2004—Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time—C
The violence and gory details of our first reading may strike us as gruesome, but this story of the courage and faithful witness of the Jewish martyrs in the face of religious persecution DOES offer us one of the earliest biblical references to some form of existence after this life.
Indeed, both our first reading and the gospel invite us to reflect on a central tenet of our Christian faith - our hope in the resurrection promised by Christ.
Our readings invite us to consider what it is that we truly believe when we profess our faith in "the resurrection of the dead."
Perhaps the best way to reflect on this tenet of our faith is to appeal to an experience that is common to all of us? For instance, have we not experienced death in our lives? If not, we all surely will one day.
What do we say to someone who has just lost a friend or loved one?
-I'm sorry, OR I am sad for your loss, OR He/She is with God now
Perhaps we could consider this same situation from a different angle?
-What is it that we want to hear when we experience the loss of a friend or loved one?
Is our talk about death adequate? Don't our words inevitably fail us? Far more important than words is simply the loving presence and support of our families and friends at a time of loss.
Yet, even then, we know that at times of loss all we really have to cling to is our hope and faith in Christ.
If we cannot hope in the resurrection, we have nothing to hold onto save the death itself.
Without hope in our sharing in Christ's resurrection, what is left?
Our Christian faith offers no explanation for either suffering OR hope. We only have the story of Jesus and the throngs of witnesses who throughout history have testified to their hope in the resurrection.
These holy souls - our departed parents, grandparents, or the saints we celebrate - all went to their deaths like Jesus, alone and in silence.
But nevertheless with radical trust in God's mercy, they give us the clearest testimony to the possibility of Christian hope.
The late Archbishop of Chicago, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, is one of those holy souls who gives us witness to hope in the resurrection. Just 13 days before his death from pancreatic cancer he completed a book, The Gift of Peace, in which he chronicles the spiritual journey of the last three years of his life.
The final words in his book are simple yet profound. Bernardin leaves us with this testimony in the face of death:
"As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace. It is the first day of November 1996, and fall is giving way to winter. Soon the trees will lose the vibrant colors of their leaves and snow will cover the ground. The earth will shut down, and people will race to and from their destinations bundled up for warmth. Chicago winters are harsh. It is a time of dying. But we know that spring will soon come with all its new life and wonder. It is quite clear that I will not be alive in the spring. But I will soon experience new life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, he is now calling me home."
Like Bernardin, we too are called to serve Christ to the best of our abilities. We are disciples of Christ; we are those who bear witness to the resurrection in the here and now of our lives.
Yet, at the same time, we soberly recognize that faith and hope in the resurrection is not always easy. We should draw strength from the knowledge that this faith has never been easy, for faith in the resurrection was initially met by doubt and bewilderment by the women and men disciples of Jesus who found his tomb empty.
Like those first disciples, we often struggle to believe that life conquers the death around us.
It is a terrific leap of faith to celebrate the presence of the God of life in the midst of a world wrought by terror, war, starvation, and poverty.
But as Christians we DO make this leap of faith. Jesus reminds us today and every day that our God is a God of life, not death.
Each week we gather to celebrate the resurrection. Each week we remember what lies ahead of us by celebrating our radical hope in Jesus, the risen one. In and through this hope, each of us has the courage to proclaim with one voice: "Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life; Lord Jesus come in glory."
As Christians, then, we must hold onto our faith - that pain, suffering and death DO NOT have the last word. For us to believe in the resurrection is to assert life in the face of death and despair. In order to embody this hope we must do everything possible to counter evil with love and despair with hope.
This message could not be any more vital for us at this moment in time. As Christians, we DO HAVE REASON to live in faithful hope even as we struggle to heal the wounds in our archdiocese, our nation and the world.
May the Spirit of the risen Christ grant us this gift of faithful hope.