Tomorrow is Veterans Day. North of the border, in Canada where I served for six happy years (and likewise in other Commonwealth countries), it is observed as Remembrance Day. One always knows Remembrance Day is coming when practically everyone is wearing an artificial poppy. In Commonwealth countries, the poppies, the parades, the solemn laying of wreaths, the ritual two minutes of silence at 11:00 a.m., all these rituals are ways to remember those who have died.
Back when I was a seminarian in Washington, DC, in the 1980s, the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated. Since then, people have come constantly to that wall of names to find the name of someone they knew and loved. They’re just names, of course, but there is something very special about them, because someone has written them – and someone remembers them. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, I saw something similar 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 human. When we remember those who have died, we recognize the humanity we share. We remember that, like us, they once lived, and that, like them, we too will die.
The famous story in today’s 1st reading [2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14] of the seven brothers and their mother, who were willing to die rather than to disobey God’s law, was written to remember those heroes from the war which Israel had fought for its freedom in the 2nd century before Christ. In remembering those martyred heroes, the story also celebrates their faith that God would raise them up to live again forever.
Two centuries after the Maccabean martyrs, there were still those (notably the cultured priestly 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 entire lives believing that this is all there is and all that there will ever be (for, indeed, as St. Paul pointedly acknowledges in today’s reading from his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians, 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. 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 Old Testament Law, that required the brother of a man who had died childless to raise up descendants for his brother. The Sadducees invoked what they saw as implications of this law to ridicule the very idea of a future resurrection [Luke 20:27-38] .
The Sadducees’ problem, however, was precisely their inability to imagine any life at all different from this present life - a life limited, indeed defined, by death. As Jesus quickly pointed out, however, in the resurrected life the original reason behind that marriage law will, of course, no longer apply, because there will be no more death. We will still be ourselves. We’re not going to change into somebody – or something – else, as reincarnation alleges. We will, however, be living a new and completely different kind of life, no longer limited and defined by death.
The story of the Sadducees shows what happens 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, can really imagine is the one we already know and live, here and now.
Jesus, however, himself 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 – we get a forward glimpse into the new life God has in store for us, not as some continuation of the way things are now, but as something totally new.
Like the Maccabean martyrs of the 2nd century BC, the great community of Christian martyrs from the 1st to the 21st centuries offers us a glimpse, as witnesses (which is what the word “martyr” means, “witness”) to the transformative power of the future already beginning even now 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.
In our Catholic tradition, this time of year is focused in a particular way on the end, and this month of November is dedicated in a special way to remembering and praying for those who have died.
Our faith challenges us to treat all of life as a preparation for a good death and not to neglect our duty to pray for those who have gone before us. Hence, the importance of a proper funeral - an especially privileged moment when the entire Church visibly intercedes on behalf on the recently deceased. Sadly, fewer and fewer American Catholics bother to have full Catholic funerals. All the more reason then for us to remember that praying for both the living and the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, while burying the dead counts as one of the seven great corporal works of mercy.
Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 10, 2019.