Where, Death, Is Your Victory?

As the liturgical year winds down, the Gospels for the next four weeks address our deepest fears and offer our most profound hope. Today Jesus speaks of God as a God of the living, who promises that the ones who will rise will be God’s children. Next week the readings speak of the persecutions that will precede the return of the Son of Man, with the promise to Jesus’ disciples that “not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” The feast of Christ the King shows Jesus offering salvation and paradise at the moment of his death, while the First Sunday of Advent turns again to preparation for the return of the Son of Man. Today, as a nation, we celebrate Veterans’ Day with special memory of those who have laid down their lives for others.

These Sundays evoke profound pathos this year, when violence, death and destruction have been followed by rituals of mourning and grief. Yet a thread winding through this tapestry of readings is victory over death and the promise of unending life. In the Gospel today, the Sadducees, who accepted the authority of the Torah alone and who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, try to trap Jesus in a battle over the meaning of Scripture. They quote the law of Levirate marriage from Dt. 25:5: if a man’s brother dies, his widow must marry the surviving brother, so that the firstborn son can continue the name and line of the deceased brother. Apparently knowing of Jesus’ belief in the resurrection (which he shared with the Pharisees), the Sadducees then offer an absurd interpretation of the law—seven brothers for one bride—and crassly ask whose wife she will be at the resurrection. Adept at Scripture himself, Jesus counters their interpretation with a true understanding of resurrection and cites one of the most important texts for all Jews, the revelation of God to Moses that speaks of God as a God of the living, not of the dead. Jesus in effect says that true interpretation of Scripture depends on having the proper perspective on the nature of God.

Important in this Gospel is the contrast between “the children of this age” and “the children of God...who will rise” (literally, “sons of the resurrection who are sons of God”). Throughout Luke the children of this age are concerned about status, honor and relationships of debt and reciprocity (see 16:8), while the children of God are marked by mercy, generosity and love of enemies. When Jesus says that the children of this age neither marry nor are given in marriage, he is not advocating universal celibacy but is countering the materialistic and pragmatic view of the Sadducees, in which the wife is handed from brother to brother to assure male honor.

The Gospels for today and for the coming weeks then affirm the victory of God and God’s love over the power of death. This victory evokes the dramatic first reading, an excerpt from the story of the martyrdom of seven brothers during the persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-64 B.C.) before the Maccabean revolt. Each of the brothers, urged on by their mother (“Mother Courage”), affirms their fidelity to the law and trust in the resurrection in the face of unspeakable torture and death. The fourth brother shouts out in faith: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him” (2 Macc. 7:14). The fidelity and victory of the Maccabean martyrs are recalled by our Jewish brothers and sisters at the feast of Hanukkah, celebrated this year in early December.

Though so many people now are bowed over in grief, and the faith of countless others is shaken by the specter of brutal and senseless violence, these seasonal readings offer hope. Separated spouses will live together as sons and daughters of the resurrection. Fidelity and trust in God nurture a hope stronger than brutal power, whether the year is 165 B.C. or A.D. 2001. The readings also summon us who live in this age to be sons and daughters of God and of the resurrection, people who can follow the way of Jesus as it has unfolded throughout the readings from Luke this past year. It is a way that ends for Jesus on the cross, promising paradise, and a way that continues as the risen Jesus opens up the Scriptures and breaks bread—while we, like the pilgrims on the way to Emmaus, sorrowfully look back at the place of death and suffering.

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