As we come to the end of the Liturgical Year, Holy Mother Church gently directs our attention to our own end. Our first reading takes us to the famous Seven Maccabees of the Jewish persecutions from 167-160 BC. The Syrian Greeks under Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to force the children of Israel to deny the living God. Seven brothers refused to blaspheme. They were tortured and executed in front of their mother. The third does not wait for them to cut off his hands: he holds them out and declares: “I received these from God, and I hope He will restore them in the next life.” A good meditation on death is to look at your hand and reflect that someday that warm and rosy hand will be nothing but a dried-up bone. And yet, God will restore that shriveled bone someday. Many mock our belief that these bodies of ours, after decomposition in the grave, will be raised up faster, stronger, more beautiful than before. The Greeks taught that men become ghosts after death, mere shadows, joyless because they are bodiless. The Jews, however, believed in a bodily existence after death, either a shining glorified body in heaven, or a putrid horrifying body in hell. But not all Jews believed in the resurrection of the body.
Seven Brothers and One Bride: the Wedding Feast of the Lamb
The Sadducees, who deny the resurrection, mock Jesus in today’s gospel. They were upper class, wealthy and well educated, a kind of “liberal” Jewish denomination compared to the “conservative” Pharisees. Like today’s cultural elites, they sought bodily health, social position, and political power as ends in themselves. In their wealth, they belittled the spiritual aspirations of the poor and ridiculed life after death. Jesus describes them as short-sighted, because this life, as good as it is, cannot satisfy us for long. To be happy on earth, we must set our sights on a further horizon, on the life of the world to come.
A few years ago I bought an “LG” flat screen TV for the rectory. Do you know what LG stands for? It stands for “Life is Good.” And life is good, but life is more than a flat screen TV. I looked up the biggest baddest TV I could find on the internet—it was a 100” Laser HD TV with octaphonic sound (retails at $9000). Guess who makes it? You guessed it—Life is Good (LG). The Sadducees, like most wealthy elites, were relatively satisfied with their giant screen TVs, so to speak, and could not see beyond them. Jesus tells them to expect more than the flatness of this life, to expect the glorification of this beautiful but imperfect body in another life.
The Sadducees tell another story of seven brothers who died one by one, but these brothers had all married the same woman one after the other before dying. The Sadducees smile condescendingly at Jesus: “So, in heaven, if there is a resurrection, whose wife will she be—remember, all seven married her!” Jesus sighs. You are quite mistaken, he tells them. You can’t see any further than your flat screen TVs. There’s another world coming, compared to which this world is hell. Look to that world. Because if you don’t, you will end up in real hell.
Interestingly, the Sadducees speak of marriage. For the Sadducees, as for the social elites of today, marriage is about two things: sex and social position. These are good things, but even the greatest goods of marriage (spousal love and procreating children) will not be needed in heaven. Espousal to the eternal God—and the perfect harmony among the saints—will infinitely surpass any joy on earth. Just beholding the face of God (the “beatific vision”) satisfies every human longing. Do you think we will need flat screen TVs in heaven?
The Month of the Dead; the Month of the Living
November is the month of the dead: All Saints Day and All Souls Day urge us to cast off our fear of death and vigorously expect a life of glory beyond the grave. A few years ago my bishop ordered all us priests to write our last will and testaments, to draw up end-of-life healthcare directives, and to plan our own funerals. We all put it off—who wants to plan your own funeral at age 35? But I finally got it done just before the deadline. What a joy I felt as I dropped that envelope in the mail—I was packed and ready to go. Just say the word, Lord, and I’m on my way!
Life is good down here, but it’s only a shadow of what awaits us up there. Those who lie in Santa Paula cemetery with crosses over their graves—they are the living, and we are the ghosts, stumbling blindly through this Vale of Tears and disappointments.
Holy Mary, Pray for us at the Hour of our Death
We do well to turn to Our Lady, Our Mother, at the end of our lives: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” There’s a beautiful third verse to the Hail Holy Queen:
And when our life’s breath leaves us, O Maria!
Show us thy son Christ Jesus, O Maria!
Our Lady stands ready to receive us at our last breath. Accompanied by angels and saints, she will bring us to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to the eternal and perfect community that awaits each one who lives his life on earth in preparation for the life of the world to come.