Resurrection and the Communion of Saints

In the northern hemisphere November is traditionally associated with those who have died. The flowers have wilted, the leaves are dropping, and the grass has ceased to grow. The freshness of spring and the warmth of summer are distant memories. Yet amid these signs of death there is the expectation that the cycle of nature will begin again and the hope that in a few months we will be celebrating the resurrection of Jesus at Easter.

Todays Scripture readings pertain to the basis of our resurrection hopes. Psalm 17 is typical of the ambiguity about this topic that one finds in the Psalms and the earlier parts of the Old Testament. For the early biblical writers the abode of the dead is Sheol, a shadowy place more like limbo than heaven or hell. By the second century B.C., there emerged within Israel, as the the Book of Daniel shows, a more lively hope for resurrection, divine judgment and reward and punishments after death. These hopes are reflected in Wisdom 3 (a passage read at many Catholic funerals), various Jewish apocalyptic texts and todays selection from 2 Maccabees 7. There a woman and her seven sons resist the wicked kings urgings to disavow Judaism, and they appeal to their beliefs in bodily resurrection and in just rewards and punishments from God.

This Sundays passage from Luke 20 is a controversy story, in which Jesus debates with some Sadducees about resurrection. On this matter Jesus stood with the Pharisees (strong proponents of resurrection). We may presume that the Sadducees already knew Jesus view on the matter and wanted to trap him into admitting that belief in resurrection is unbiblical and illogical. Since they accepted only the first five books of the Hebrew Bible as authoritative, and since the evidence for resurrection in them is slim, the Sadducees held that belief in resurrection was not biblical. To show its absurdity, they put forward a hypothetical example based on Dt 25:5-10, according to which when a man died and left a childless widow, his brother was to marry the widow. They construct a case in which seven brothers in turn marry the same woman. All die, and finally the woman dies. The Sadducees ask Jesus whose wife she will be at the resurrection?


Using the debating techniques of his time, Jesus argues that the Sadducees have failed to understand the nature of resurrection and the Scriptures. He first contends that in the resurrection we will become children of God more fully and our life will be different from earthly life and need not follow its standards. To show that resurrection is biblical (even pentateuchal), Jesus cites Ex 3:6 and 3:15-16, where God identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The logic of this argument is that if in revealing himself to Moses God claimed to be the God of these three dead patriarchs, then they must still be alive somehow and that the God of Israel is the God of the living. While to us today this biblical argument may seem artificial, it was presumably understandable and even convincing to Jews in Jesus time.

Behind these arguments is Jesus affirmation that the God of the Bible is the God of the living, and that resurrection is based on the nature of God and is Gods gift to us. It is not owed to us by our human nature (immortality of the soul). Rather it is based on the nature of God, who is the God of the living. The absence of any reference to Jesus own resurrection in this text suggests that we are hearing the voice of the earthly Jesus on this matter, and not merely the belief of the early church.

In November we recall those who have died. In doing so there are surely feelings of sadness, loss and abandonment. Yet beyond these very real feelings there is the hope that we will see our loved ones again in the resurrection of the dead and that we are even now in communion with them. Todays passage from 2 Thessalonians reminds us of our membership in the communion of saints. In it we participate in the lives of God the all holy one, of all the holy people who have gone before us and of all those with whom we are bound together by faith. Paul reminds us that God has loved us first, has given us encouragement and hope through his divine favor and will guard and strengthen us in our struggles. The communion of saints is first and foremost the work of God. The saints who have gone before us include not only great figures like Paul and the canonized saints but also the saints who have shaped our lives by their faith, example and encouragement. And we have one another here on earth. As Paul suggests, supporting, encouraging and praying for one another are important obligations for those in the communion of saints.

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