This coming Thursday is Veterans Day, the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War and now a day dedicated to the memory of all who served our country in the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. North of the border in Canada (and in other Commonwealth countries), it’s called Remembrance Day. In the 6 years I served at our parish in Toronto, one always knew Remembrance Day was coming when one started to see practically everyone wearing an artificial poppy. Poppies, parades, the laying of wreaths – all these rituals are ways we remember those who have died.
I was a seminarian in Washington, DC, when the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated. People come constantly to that wall of names to find and honor the name of someone they knew. They’re just names, of course, but there is still something very special about them, because someone has written them – and someone remembers them. I also recall how, in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001, something similar happened in New York – in makeshift shrines in front of firehouses and other places – names and pictures of people being remembered.
Surely, our ability to remember is one of the things that makes us most distinctly human. When we remember those who have died, we recognize the humanity we share together. We remember that, like us, they also lived once, and that, like them, we too will surely die. That is why the regular rituals of remembrance – for example, the Rosary we will recite together at our parish cemetery this Sunday afternoon – are so important – not so much for the dead, but for us, the living, and indeed for the very fabric of society.
The famous story in today’s 1st reading [2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14] about seven brothers and their mother, who would rather die than disobey God’s law, was written to remember those heroes from the great war which Israel fought for its freedom in the 2nd century BC, against all who advocated accommodation to the dominant secular culture of the time. But, in remembering those martyrs, the story also celebrates their faith that God would raise them up to live again forever.
Two centuries later, there was still a group in Israel – the cultured elite known in the Gospels as the Sadducees – who lived without any hope of future resurrection, just as there are many people today, who live their lives believing that this is all there is and all that there will ever be (for, as St. Paul pointedly acknowledges in today’s reading from his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians [2:16-35], not all have faith).
If, in fact, this life is all there is, then, of course, one’s only immortality will be one’s children. So, in such a world the worst thing that could happen would be to die leaving no one behind to continue one’s name. Hence, the special provision in the Law, that required the brother of a man who had died childless to raise up descendants for his brother. The Sadducees used this practice to ridicule even the very idea of a future resurrected life [Luke 20:27-38].
The Sadducees’ problem, however, was precisely their inability even to imagine anything at all different from this present life – a life limited, indeed defined, by death. It reminds me of something Richard Goodwin wrote in the magazine The New Yorker back in 1967. Regarding the assumed rules of politics, Goodwin wrote “The rules are only a summary of what’s happened before. The trick is in trying to see what’s going to happen next.”
As Jesus quickly pointed out to the befuddled Sadducees, in the resurrected life the original reason behind that Mosaic marriage law will no longer apply, because there will be no more dying, no need to continue one’s name from generation to generation. We will still be ourselves. We’re not going to change into somebody – or something – else, as reincarnationists, for example, falsely allege. We will, however, be living a new and completely different kind of life, no longer limited and defined by death.
The Sadducees’ question warns us what can happen when we try to imagine in too much detail what life after death will be like, because, of course, the only life we, here and now, know - the only life we, here and now, can really imagine – is the life we live here and now.
Jesus, however, has already been raised from the dead and is now living that new life. In the Risen Christ – and in our own experience of the Risen Christ, who comes to us in his Church in the Eucharist – we get a glimpse, a sort of fast-forward, into the new life God has in store for us, not as some mere continuation of the way things are now, but as something totally new.
Like the Maccabean martyrs of the 2nd century BC, the great army of Christian martyrs – from the ancient martyrs who grace the windows of our church, like St. George in the east aisle and St. Catherine of Alexandria in the west aisle, to the Church's many modern martyrs, like the 117 19th-century Martyrs of Vietnam, whom the Church honors annually on the 24th of November, and the 20th-century Mexican martyr, Miguel Augustín Pro, whom the Church honors on November 23 – all give us a glimpse, as witnesses (which is what the word “martyr” means) to the transforming power of the future already at work in the present.
In our experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we recognize that he is alive and that, because of him, we too can hope to live his new life with him forever.
And so we pray with St. Paul that the Lord may direct our hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ [2 Thessalonians 2:35].
Homily at Immaculate Conception Church , Knoxville, TN, November 6-7, 2010.