November, with its darkening days, turns our hearts to faithful departed loved ones. Beginning with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, many parishes display the “Book of Remembrance” throughout this month. Parishioners write the names of deceased loved ones in the book; in some churches, at each Sunday Eucharist, the book is reverently brought up with the bread and wine and placed on the altar.
November also marks the end of the Church’s liturgical year; the Sunday Scriptures reflect end-time themes culminating in the Feast of Christ the King. Last Sunday we heard a passage from Luke’s Gospel (20:27-38) in which the Sadducees quarrel with Jesus over whether there is a resurrection and an afterlife; I know from experience that such conversations still happen!
Jesus wastes no time in exposing the flaws in the Sadducees’ argument, even though they employ a clever little way to reach back to the Jewish memory of the story of the seven Maccabee boys (2 Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14). The Maccabee boys came a thousand years after Moses in Jewish history and had become heroes in their own right, standing up against a terrible dictator in Judah.
Jesus is not impressed by the Sadducees’ supposedly splendid argument. In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus begins his reply by telling them bluntly how dead wrong they are: “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” Then his rebuttal is virtually the same in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, concluding his response by stressing how completely different God’s power of life is from our powers of trying to evade death with the sentence: “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:38)
Are we any different than the Sadducees? Let’s face it: death both intrigues and terrifies us. The “will to live” is a significant determinant in someone battling a terminal illness. The pain over losing a loved one is unlike any other pain in the world. We cling, we hold on and often we are afraid of what lies beyond that irrevocable no-turning-back passageway called death. Our desire for children conceals our fear of death as offspring will ensure that we live on after death. Even for followers of Christ, making peace with our own mortality is by far the most challenging mental, emotional and spiritual journey we make in a lifetime.
Besides the fear of death and the pain of losing a loved one, there is another factor inhibiting our ability to truly grasp what heaven is like. That is the fact that we can only employ our limited human categories and mental abilities, much like a child too small to see what’s in the shop window. In other words, trying to imagine eternity with a limited mind is by definition impossible. Some imagine a beautiful place with endless good times. Others imagine a place without sickness, old age or pain. Our imagination about heaven becomes a way of expressing faith and hope that our loved ones continue to live eternally in God’s loving bosom. Noble as all this is, we remain severely limited in truly knowing what heaven is like.
C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, once told the story of a woman who was thrown into a dungeon. Her only light came from a barred window high above. She gave birth to a son, who had never seen the outside world. He couldn’t reach the window to see outside, so his mother told him about green fields and waves crashing on the shore—but he couldn’t imagine what she was describing. Eventually, she persuaded the guards to give her some paper and charcoal so she could draw pictures to show her son what the outside world was really like—but all the boy came to understand was that the outside world looked like black lines on a white piece of paper.
Like the woman’s son, who only saw black lines on white paper, or like the little girl straining to see the store window saying, “Daddy, I can’t see!” we strain to understand the life-giving power of Jesus’ God of love, battling fear and pain along the way. The resurrection of which Jesus speaks is not God’s opportunity to make up for the lousy life some of us live in this world. Neither is it a reward for “good living.” Rather, it is a declaration that God’s love will not be thwarted, not even by death. For God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God, all are alive.
Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”