Sunday Homily – 32nd Sunday C
Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5
If you happen to visit Flemington (Melbourne, Australia) for the Spring Racing Carnival, you will see on display a stunning crop of beautiful roses. But a few days later, they will start to wither and die. This is the lot of all living beings on earth. Eventually they all wither and die. This includes human beings, even though we generally last much longer than flowers.
When I was young, I felt so alive, so strong, and so energetic, that I could not imagine myself as dying or dead. It was hard to think that way of any of my immediate family either. But in 1975 my father died, in 1991 my mother, in 2001 my sister Marie, in 2006 both my sister Eileen and my brother Pat, and in 2021 my sister, Stella. Now with all those experiences behind me, it’s a lot clearer than it was then, that I too am destined to die.
What about you, Brothers and Sisters? Can you imagine yourself dying or dead? I wonder what your thoughts and feelings are about this. What questions do you have about the end of your life on earth? Does the prospect of your death fill you with fear and dread, or have you accepted that it’s something normal and natural? Will your relationship with God then, be different from what it is now? Do you expect to meet your loved ones again after you’ve gone from this world? Do you see yourself as passing away into nothingness or as passing over into the embrace of the God of life and love?
All our questions and concerns about this are connected with the incident in today’s gospel. At the time of Jesus, one of the powerful groups confronting him was the Sadducees. They were religious fundamentalists. They accepted no development in religious insight and teachings beyond the first five books of the bible. Because the Pentateuch (the first five books) had nothing to say about life after death, they strongly denied it. They knew, however, that Jesus did believe in life after death. So, they decided to ridicule and humiliate him about life after life. They put this silly scenario to him. There was this woman, they said, who married seven times to seven brothers. In the next life, whose wife will she be?
Even though they are trying to bait Jesus, he answers them politely and courteously. He insists that there is real life for good human beings after this one. We survive death. We are not annihilated. We don’t pass into nothingness. But in many ways, the life to come is quite different from our experience of life now. Thus, in heaven, where we hope to be with God forever, there is no getting married and no sexual union. When good people die, they pass into the embrace of God. They meet God, and they meet their loved ones in God. They enjoy the company of God forever. In the presence of God, there will be no more sadness, crying, grieving, worrying, and anxiety. In their union with God, they will be, permanently happy.
A story may help our understanding. A little girl was waiting in an airport lounge to board a plane. She was so excited that she kept bouncing up and down. ‘Little one, where are you going?’ her mother asked. ‘To Granny! To Granny! To Granny!’, the child kept saying over and over again. Her answer helps to illustrate the point Jesus was making about the afterlife. We should not think of it so much as going to a place as being with a person, i.e., with our great, wonderful, interesting, fascinating God, who is Life and Love Itself.
Sometimes I look at the Death and Memorial Notices in “The Sun” or “The Age” newspapers. I’m intrigued by the sheer number of people, religious and non-religious, who show that they believe strongly in life after death. They get that much correct. But some of the things they say about it suggest that they imagine that life after death is simply a continuation of life as they experience it now. Thus, they talk about looking down from the sky, having a beer with their buddies, eating Sunday lunch with Mama, and enjoying her pasta once again. Rugby union players, perhaps with tongue in cheek, claim that their game is the one that is played in heaven.
The facts of faith, though, are that good people survive death, and after being purified, go to God in heaven. But their life with God is not identical to the life they live now. The famous Preface for Christian Death sums up the matter beautifully when it prays: ‘For your faithful people, Lord, life is changed, not ended.’ But even though it is a new life we hope and expect to live, that life has already begun. It has begun now in our relationships with God and with our fellow human beings.
How important it is, then, to live in harmony with God in the here and now, to live life in loving ways, to live it in friendship with God! For, as a very wise saying has it: ‘As we live, so we die. And as we die, so we stay!’
Brian Gleeson is a Passionist priest, and a member of the Passionist community in Endeavour Hills, Melbourne.