The liturgy today reminds us that we are “alive” in Christ Jesus. God is alive and the life he lives, he shares with us. The particular question in the Gospel along with the first reading deals with the resurrection of the dead.
In Judaism, at the time of Jesus, the two primary groups of religious leaders were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were associated with the priesthood, Jerusalem and the Temple. The Pharisees were more widespread and associated with the synagogue; these were the teachers or rabbis.
One of the main differences between the two groups involved the question of what happens to people after death. The Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead while the Pharisees affirmed it. The belief was a highly debated and divisive issue at the time.
Hence when the Sadducees propose the situation of the seven brothers to Jesus they are doing so to have Jesus make a statement on the resurrection of the dead. He does so emphatically saying: “That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called out ‘Lord,’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
In the time of Jesus the question of the resurrection of the body was debated; so too in our day. We see the questions raised in intellectual circles as well as in popular culture. Some speak of life after death in terms of an angelic, spiritualized existence, some speak of it as some sort of incorporation with all creation, some fantasize about the luxuries of an earthly paradise.
Others deny life after death. This is particularly true of many atheists flowing from the “God is Dead” movement of the early and mid-20th century. For them death is the end. There is nothing more. It is final. Such is the cultural situation in which we hear Jesus speak the Gospel to us today.
Jesus speaks to us today and reminds us that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” He not only speaks of the resurrection, he is the resurrection. In fact he says in the Fourth Gospel: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26a).
Jesus speaks these words to Martha who is grieving over the death of her brother Lazarus. Shortly after this Martha and her sister Mary take Jesus to the tomb where Lazarus has been lying for four days. He has them remove the stone sealing the tomb and calls Lazarus forth to life. When he comes out bound by the burial cloths Jesus says: “Untie him and let him go.”
Though this miracle is a restoration to life and not the resurrection, the raising of Lazarus shows that Jesus has power over life. The real witness to the resurrection and life eternal is Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. Jesus dies the tortuous and long death of crucifixion and is buried. But three days later he is raised from the dead.
We all know the stories, there is no body in the tomb. Why? Because his body is raised. He lives. He appears many times to his disciples after the resurrection, in bodily form. The body is “glorified” and his appearance is different, as in several accounts in which the disciples do not recognize him at first.
Yet it is the same Jesus and the resurrection of his body is real. He eats and drinks with the disciples. He is embraced by his disciples. He walks with his disciples. In one appearance some disciples think he is a ghost or some sort of spiritualized being. To this he says: “Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have” (Luke 24:39-40). Jesus is risen and he is Lord of Life.
Obviously the experience of the resurrected Jesus brings great joy to the disciples. The joy they experience is not just being reunited with their beloved Messiah. They rejoice that death no longer has power over Jesus. In the resurrection Jesus demonstrates that he is Life. “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to Him all are alive.” Having recently celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day many of us reflect on life after death. Christ’s victory over death fills us with hope. The liturgy of the Church captures this powerfully in these words: “Lord our God, … death … recalls our human condition and the brevity of our lives on earth. But for those who believe in your love, death is not the end, nor does it destroy the bonds that you forge in our lives. We share the faith of your Son’s disciples and the hope of the children of God. Bring the light of Christ’s resurrection to this time of testing and pain as we pray for the deceased and for those who love them, through Christ our Lord.”
Similarly, in the first Preface for Funeral Masses, we pray:
It is truly right and just,
our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
In Him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned,
that those saddened by the certainty of dying
might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come.
Indeed for your faithful, Lord,
life is changed not ended,
and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust,
an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.
And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy….
God creates us in love; redeems us through mercy; sustains us through faith and enlivens us in hope. He does not create us for death but for life. He does not leave us bound by our sins but offers forgiveness. He does not abandon us but remains with us in his Spirit. He does not leave us to despair but affords us hope. God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.