Angelic Legacy

There is within the human spirit an indomitable will to live—not only our earthly life, but beyond it. Few share the perspective of the artist Andy Warhol: “I never understood why when you died, you didn’t just vanish. Everything could just keep going on the way it was only you just wouldn’t be there. I always thought I’d like my own tombstone to be blank. No epitaph and no name.”

Most people want to be remembered for having made a difference in the world during their earthly sojourn. Sometimes we muse about what we would want on our tombstone. For what do we most want to be remembered? For people in Jesus’ day, it was important to leave their mark in the world through the children they left behind. Some, like the Sadducees, did not believe in any other form of life beyond the grave.

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The notion of resurrected life only began to emerge some 200 years before Jesus. Ideas varied about what it would be like. In the first reading today, we see the belief expressed that only the just would be raised, not the wicked. In other texts we find the notion that both would be raised, the former for eternal reward, the latter for everlasting punishment (Mt 25:46).

In the Gospel today, some Sad-ducees pose to Jesus what looks like a preposterous question. As usual, they are antagonistic toward Jesus, and their question is meant to show the impossibility of resurrection, a belief Jesus espoused (Lk 14:14). They try to show that Jesus’ belief is at odds with the law of Moses. They cite the levirate law (Dt 25:5-6), whose intent was to ensure that a man’s name not be blotted out of Israel. Instead, the Sadducees frame the question in terms of the men’s possession of the woman in the afterlife.

Jesus’ response undoes their misperceptions by affirming that there will be no patriarchal marital arrangements in the afterlife. There will be no need to ensure one’s legacy through the children one leaves behind. Rather, one continues to live as God’s child, no longer haunted by the shadow of death. Using their own exegetical tools, Jesus shows the Sadducees that Moses himself can be read as affirming that life continues beyond the grave. We can hear as well, in Jesus’ response, God’s desire for an end to any abuse of women. As beloved daughters of God, they are no longer passed on from man to man.

Feeding our curiosity about what resurrected life will be like, Jesus drops one small hint: “They are like angels,” or heavenly messengers (angelos in Greek means messenger). In Luke’s Gospel angels appear at the most critical moments. Their function is to to interpret puzzling and disturbing events through divine eyes. Gabriel announces to Zechariah and to Mary God’s ability to bring forth life and blessing in the most impossible of circumstances. At the transfiguration two heavenly messengers, Moses and Elijah, interpret Jesus’ impending death as the new Exodus (the Greek word exodos means both “departure” and “death”) to liberated life (Lk 9:31). At the empty tomb, two angelic figures (24:4-7) convey a message of hope in the most terrible moment. Angelic life, as Luke portrays it, consists in being a messenger of hope in the most awful of circumstances. It is the refusal already in this life to allow evil to triumph; it is not simply delayed reward in the beyond. It is, as Maya Angelou wrote of the “dreams and the hopes of the slave” in her poem “Still I Rise”: “You may shoot me with your words/ You may cut me with your eyes/ You may kill me with your hatefulness/ But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

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