Readings: 1 Maccabees 6:1-13; Psalm 9; Luke 20:27-40
One of the most important Catholic theologians of the last century, Karl Rahner, wrote that Christianity may be referred to as ‘a hope’ just as easily as it is referred to as ‘a faith’. We can therefore speak about passing on the hope, keeping the hope, practising our hope, and teaching the hope to younger generations.
The hope in question is, of course, the hope we have in God on whom we rely to save us from disintegration and despair as he draws us ever more deeply into his life of love. We have the hope of being raised to live with Christ, and with our brothers and sisters, in the kingdom of the Eternal Father. Some historians identify this hope as one of the most important reasons for the rapid spread of Christianity across the Roman world in the first century.
Some Jewish groups were already convinced that the Lord, the God of Israel, would raise the just to everlasting life. Injustice was the last thing experienced by many people in this world, especially those who tried to live good and holy lives. The Lord, the God of Israel, is just above all else and so, they reasoned, he must act to vindicate those who had placed their trust in him. At the time of the Maccabean revolt, about 150 years before the time of Jesus, many faithful Jews died courageous deaths rather than submit to tyranny. They died filled with hope that God would raise them up in the resurrection of the just.
Jesus taught that this strand of Judaism was correct. God is God of the living and not of the dead. God will vindicate and bring to himself those who have lived and died in righteousness.
Socrates, the most famous philosopher of ancient Greece, taught that the human soul is immortal. As he died he asked his friends to make an offering to the god of healing, implying that death was a kind of cure for the difficulties and trials of life, a blessed release and a journey to a better place.
We may not be as philosophical as Socrates in the face of death. We may not be as unconcerned as the heroes of the Maccabean revolt threatened with torture and execution. But many Christian martyrs have been able to give their lives, sustained by their hope in God. The Mass for martyrs speaks of their deaths revealing God’s power shining through our human weakness, God choosing the weak and making them strong in bearing witness to him.
The great difference for the Christian believer is, of course, the example of Christ. It is not an example that remains outside us, something we simply look at and admire and try to imitate. It is something that becomes part of our spiritual being when we are baptised into his death and resurrection. It is nourished in the Eucharist where we proclaim his death until he comes. It is experienced in the sacrament of reconciliation when we actually pass again from the death of sin to the new life of grace.
Saint Paul ties our resurrection with that of Jesus. If Christ has not been raised, he says, then there is no resurrection of the dead. If Christ has not been raised, we are the most foolish of people. If Christ has not been raised, we are still in our sins. So if we are living in the grace of Christ, living ‘by his Spirit’, then we are already living the ‘life after death’, we know what it is like and we know what it is about.
Sometimes people say ‘if only somebody would come back to tell us’. But we have, more than likely, visited the realm of death ourselves. If we have ever wandered from God and lost him in the maze of life, if we have ever given up the search for him and turned aside to selfishness, pleasure or despair, then we have tasted death. If we have ever experienced forgiveness and the prompting of God’s Spirit drawing us back, if we have ever experienced the drawing of goodness and heard the voice of justice, then we have glimpsed the eternal kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
Anxious as he is to strengthen the faith of the Thessalonians, Saint Paul reminds them of their sure hope and prays that the Lord may ‘turn their hearts to the love of God and the fortitude of Christ’. We pray with him, that we may not turn aside to any sin but may live in the love of God. When we do we taste already on earth the gifts of the world to come.