32d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Nov. 6, 2016
2 Macc 7: 1-2, 9-14
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“The King of the world will raise us up to live again forever” (2 Macc 7: 9).
A Greek kingdom based in Antioch of Syria—now the city of Antakya, Turkey—ruled the Jewish people from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., when his generals divided his empire among themselves, until the Jews revolted against their Greek masters in the mid-160s B.C. The reason for their rebellion was a vicious religious persecution initiated under the Greek King Antiochus IV, the villain in the story in our 1st reading this morning/evening. That persecution and the Jewish fight for freedom under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers are the topics of the 1st and 2d books of Maccabees in the OT, and it’s the Jewish triumph that’s celebrated annually with the feast of Hanukkah in December.
The 1st reading consists of just 8 verses out an entire chapter—41 verses—describing the gruesome martyrdom of 7 brothers and their mother on account of their refusal to violate the Torah, the Law of Moses. As you heard from the words of 2 of the brothers, they stood firm because they believed in the resurrection of the dead, in everlasting reward or punishment beyond this life according to how one has lived in this life, reward or punishment to be experienced in our whole person, body and soul.
Martyrdom of the 7 Brothers
So we see that by the 2d century B.C. many Jews had come to believe in the resurrection of the dead as God’s ultimate plan for humanity. In our Lord’s time that belief was widespread but not universal. The Pharisees embraced the teaching, while the Sadducees, who accepted as sacred Scripture only the Torah (the 1st 5 books of the OT), did not. Hence the controversy in today’s gospel reading, and Jesus’ quotation to them precisely from Exodus, the 2d book of the OT.
Every Sunday and feast when we renew our profession of faith, we say, “I look forward to the resurrection of dead and the life of the world to come,” as a fundamental truth of our Christian faith.
It’s true that human reason by itself—without divine revelation—may come to the conclusion that there must be some kind of afterlife, some kind of immortality, for human beings. If God is just—which most religions believe he is—and if an awful lot of injustice is never set right in this world—victims restored to their health or prosperity or happiness, and the evil punished—then divine justice requires that the balance be set right in eternity.
In itself, that philosophical position doesn’t require belief in bodily resurrection. The Greeks, e.g., believed that a person’s true self was the soul, the spirit; bodily death was a liberation. You may recall that when St. Paul preached the resurrection of Jesus to the wise men of Athens, they laughed at him (Act 17:22-34).
But our biblical faith reveals to us that when God created humanity “in his own image,” he created us as embodied persons. Our selves, who we are, must include our whole being, both body and soul. A disembodied soul isn’t a whole person and so can’t be considered a redeemed person. When we profess that Jesus has redeemed us, we profess that he has redeemed us entirely and fully restored God’s image in us. Not that God has a body—not until God the Son took on a human body at the moment of his incarnation, his “enfleshment.” That human flesh has been raised from the tomb, so that now it does provide for humanity an image of God in the flesh, an image of what we shall be when, as we look forward to, we shall be raised from our graves on the Last Day, when Jesus the King of the world returns in his glory to judge the living and the dead, to restore the balance of justice for every human being.
|The Triumph of Christianity|
If our bodies are destined for resurrection and for the fullness of life with Christ; if our bodies are part of our being images of God—then we treat our bodies with utmost respect. That’s why we bring the bodies of the dead into church for funeral rites, why we honor them with incense, why we bless the graves into which we’ll inter them. The Holy See has just reminded us of this in a document published on Oct. 25, called Ad resurgendum cum Christo (“On Rising with Christ”), which is reported in this week’s Catholic Post.
Presenting that document to the public, Cardinal Gerhard Müller reminded us: “Caring for the bodies of the deceased, the Church confirms its faith in the resurrection and separates itself from attitudes and rites that see in death the definitive obliteration of the person, a stage in the process of reincarnation, or the fusion of one’s soul with the universe.” The Vatican instruction says that the deceased should be buried in a marked grave or the cremains put into a mausoleum or columbarium marked with the person’s name. One reporter put out this summary of one part of the instruction: “Loved ones belong in a cemetery, not on a coffee table . . . . nor should human remains be turned into jewelry. People—even dead people—are not pendants. The instruction denies burial rites for those who ‘requested cremation and the scattering of ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith’ (8).”
Cardinal Müller explained, “A human cadaver is not trash,” and an anonymous burial or scattering someone’s ashes “is not compatible with Christian faith. The name, the person, the concrete identity of the person” is important because God created each individual and calls each individual by name to himself.
At the same time, the cardinal also commented, labeling a grave or tomb or urn in a public place is an expression of belief in the communion of saints, the unending unity in Christ of all the baptized, both living and dead (which is another component of our Creed, as you know).
Let me add that this latest Church document instructs us about what should ordinarily be done with the mortal remains of our loved ones and fellow believers. It doesn’t discuss exceptional cases like war, natural disasters, burials at sea, or bodies completely obliterated by some kind of horror like Hiroshima or the Twin Towers. After the 10 o’clock Mass, I was asked about giving one’s body for medical research. The instruction doesn’t address that question, but it has long been considered a legitimate, charitable action. A Salesian sister whom I knew did just that about 10 years ago. I think the presumption there is that the remains will be respectfully taken care of; e.g., after its medical study, sister’s body was returned to the FMAs for burial in their cemetery.
The instruction reminds us: “From the earliest times, Christians have desired that the faithful departed become the objects of the Christian community’s prayers and remembrance. Their tombs have become places of prayer, remembrance, and reflection.” (n. 5) The Church prefers burial or entombment of the faithful (n. 4); cremation is permitted, provided that the ashes are treated with the same respect as is due the body (n. 5); and that our treatment of the remains of the dead reflects our belief in our ultimate destiny, which is to rise with Christ and live forever with him, as he lives bodily and, we Catholics believe, his Virgin Mother also lives, having been taken up bodily into heaven already in anticipation of the general resurrection to which the rest of us look forward with eager hope, for then our redemption by our Lord Jesus will be complete—provided only that, like the 7 brothers and their mother in 2 Maccabees, we have done our best to be faithful to the God who has called us by name to be his own.
 John M. Grondelski, “Vatican Issues a Timely Reminder on Cremation,” National Catholic Register, Oct. 29, 2016 online: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/vatican-issues-a-timely-reminder-on-cremation.