Sunday, November 7, 2010

God's undying love and the meaning of the resurrection (Reflections on Luke 20:27-38, 32nd Sunday)

The Sadducees in today’s gospel did not believe in the resurrection. And so they came to Jesus with a test question designed to make belief in the resurrection look completely ridiculous.

They quote to Jesus a story in a book of Moses that seems to say that because this woman had seven husbands who all died, and they can’t all be her husband in the afterlife, then there must be no afterlife at all. But Jesus meets them on their own ground.

From the same book of Moses, Jesus draws his proof.

God, he says, calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If he calls himself thus, it means they must still be alive for God is the God of living people, and not of those who are dead. If Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive, then the resurrection is proven.

In the end Jesus based his conviction of the resurrection on the fact that the relationship between God and a good man is one that nothing can break. God was the friend of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when they lived, and that friendship does not cease with death. For Christ, the greatest proof of the resurrection is the fact that God values our relationship with him so much and not even death can destroy the love he has for us.

* * * * * * *

One of my aunts passed away last week. She had a stroke about a year ago, and another one this past summer. I visited her in the hospital and anointed her last August; it was a sad reunion for us, especially since she could no longer recognize me. She was a very nice and kind lady; and one of her kids used to baby-sit us when we were young and our parents had to be away. How I wish I was back home to celebrate her funeral mass. I was told it was an amazing celebration as well as a reunion for the whole family. I think it’s rather unfortunate that there comes a point in the life of families that everybody gets to see each other only when someone dies. Since I couldn’t be there—and the gospel for today speaks of the resurrection, I thought I’d offer some reflections on the point of conflict between Jesus and the Saduccees: our belief in the resurrection of the dead.

Remember “The Da Vinci Code”, “The Gospel of Judas”, and most recently, “The Tomb of Christ”? These works came out one after another. There was a time when Christian-bashing was simply “in style”. Now Christian-bashing actually sells. One can make a lot of money out of it. And casting doubt on the resurrection and suggesting that Jesus was a fraud who didn’t die on the cross but married Mary Magdalene and had kids with her, sells even more.

There’s really no point in refuting these claims, because they are themselves ultimately founded on conjecture and circumstantial evidence which, however seemingly well-founded, remain no more than interesting coincidences. And a thousand and one or even a million and one interesting coincidences are just that—coincidences, no matter how numerous they are.

Still, while it would be pointless to refute them, we must be aware of the real dangers that lie beneath the suggestion that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Much is at stake in rejecting the resurrection. Why does there seem to be a concerted effort to discredit belief in Christ and the resurrection?

There are some who say that belief in the resurrection, in heaven and in hell, makes us focus too much on the afterlife. It makes us forget the importance of this life. Life is good. We must value and enjoy it; we must do everything we can to make it better. We were, after all, made stewards of God’s creation. There’s nothing wrong with these ideas. And yet it’s one thing to say this life is valuable and important and must therefore be enjoyed and made better. It’s another thing to say ONLY this life is important, ONLY this life is valuable.

The first says life is good and should therefore be affirmed. The second says life is good, and that’s all there is to it. The first simply says we have to value living in this world; the second says we have to value living because this world is all we get. And death is the end of it all.

And because of that we have can do anything and everything we want to do in this life—because when it’s done, it’s done. And so “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”.

A philosopher once said: “Without the resurrection, heaven or hell, everything is allowed. Everything!” If there is no resurrection, this life with all its good but also its evil—is all we really get. If there is no resurrection, no life after death, no heaven or hell—then there is no good or bad either, no right or wrong, no morality, no justice, no need to be just and righteous, no need to be compassionate, no obligation to the poor, no point to making commitments.

We can be as selfish and as greedy as we want. Anyway there’s nothing to look forward to after this life. Death is the end. In fact, we HAVE TO BE selfish and greedy and lustful and deceitful, because there is no heaven. So we might as well enjoy everything while we can. If there is no resurrection, then nothing we do—good or bad—matters in the end.

What a bleak, sad, tragic and hopeless kind of existence that would be—when all we can say at our end is “He lived a good life. He died doing what he loved doing. And now it’s over. End of story. That’s that.”

What works like Cameron’s “The Tomb of Christ,” “The Da Vinci Code,” and others like them don’t get is that the resurrection is not reducible to a statement of empirical fact. It’s a statement of faith. Facts are proven and disproven. Faith can neither be proved nor disproved. Faith can only be given meaning. Facts demand proof; faith demands commitment—and that is proof in itself. This is not to say that the resurrection is ‘non-factual’ or is simply a ‘statement of commitment’ that has no anchoring whatsoever in hard reality. Rather, it is to say that statements such as “Jesus is risen” is not the same as statements such as “The weather has been great the last couple of days”. The resurrection is an issue of meaning; statements about ordinary everyday experience, not necessarily so.

And it is what Jesus’ resurrection means that really matters. For what it means is that if Jesus rose from the dead, so will we. If he overcame the trials, sufferings and hardships of his life, so will we. As he left his tomb, so too can we leave our tombs of sadness, loneliness, addiction, abuse, depression, anger, anxiety, worry, jealousy, envy, and whatever else weighs us down in our daily lives. As Jesus tells us in Scripture: “Have courage, I has overcome the world”.

The resurrection is as much a statement about ourselves as it is a statement about Christ. As Saint Paul says, our faith in the resurrection is the greatest affirmation of our humanity. It says: there is so much more to our lives than simply being born, growing up, going to school, finding a job, getting married and raising a family, preparing for retirement, then spending our remaining days waiting for that moment when all that can be said of us is that we “had a good life, had a good run, but now it’s over”.

Our faith in the resurrection tells us that there is more to ourselves than what this short life of 70, 80 or 90 years can offer. So much more.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)