Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Mac 7:1-14; 2 Thess 2:16-3:5; Lk 20:34-38

The month of November started off as it usually does with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Appropriately that leads into a month-long consideration of our Catholic belief in the last things, which culminates in the feast of Christ the King—that feast which symbolizes the second and glorious coming of Jesus Christ. This concludes the whole cycle of the Liturgical year which celebrates all the major mysteries of Christ’s life. Then we start over again with Advent.

On this and the next two Sundays the scripture readings will be concerned with topics of the last things—broadly considered as death, judgment, heaven and hell. But actually it includes a much broader array of topics like resurrection, purgatory, limbo, beatific vision, second coming, and so on. Today’s readings all touch upon the issue of "life after death." The reading from the second book of Maccabees (written around 150BC) is one of the earliest expressions in the biblical tradition of a belief in an afterlife. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians refers to the "everlasting encouragement and hope that God has given to us." And Jesus, in the gospel passage, speaks clearly of "the age to come" in which the "dead will rise." So the issue today is clearly that of a life after death. But what will that "life" look like?

Human beings have been trying to answer that for thousands of years. If we go back over two thousand years before Christ, we find the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian cultures expressing their belief that the future life is going to be a great deal like the present one we are living in. That’s presumably why they were buried with their favorite clothes, foods, pets, games and even servants (who unfortunately had to be killed to be buried with their owners). That was the simplest description of the future life. Later descriptions were sometimes much more extravagant. In the future life we will be like angels, or like stars in the sky, of some other fantastic concoction. This same kind of imaginative thinking continued in Christianity. The church father Origen suggested that we would all rise from the dead as little balls, because the sphere was the perfect shape in Platonic philosophy. And St. Gregory of Nyssa worried about, in cases of cannibalism, which one would get the "matter" in the resurrected life. There’s still a lot of bizarre thinking like this in some contemporary Catholic writers. They give very exact descriptions of what life after death will be like. These are usually based on a very literal reading of the book of Revelation in the New Testament and some private visions of individuals. But there’s a problem with too much exactness.

This difficulty is clearly recognized in official Catholic teaching. Consider this quote from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter on Certain Questions concerning Eschatology (1979). "Neither Scripture nor theology provides sufficient light for an exact and proper picture of life after death. Christians must firmly hold the two following essential points: on the one hand, they must believe in the fundamental continuity, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, between our present life in Christ and the future life.....; on the other hand, they must clearly be aware of the radical break between the present life and the future one...." (p. 6) So we will be able to identify ourselves, but our condition will be completely different. That’s about all we have to go on.

The prayers of the liturgy are pretty sober about expressing "life after death." I like especially the opening prayers of the last two Sunday liturgies, prayers that we heard several times during the weekdays: "May we do with loving hearts what you ask of us and come to share the life you promise." And last Sunday’s: "God of power and mercy....may we live the faith we profess and trust your promise of eternal life." That says it sweetly and sharply. We believe in a future life because of God’s promise. So when my time comes, I say: "Surprise me!"

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