Among Catholic Christians, autumn is a particularly amazing season. And that’s not just because of the momentous challenge facing the American people on Tuesday. Traditionally, November has long been counted as the month of the dead. Even the octave of All Saints Day has been celebrated as a memorial. In many countries, it commemorates national saints and martyrs, and in various religious orders and congregations, including the Dominicans, we observe the anniversaries of all our deceased members, families, and friends.
Catholics seem to some outside observers to be preoccupied with death, and to some degree that is true. We pray for the dead, we pray for a happy death, we remind ourselves on Ash Wednesday — one of the most popular celebrations in the church year — that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Only now would all this seem odd or unhealthy. For we live in an era, as Dr. Ernest Becker eloquently reminded us a couple of decades ago, in which the denial of death has assumed major psychological and social proportions. But it is the denial of death, as dear old Sigmund Freud himself recognized, that is truly unhealthy. Worse yet, the more we deny death, the more it dominates our life and our culture. And if truth be told, the more death triumphs in so many ways from war to suicide. Catholic Christianity, on the other hand, like many other religious traditions, unflinchingly looks death in the face and thus robs it of its power to terrorize. For death is not the end of the story. It is only a prelude.
And so, today when we find the liturgy of the word dwelling on the mystery of death and resurrection, we should hardly be surprised, nor, especially, frightened or disappointed. For the message these readings bear is one of hope and glory.
The account from the second Book of the Maccabees tells of the heroic faith of seven brothers and their mother, who faced excruciating tortures rather than deny their faith. At this moment in late Jewish history, the family’s resolution was steadied by an unshakable confidence in the resurrection of the dead, in which God would vindicate those who had sacrificed everything to remain true: “…since it is for his laws that we die, the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.”
To the anxious Christians of Thessalonica, Paul, too, speaks of comfort and strength based on the love, grace, and hope that comes only from God. “May the Lord turn your hearts toward the love of God and the fortitude of Christ,” he prays, for, as with the Maccabean brothers and their mother, “God is faithful and will give you strength and guard you from the evil one…” Dark days lay ahead, and he knew it.
The Gospel passage resumes the theme of hope and confidence. It is not about marriage or Jesus’ attitude toward marriage. It is about the resurrection of the dead, which the Sadducees denied. Behind the not-so-clever question they put to Jesus lies the Levirate Law, by which if a married man dies without producing offspring, his widow was required to marry his brother, her brother-in-law or levir. This was to perpetuate the brother’s name — his lineage, honor, and inheritance, according to Deuteronomy 25:5-10. But in the life to come, Jesus tells them, there will be no need for the Levirate Law because there will be no need to raise up descendants to replace those who die. Perpetuating the family name and inheritance will no longer matter. Such things belong to this world and pass away with it. There would be no need to impose such awful conditions on a widow.
But Jesus does not say there will be no friendship, no relationship between husbands and wives, or between children and parents, as a young married couple I know were led to fear by a well-meaning priest who used this passage to insist that marriage was for this life only. Jesus’ favorite image of the Life to Come is, after all, a great marriage feast.
Moreover, being like the angels does not mean being immaterial: Jesus, with the Pharisees whose teachings he shared, believed firmly in the resurrection of the body. Rather, just as angels cannot die, so, too, those who have been raised will never die again: “…being children of the resurrection, they are children of God.” God is not the King of Death, but the Lord and Giver of Life.
There are no dead people in the sight of God. All are alive, eternally. Every moment is now, and there is no elsewhere. Where the presence of God is felt, there, too, are all those who have preceded us into the light of glory, whose presence to God does not differ from our own. The only difference lies on our side, limited as we are by boundaries of space and time that also prevent us from being fully attentive to the that glorifying presence.
Why, then, do we remember the dead? Why do we pray for them? First of all, not lest they be forgotten. No one is forgotten in God’s sight. We remember those who have died because it is well for us the living to have their memory before us as a constant reminder of our hope and faith in God and as models of our own inevitable Passover and resurrection. They have gone before us; they are not part of the past.
We pray for the dead, secondly, so that they may be forgiven any sins that might hinder their entry into the living presence of God, as Judas Maccabeus said a century and a half before Christ. We pray for them, not to satisfy some debt or obligation, but to remember and strengthen our bonds with those we love in this life and the next, to recall and enact our solidarity with the whole people of God. We pray for them, so that they will pray for us, a holy exchange of care and concern that creates and unites the communion of saints. And we pray for those who have gone ahead in the hope that when we follow them, our loved ones, friends, and family will likewise remember us, as we will remember them.
So let us pray for those who have on ahead, so that living eternally in the presence of God, they will remember us when as children of the resurrection they shine like the stars among the all the holy ones. And that we may be found worthy to join them.