The king of the world will raise us up to live again forever
(Readings: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday - the first reading and the gospel at any rate - are all about life after death and how the belief in resurrection gradually came to be part of the Jewish faith. That subject ties in with the Catholic belief in Purgatory - our belief that when we die, a purification takes place which gets rid of the defects and imperfections that still cling to us and which makes us ready for eternal life with God.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
The Second Book of Maccabees tells the story of the Jewish resistance movement against the Greek Empire led by Judas Maccabaeus, about 140 or 160 years before the time of Christ. But as in the rest of the Bible, the historical events are less important than the progress that the Chosen People make in their understanding of God, based on their experience of the events.
For the people involved in this resistance struggle, the great new development in their faith was the dawning of the conviction that God will raise men and women to a new life with him after their death.
By the time of the Maccabees, the experiences of the Chosen People had led most of them to this conclusion. "You might discharge us from this life," says one of the brothers in the first reading, "but the King of the world will raise us up to live again for ever". And another brother says to their torturers: "We are relying on God's promise that we shall be raised up by him - whereas for you there can be no resurrection, no new life".
How had this belief in life after death come about?
The answer lies in the way the Chosen People grew in their understanding of the Covenant between themselves and God - the special pledge of loyalty and faithfulness between God and the Hebrew people. In the Covenant, God had entered into friendship with them and shared in their history. The question they asked themselves was: is it consistent with this commitment, and after everything he's done, for God to just let his people disappear into nothingness after they die? They didn't think that made sense. It contradicted what they knew about God's nature.
This is the answer that Christ gives to the Sadducees, in the Gospel: the God of the Covenant - this God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - is the God of the living, not the dead. If God lives in eternity, then his association and friendship with the human beings he created also has to go on into eternity. To do anything else would be against the nature of the Covenant. It would run counter to the whole meaning of his relationship with his people.
As today's readings revolve around the subject of our life after death, and as we've entered the month of November, when traditionally we pray for the Holy Souls, it might be worth saying something about the existence of Purgatory. This is another conviction that comes out of the Book of Maccabees, because it's there that we find the clearest reference in the Bible to people praying for the dead.
There may be some people who, when they die, are in such a perfect state, morally and spiritually, that they go straight into God's company in heaven. For most people, though, this isn't very probable. For most of us, various defects and imperfections, that have affected us during their life, are still with us at the point of death.
Our own experience and knowledge of ourselves suggests this to us. Apart from all the wrong or sinful things that we're responsible for, there are also deep-seated weaknesses that we're less responsible for, flaws in our character that have been produced by circumstances outside our own control.
Individuals who have been deprived of affection and love in childhood might later be the victims of insecurity and a lack of self-esteem. That might lead them to be manipulative towards other people. If we have been betrayed or badly hurt in the past, we're often left with a sense of resentment which unfortunately makes us hurt other people in our turn. Most people are marked in some ways by that kind of weakness, and there are very few people who, when they die, don't approach God with some flaws in their make-up.
'Purgatory' is the name we give to the action on God's part of getting rid of those flaws. The traditional idea of Purgatory was of a painful purification. The picture conjured up by popular preaching - which wasn't always the same as the actual teaching of the Church - was of a place that was very like hell, only it didn't last forever. By suffering for their sins in this temporary way, men and women who had died were made fit to enter heaven.
But it's a mistake to think of Purgatory mostly as a punishment or in the first place as a place of suffering. Purgatory has more to do with God's mercy and his desire that all men and women should be saved. It means that even after our death, God's love and healing and reconciliation can reach us. If there's any suffering involved, it's the suffering which is involved in any transformation from selfishness to love - the kind of suffering that's always involved in surrendering assertiveness and egotism and becoming more generous and giving.
That shouldn't strike us as strange, because in many ways Purgatory is the continuation of a process that starts now, during our present life. When people genuinely turn to God, God starts to influence them and change them. A purification and a maturing begin to take place, with God straightening out all the areas of our life and our character which are warped or twisted. Purgatory is a continuation of that work by God. It's a continuation of something that is a normal part of the spiritual life, and starts happening before we die.
Everything comes back, as Christ says, to God's real character and his motives towards us. He's always more anxious to save us and draw us into his life and holiness than to condemn or punish us. His healing and saving activity can reach anywhere, and even after our death, he continues his exercise his saving and healing influence on us, making us ready for eternal life with him. Today's readings point us towards this encouraging and reassuring truth of our faith.