posed by the Sadducees is erroneous and non-existent. Resurrection will pose no problem for husbands and wives. Marriage is for now, but not for heaven.

The message of this week’s readings is an important reminder of the central importance of the belief in the resurrection. It is truly a pity and ironic that most people do not feel this way. The degree to which we believe in the resurrection of the dead will determine the way we presently live. If we are assured of our own resurrection, we will boldly stand for Christ, neither fearing man, nor death. If we are certain of a future life in God’s kingdom, entered into by means of resurrection, then we will look at this life very differently. We will be encouraged to lay up treasures in heaven, rather than to hoard wealth on earth. The commands of our Lord to “sell our possessions, and to give to the poor” can now be seen as God’s gracious imperatives, designed to stimulate in us a hunger for heaven.

The resurrection also throws new light on our present sufferings. The resurrection reminds us that death is not the end of everything. For those who believe in the resurrection, death wields no finality. Faith in the resurrection allows us to see our sufferings as temporary. Faith in the resurrection gives us hope in order to bear the pains, disappointments, hurts, and sufferings which we experience throughout life. Faith in the resurrection allows us to see that God promises us life and not death.

There is one other important point that we shouldn’t miss in this passage. Admittedly marriage is not the primary point of teaching here but Jesus did reveal something important about our understanding of marriage, although there simply isn’t time and space to develop this topic fully. Marriage was instituted by God from the very beginning as his ideal plan for humans to live in community in this age but Jesus here reveals that marriage will not last in its present form in the age to come. This is important because it means that there must be a specific purpose for marriage in this age beyond two people coming together to form a union for eternity. St Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians reveals that there is a purpose for marriage that stretches beyond marriage itself. He says distinctly that that marriage is a great mystery that teaches human beings about the truth of the relationship between Christ and his Church. The institution of marriage is not something designed to make humans happy but it is the context in which we can develop the holiness that God calls us to have as his people and to learn about the reconciliation between God and his people. Thus in a sacramental marriage between two baptised individuals, marriage is no longer just divinely instituted human institution – marriage is a means and path to salvation.

In spite of whatever we experience in this life, in spite of all the difficulties we may encounter, we live with the hope of the resurrection. This hope is what St. Paul is speaking about in the second reading: “the Lord is faithful, and he will give you strength and guard you from the evil one.” Whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, whenever we gather on the Lord’s Day to celebrate the commemorative meal of our salvation, we should call to mind the words of the martyrs of Abitene, Sine dominico non possumus”, “We cannot live without Sunday, without the hope of the resurrection!” Because Christ who died for us now lives, death no longer wields the final blow; death has become the passage to fuller life.

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